Is there a time when someone’s ability overrides their behavior? #DiversityJC

I believe everybody read the news about the professor at University of Chicago that resigned after sexual misconduct. His behavior is totally unacceptable, however, it was not something new in his life. Despite having received information stating that the professor had faced allegations of sexual harassment at previous jobs, the hiring committee voted unanimously to hire him.

An important point to add is that the professor has received millions of dollars in federal grants and currently holds three R01s! Really? Is it all about the money now? In these times of scarce funds for research, of course being funded makes a huge difference when a professor is being hired. But that’s not all that matters! (Or at least, it shouldn’t be, right?). Alright, on top of doing great research and being able to get his research funded, it seems that the professor was also an amazing teacher.

So now it seems obvious that hiring the professor despite the allegations against him was a terrible mistake, but how do we measure the success of aspiring professors? By numbers. The number of publications, the number of grants funded, the number of classes taught. Numbers, numbers, numbers – they are all in our CV’s. But what about the non-quantitative requirements. How to know that the person is a decent human being and not an assh**e? Being a professor and a PI means interacting in an influential way with students, postdocs, technicians and other professors. Being able to mentor properly is super important, and it’s also a big responsibility. How do we know that a person with such amazing credentials and incredible record of publications and grants is going to be a good professor and mentor?

We want to discuss those topics and hear what you have to say! Join us in our next #DiversityJC on February 19th 2pm EST.


2 thoughts on “Is there a time when someone’s ability overrides their behavior? #DiversityJC

  1. (Comment too long for Twitter, so leaving it here):

    Thanks for posing this question, and for raising the issue of sexual harassment in the ivory tower (re: the UChicago case). Four quick thoughts:

    1) The question posed, “Is there a time when someone’s ability overrides their behavior?” seems to have a pretty straightforward and uncontroversial answer: No, it doesn’t–at least in a context where there is risk for the behavior to be repeated. For example, I don’t think anyone would disagree with the idea that we shouldn’t hire sexual predators (or any other type of high-risk offender, e.g. murderers, money launderers, etc.) to be professors, lab managers, teachers, etc.*

    2) That said, I don’t think “Is there a time when someone’s ability overrides their behavior?” is the relevant question in the Chicago case (though it is to a larger extent in the Marcy case, e.g.). Based on what the New York Times reported (, it seems that UChicago actually took the anonymous tip they got about Lieb quite seriously and did a pretty thorough investigation of his record at these other schools before hiring him. When they finally decided to hire him, it was because they thought it wasn’t fair to deny him the opportunity based on accusations at other schools that had not been substantiated (relative to their and UNC’s standard of proof), not because they thought he was so good that his conduct didn’t matter. And indeed, when he was caught red-handed harassing/assaulting students at Chicago, he was fired without hesitation (he resigned, but only after the recommendation to fire him was made by the investigating committee).

    3) This leads me to believe that the relevant question in the Chicago case is actually: “What standard of proof should we apply to sexual harassment/assault allegations in hiring decisions and campus adjudications?” Here, there are logical arguments to made for using a lower one than was applied in the Lieb case (e.g. this could have prevented his Chicago assaults); there are also logical arguments for maintaining the current standards of proof (which are ‘preponderance of evidence’, i.e. 50%+1, in most unis) or raising them (as the criminal courts do with ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’–arguably a bedrock aspect of liberal democracy). This is a much trickier debate, but I don’t think we’re going to resolve controversies like the Lieb case to anyone’s satisfaction until we have it. Instead asking “Is there a time when someone’s ability overrides their behavior?” in cases like this seems to me to be more likely to lead to a frustrating mix of ideological consensus (“no”) and subsequent lack of change (because we had spent our energy asking the wrong question).

    4) While discussing what Chicago could have done better in the Lieb case, I think it also important to acknowledge what they did right: (i) They DID fire Lieb (or were going to) after finding him guilty of harassment. This is an important improvement over how the previous similar cases including the Marcy case were handled, for example. (ii) They did take the anonymous tip seriously, conducted an investigation, and based their decision on the standard of proof question, rather than the ability/grant money question. These actions regrettably didn’t prevent the assaults at Chicago in this case, but could have significantly improved the situation in other cases. So I think Chicago’s handling of the situation should be acknowledged as a step in the right direction at the same time as we acknowledge that several more steps are needed.

    *Perhaps controversially, I personally do think we should accept and value the contributions to science of people who have unsavory behavior, IF AND ONLY IF doing so doesn’t put people at risk or create two-tiered justice. For example, if a convict wrote a brilliant paper from inside prison, I personally would want it published, though I certainly would not want it to be a factor in his/her parole/sentencing/etc, nor would I want him/her attending my conference or working at my institution. But I recognize that I may be outside the mainstream in my opinion there–either way, I, and I think most people, would agree that convicted sexual predators should not be given professorships, regardless of how good they are.


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