(This is not a post about student evaluations of teaching, more’s the pity.)
“We teach them, they judge us,” is a line in Kim Stanely Robinson’s Blue Mars, describing interactions between adults and children in a social group. The children aren’t judging the teaching, but rather the actions of the adults according to the very strong sense of right and wrong that many kids have.
This phrase keep running through my head as I followed the news of the investigation of a prominent astronomer for sexual harassment, and what appear to me to be wholly inadequate responses by his academic department and university. This person’s behaviour was apparently well-known in the community, and plenty of discussion on social media makes it’s pretty clear that he is not the only bad actor (see #astroSH, for example).
It’s both appropriate and easy to castigate academics who misuse their power over students and universities that allow this to happen. But this leads us to the harder question, “how could we have prevented this?” where by “we” I mean the more senior members of the astronomy community including myself. I did some easy things yesterday, like looking up my university’s harassment policies and signing on as a member of my professional organization’s diversity committee (more info on that shortly). I thought about what I will need to do when a harrassment issue hits my desk, which given my position is likely to happen sooner rather than later. Can’t say I’m looking forward to it.
I think the most important thing that senior members of the astronomy community can do is open ourselves up to judgment: to ask our junior colleagues if we are living up to their expectations. Are we teaching them not only about astronomy, but also how to behave like civilized human beings in our own actions and in those we accept from our senior colleagues? If we are judged and found wanting, do we teach our junior colleagues (or have them teach us) to change the system?
Junior colleagues: please judge us. I know it’s not fair to ask this of you: you have plenty to do and criticizing those above you in the power structure is both difficult and dangerous. But given that the senior folk haven’t been doing such a great job, it’s clear that we need your help. Judgment doesn’t have to mean shouting from the rooftops; it can be a few quiet words spoken in someone’s office. Maybe it’s easier to advocate for someone else, so one idea is to look around and see who is playing the game on a higher difficulty level than you: men, are your female colleagues being treated fairly? Straight people, find out how things are for your LGBTIQ colleagues; white people, for your visible minority colleagues, and so on. After judgment, it’s on us, the senior folks, to act.
And act we must. As horrible as this particular situation is, it would be even more horrible if the opportunity for change passes the community by. Janet Stemwedel eloquently pointed this out yesterday, and as of this afternoon more than 1500 astronomers agree. As Bryan Gaensler pointed out, it hasn’t exactly been a banner year for decent behaviour in science. We can only hope this this is the year it starts to change.