Sexual Politics and Science: Two Predicaments

A Matter of Conscience Editor's Note (March 31). The April issue of The Scientist includes an Opinion entitled "A Matter of Conscience"

By | April 1, 2009

A Matter of Conscience

Editor's Note (March 31). The April issue of The Scientist includes an Opinion entitled "A Matter of Conscience" in which Alexander McPherson laid out his objections to sexual harassment training at the University of California at Irvine.

In the meantime McPherson has participated in the training, for reasons given in the update below. The Opinion article follows the update.

My conflict with the University of California at Irvine ceased months ago to be over sexual harassment training. Instead it devolved into a controversy over how the university could use a grant, in my case an R01 from the National Institutes of Health, to compel faculty to comply with an arbitrary administrative edict. In greatly condensed form, this is what happened.

The university, having declared me no longer the principal investigator on my grant, contrived matters so that the grant was threatened by NIH with termination on March 25. I appealed to the appropriate authorities at the NIH the unfairness of this. I was, after all, the NIH designated PI. It was I who developed the successful grant proposal, and I who would carry out the research. The university's role in obtaining the grant was minimal at best.

NIH said that it could do nothing other than terminate the grant. The agency informed me that an NIH grant is made, in a strictly legal sense, to the university alone, not to the investigator, and the university has the authority to do as it wishes vis-à-vis the PI. Thus the NIH and other funding agencies have allowed research grants, with no protection of the PI, to become blunt instruments to be used by university administrators to force funded researchers to do their will, however arbitrary or perverse that might be.

Because termination of my NIH grant would be followed by termination of employment of my two laboratory colleagues of (collectively) 35 years, there was little choice for me but to participate in the online sexual harassment program, a program which continues to be a sham and, as noted by the University of California, Los Angeles Academic Senate, "an affront to an educational institution such as UC."

In my view this outcome represents a dangerous precedent. As our own campus committee on academic freedom has suggested, by interfering with the rights of faculty to hold grants, the university is violating the rights of tenure and the fundamental principles of academic freedom. We, as tenured faculty, have the right to be free of interference in our teaching and our research. Should the interference practiced by the UCI administration be allowed to stand, then it has ominous portent for the freedom of academics everywhere in the United States.

***** Original Opinion *****

I have refused the sexual harassment training imposed on me by the University of California at Irvine (UCI). This has little to do with the acknowledged problem of sexual harassment, but much to do with the dignity of the individual and his or her freedom from coercive behavioral training. My decision to resist the training was not a matter of cultural politics, but a matter of conscience.

The training program, which the University acknowledges is seriously flawed, is insulting to the intelligence at best, a demeaning fraud at worst. The argument that sexual harassment training is no different than training in the handling of radioactive materials is specious in the extreme. Sexual harassment exists and should be dealt with in the same manner as any other civil or criminal misbehavior. The heavy-handed approach that the University has chosen to deal with the issue, however, has only encouraged derision and bred resentment.

The situation has taken a dramatic and unfortunate turn. Lesser measures having failed, the Research Office at UCI wrote a letter (dated November 25) to the NIH advising them that I could not serve as PI on my recently awarded NIH RO1 grant because I was not trained in sexual harassment prevention. The vice chancellor of research informed my program director that she, with the approval of the NIH, would name a new PI to oversee my research. I was informed by the UCI Research Office only 10 days later that the letter had been sent, and then, only after being confronted with the fact.

"My decision to resist the training was not a matter of cultural politics, but a matter of conscience." -Alexander McPherson

In a letter to the executive vice chancellor I vigorously protested that to disturb or disrupt the trust between PI and funding agency can only be interpreted as a malicious and petty action. The great danger is that this precedent, if supported by the NIH, will resound through every university, college, and research institution in California. UCI is attempting to use interference with federal grants to compel researchers to conform to state edicts and local management policy as interpreted by its administration. If the NIH were to assume the role of enforcer in my case, then it would be obliged to do so at every institution, public and private.

Whatever one feels about state-mandated training, it should cause visceral alarm to scientists everywhere that local administrations could claim jurisdiction over who may hold research grants, and under what arbitrary strictures.

Alexander McPherson is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Biological Sciences.

Opportunity Denied

Should I induce my baby prematurely or risk having it on the train, so I can have an equal opportunity of being interviewed for promotion?

While watching my growing belly, I decided to submit my application to what we call in France a "senior director" or "senior PI" (director of research). This basically confirms your position as a group leader (which I've been now for four years), significantly changes your income and, of course, your "label" when you apply for funding, as well as opening many doors for one's career.

I have had reasonable success throughout my career. I was awarded a Medal by the CNRS a couple of years ago to encourage my progression, although that never came with any other form of support, such as funding for my lab. I'm now at about the right point of my career, and at the right age, to apply for a director of research position.

