Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala resigns from UC Irvine for serial sexual harassment

Famous evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has resigned from UC Irvine following a university investigation which found him guilty of serial sexual harassment.

The university has also removed his name from its School of Biological Sciences, which was named for him after he donated $10 million to it. They’re also removing his name from everything else bearing his name, including the central science library, graduate fellowships, and endowed chairs, and it sounds like he’s no longer welcome to participate in university life in any way.

The university investigation began last November, in response to complaints from four women, who asked to be identified: professor and EEB chair Kathleen Treseder, teaching professor Jessica Pratt, assistant dean Benedicte Shipley, and graduate student Michelle Herrera. A statement from the attorney representing three of the women says that before this investigation, the university systematically ignored complaints from one of these women and others, going back years. The statement also characterizes the outcome of the investigation as “an anemic response to a systemic failure”.

I don’t know anything further beyond what’s in the linked article, of which everything I wrote above is a summary.

I don’t have anything to say about this that many others haven’t already said better, and my voice isn’t the one anyone should be paying attention to regarding this story. But for what it’s worth, I’ll echo what many others have already said: it was incredibly brave of Kathleen Treseder, Jessica Pratt, Benedicte Shipley, and Michelle Herrera to come forward, and not only come forward to UCI but to ask to be named publicly. We all owe them tremendous thanks for having the guts to do this and go through what they’ve gone through (while not implying any criticism of anyone who has been sexually harassed and hasn’t made the same choice). The outcome of this case is much better than that of many other recent cases in which high-profile academics were accused of serial sexual harassment. I’m thinking for instance of Texas Tech’s recent whitewashing of a culture of blatant open sexual harassment in its biological sciences department. From that perspective, this outcome represents progress, although one wonders if the investigation would’ve had the same outcome if the complainants hadn’t included a department chair and an assistant dean, and if the complainants hadn’t had a lawyer. On the other hand, this outcome should’ve happened a long time ago and there’s really no way to retroactively make up for the fact that it didn’t.

Francisco Ayala is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. This case will presumably be the first test of the National Academy’s new policy indicating that in “appropriate circumstances” it will kick members out of the Academy for sexual harassment. If this case doesn’t merit removal from the National Academy under that policy, it’s hard to see what would.

20 thoughts on “Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala resigns from UC Irvine for serial sexual harassment

  1. Another comment, which others have already made: Ayala’s statement in response to UCI’s findings is bullshit. The idea that he’s being forced to resign because he gave air kisses to some women who didn’t know that’s a traditional European greeting…come on. It’s insulting. And saying he’s doing a huge favor everyone else involved by just resigning rather than fighting to keep his job, because he respects everyone else involved so much…the gall.

    • A late comment, but I just read the statement by Ayala saying his behaviour is just European and want to add some comment from across the great pond. I, as a European woman, would not want to be kissed on the cheeks, that would also be inappropriate in most European countries. And I also would not want to be complimented on my beauty, my purpose in life is not looking beautiful. So what he says is just bullshit. It’s not common behaviour all over Europe (of course there are differences between countries, e.g. I know the cheek kissing from France), but most European women I know would also find it completely inappropriate.
      Thanks to all the women who stepped up!

  2. An unimportant remark: I’ve seen a few folks asking on Twitter why Ayala resigned instead of being fired. The answer, I suspect (and it is speculation on my part), is that behind the scenes this was a “resign or be fired” situation. So he read the writing on the wall and resigned when the report was released.

    • Plus, as a colleague of mine points out, it’s safe to assume that firing him if he didn’t want to be fired would lead to some sort of formal hearing or other due process which could well involve cross-examination of the victims. Why put them through that if you don’t have to?

      • It’s also possible that he expressed the intent to fight the allegations tooth and nail – which he seems to have the resources to do – if he wasn’t allowed to resign, which would be a big circus and cost the school a lot of money.

  3. It’s also worth pointing out that one reason the school may have finally acted is that, at 84yrs old, his work is no longer relevant and his productivity is declining.

    But suppose this guy was in the prime of his career and generating a lot of important work. What should we do then? If the guy is causing a major problem and his actions are indeed “serial” then canning him is the appropriate step. But in doing so we loose his future body of work, which *may* help many more people than his harassment hurts.