The application procedure of the CNRS requires that a written form of the candidates' research program and career track be evaluated. I submitted this in early January. It also required—and this is a sine qua non condition—that you be interviewed for 15 minutes in Paris during one single week of the year. It was recently decided that the week would be March 9-13. Unfortunately, my baby is due on March 10th.

In spite of my condition, and the challenges to remain active and apply for the position, the only solutions I've been offered are: (1) 'to risk having the baby in the train or during the interview;' (2) 'to induce the baby prematurely,' or to (3) 'give up my promotion and remove my application.' Under no circumstances will the authorities change the date of my interview, as "it would not be fair to other candidates to make an exception."

I know of several other women who have chosen solution (1) or (2) over the past years in order to have their interview like any other. But is this really the price we should have to pay for equal opportunity?

May C. Morris is a staff scientist at the CNRS Research Center of Macromolecular Biochemistry in Montpellier, France.


Avatar of: Marco Fronzaroli

Marco Fronzaroli

Posts: 1

March 31, 2009

In my opinion it is totally wrong to see the free world as free. In fact in countries like Sweden and Norway you can say what you want as long as biology doesn't interfere with human society. If so, you are sucked. You have my full sympathy Alexander.\n\nMarco Fronzaroli, MSc and journalist in Sweden
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 15

March 31, 2009

I will make a bet that female enrollment in Dr. McPherson's classes dropped dramatically following his ridiculous posturing. But at least now he would not be able to claim that he did not know that his conduct was sexual harassment if he should ever be charged. That, for most institutions, is the reason for making the training mandatory -- to take away the defense of ignorance, a favorite among serial harassers: "Who me? It was just harmless fun! I didn't know I couldn't do that, say that, suggest that, touch that, require that, look at that, etc. ad nauseum.\n


Posts: 1

March 31, 2009

California Law AB 1825, passed in late 2004, mandates the training in question here. Thus it is hardly an "arbitrary administrative edict" as characterized by Dr. McPherson, but rather the obligation of the University of California at Irvine to insure that all those in supervisory positions comply. Dr. McPherson should have been aware of this requirement and its implications when he applied for the grant in question. If he was unaware, the fault for that lies with Dr. McPherson, as ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.


Posts: 2

March 31, 2009

I am not surprised that the Irvine professor objected to the sexual harassment training. Such training involves the imposition of a dubious ideology upon professors and staff. The problem, though, is that those who favor the dubious ideology have gained the most power on this matter (see Eisenman, R. The sexual harassment seminar: A cultural phenomenon of indoctrination into feminist ideology. Sexuality and Culture, 2001, 5 (4), 77-85). \n\nSo, the best strategy is to go along and endure the realatively brief training. True sexual harassment is wrong and should be stopped, but the way the term is defined, it often involves an overly restrictive viewpoint, e. g. telling people who work in the same office they cannot date each other, or seeing anything that is sexual as harassment. I have done a national study of sexual harassment and find the way the accused are treated is often horribly unfair.\n\nI am also not surprised that two professors at the University of Iowa committed suicide after being charged with sexual harassment. I did a study, perhaps the only scholarly study, as far as I know, involving three case histories of professors charged with sexual harassment (Eisenman, R. Sexual harassment charges against university faculty: Three case histories. Journal of Information Ethics, 1998, 8 (2), 59-75). One picked up his pistol and considered killing himself, before saying "No" and throwing the gun across the room. Sexual harassment charges label the person as a deviant, one who no longer fits in with society. This is the case whether or not the charges are true. And, it is difficult for the accused person to get a fair hearing. \n\nNow I understand how a society can hunt and kill witches. I used to think this was a strange part of history. I no longer feel that way.\n\nSincerely,\n\nRussell Eisenman, Ph.D.\nAssociate Professor of Psychology\nUniversity of Texas-Pan American\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

April 1, 2009

Stories like the one about the pregnant woman whose committee would not change the interview date so that it did not interfere with the birth of her child is a prime example of why i left science. When I was pregnant with my 2nd child, in the lab at 3AM, or when I was routinely working until 5AM and getting 2 hours sleep a night, while trying to raise my son and while I was pregnant, I realized that the culture of scientific research is an unhealthy unbalanced way to live. It is not conducive to having a healthy marriage and family. Furthermore, the rewards are few and far between, and do not justify the sacrifices one is forced to make in order to pursue an academic career. And I'm not even going to get into the sexual harrassment I endured - I just sucked it up believing that playing within the rules of the old-boys-network would get me ahead in my career. I am now in a different field, using my degree and training, working normal hours and spending nights and weekends with my family, and making more money than I could have possibly made in academia. The culture of academia must change in order to retain talented motivated researchers!
Avatar of: Gerard Harbison

Gerard Harbison

Posts: 2

April 1, 2009

California Law may mandate sexual harassment training, as Professor Stebbins suggests. However, it does not dictate the content of that training. If that training is insulting, or contains false information, Professor McPherson was right in resisting it, and indeed his actions are commendable. \n\nI can only speak directly to the 'training' they tried to foist on us at the University of Nebraska, which as Professor Eisenman notes, greatly overstated the scope of sexual harassment law. It was also developed for a commercial enterprise, and completely misunderstood the academic environment. UNL has so far not tried to make such training mandatory for faculty, though it is mandatory for 'supervisors', a term they have carefully failed to define. But I expect that will come. \n\nI do note also the (characteristically) anonymous comment that implies that because Professor McPherson has taken a principled stand against feminist orthodoxy, he will ipso facto be driving away female students. The women I know are smarter and more discriminating than that.

April 1, 2009

The two situations under the heading ?Sexual politics and science: two predicaments? point to persisting inequality in policy and practice. Dr. Norris a woman scientist facing impeding childbirth is NOT playing sexual politics in science. She is facing hospitalization and a period of temporary physical disability due to childbirth. The choices she faces are unethical and inhumane ? endanger her own health and her baby?s health or give up on an interview for a well deserved work opportunity. Work policies in any civilized society should grant women the same accommodation they grant men facing temporary disability due to conditions such as surgery. \n\nThe refusal of the professor employed at UCI to participate in sexual harassment prevention training - which is mandated by law for employees like him - should be treated as any other act of employee insubordination. Disciplinary action must be applied, up to and including termination. Academic freedom does not include the freedom to disobey the law! The professor is free to DISAGREE with the law, but not to disobey it.\n\nThis is hardly a matter of conscience. The professor offered no objective standards, no scientific data or any other proof to substantiate his arguments. He repeated opinions and hearsay about the lack of validity of UCI sexual harassment prevention training. Absent proof to the contrary,one must presume the training has become the law in order to educate employees in supervisory positions and prevent situations in which women at the workplace are often victims of [reported or unreported] sexual harassment. Childishly,the professor had demanded that the university give him a statement absolving him of guilt in exchange for attending the training. Why would he think he is entitled to such special treatment? Conceit? \n\nAlthough unrelated, the two situations point out to persisting inequalities in policy and practice and entrenched attitudes among successful and well-funded professors which undermine the possibilities for a truly open future for every girl who today excels in science and an even playing field for women now working in science. The quest for gender equality in science must go on!\nFrom Columbus Ohio, after 25 years of local and local and state programs, I am working to establish a National Women in Science Day to be held in March, Women?s History Month. If you are interested in supporting this effort in your state, please email and visit\n\n\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: Robert Bossy

Robert Bossy

Posts: 1

April 2, 2009

The case of Mrs Morris clearly calls for judicial action. Unfortunately, suing a French public institution has always been quite a Kafka nightmare...\n\nOut of curiosity, did Mrs Morris file a complaint to the CNRS administration, or to the Tribunal Administratif? I know such a course is a lot of trouble but institutions will renounce to such behaviour only if the most concerned people show some determination.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

April 6, 2009

In life you have to pick your battles. If this is how Dr. McPherson reacts when made to subject to a short mandatory training, I'm not sure he will fare well in science or in this modern world for that matter. All of us have to comply with laws and responsibilities. We may not always agree with these or think them the best use of our time, but there are usually strong justifications behind them. Rather than placing his own research and the livelihood of people in his lab at risk, if he had a problem with the design of the training in question, I'm sure he could have provided suggestions for improvement and moved on. One piece of advice for Dr. McPherson: never come to work for the government--you think you have too many mandatory trainings? Think again!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

April 16, 2009

As a female, I support Dr. McPherson. Sexual harassment training is clearly a joke that academic HR departments provide. We are mandated to participate in the training, but as soon as a female (in such a case, me) reports an "uncomfortable" incident, HR is the first department to poke their head in the sand. In addition, I am truly convinced that it is easier to blame the victim than to confront the perpetrator. And in the end, I think I have heard the phrase, "Well, Dr. So-in-So is allowed to run his/her lab any way they wish" about a million times in response to an incident that was not only witnessed by others, but in which the perpetrator confessed too. Wow. So, I guess it's o.k. to continually employ a post-doctoral researcher who has had multiple grievances against him-by multiple parties I might add, not to mention a restraining order placed in his HR file. Well, don't mind me as I hire a serial rapist/domestic abuser/convicted felon/crystal meth addict. After all, I can run my lab any way I want.

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