    I think there’s an attitude abroad at the moment that any kind of sexual harassment needs to be met with firing. I don’t agree with that. I think institutions have to take all complaints more seriously and thus act in the initial stages of a problem – but also give people an opportunity to modify their behavior before it becomes a pattern.

      • I wonder if you see where I addressed that in my comment? 🙂

        I think it’s better everyone feels comfortable to report, administrators feel comfortable taking action before the problem is an extreme serial problem, the offender has a chance to modify his or her behavior in good faith and no one has to lose their job or career.

        A grad student, for example, should be able to report a problem with their supervisor, and expect that their supervisor will cooperate with whatever remedy the administration imposes. This kind of thing happens where I work. Problems are fixed and people move on. If the supervisor can’t co-operate, then the problem goes to the next level.

        IMO the “offenders are bad scientists” meme is bad science itself. I suspect few people start their TT jobs crappy scientists who are serial harassers – the need to get tenure alone is enough to prevent that. More likely, they start as good scientists become harassers over time after they get tenure because they encounter no resistance.

  4. Allegations should ALWAYS be proven BEFORE punishment. I remember the false accusations of the Duke lacrosse case 2006. The accuser Crystal Mangum was a LIAR, was believed and enabled ny people like you, was never punished when proven a liar and became a MURDERER. The ultimate feminist, she murdered her boyfriend. She was enabled by people like you Jeremy Fox, who believe and enable accusers without proof. More recently, Al Franken was made to resign from the US Senate for made-up offenses. You Jeremy Fox, why do you assume unproven accusations are true? The cornerstone of the United States justice system is the presumption of innocence. To each and every one of you who are ready to fire people without proof and thus destroy the presumption of innocence, may you be personally be falsely accused. What you wrote in thi sStalinist blog is genuinely evil. What you wish unto others, Jeremy Fox, may it happen to you personally.

    • The university found him guilty in a report that involved 4 victims and ìnterviewed 60 witnesses. This is nothing like the Duke lacrosse case.

      I decided to let this comment through to reply to it, but calling others Stalinist and wishing for others to be falsely accused of harassment is inappropriate. You can indicate your disagreement with the the report’s conclusions and the university’s actions in response to the report without resorting to that language. If you persist in that language we’ll block you.

    • “Why don’t you sit on my lap while you give the presentation? It would be much more interesting.” (from link to Science editorial above)

      Not subtle or difficult to recognize as harassment. That alone should have been grounds for severe sanction if not immediate dismissal.

      • One possible way to deal with a *first* occurrence of a clearly and seriously inappropriate comment like the one above, short of firing the person, might be to suspend the person from their job and ban them from the workplace for a significant time – say three months? – with no access to research funds, and let that serve as a warning of termination for future offenses.

        IMO action like this would serve notice to others that severe consequences will result from such behavior – and at least to some extent prevent that behavior from occurring.

      • One thing in Coyne’s post i found interesting is, him (Coyne) saying that Ayala’s behavior was known to some people: ‘At Davis Ayala had the reputation of being a letcher, or at least of having a “keen eye for the ladies.” ‘ I came across similar statements on twitter by some other people (evo-bio people).
        But i hear what you say about emphasis. Coyne has his own problems with Ayala, so it’s mixed piece, he goes over many topics unrelated to the case.
        And here’s Coyne’s comment on the case itself (which would be interesting for some, it’s coming from another person in the field):
        ‘Ayala’s behavior, combined with his immense power, wound up creating a horrible situation. Horrible for science, horrible for the community of scientists, and, above all, horrible for women. As far as I’m concerned, he’s now got what he deserved, but he got it too late.’

  5. FYI: I just deleted a comment from someone asserting Ayala is innocent, stating without evidence that all his victims, their lawyer, and the UCI investigstors are liars.

    Such comments are unwelcome here. If you have evidence and arguments, you’re welcome to share them. If there are broader issues you want to discuss, go ahead. But simply asserting that “everyone accusing Ayala is corrupt” is just trolling.

  6. Pingback: When should scientists cite the work of sexual harassers? | Dynamic Ecology

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