A California congresswoman is using a 2005 report of sexual harassment at the University of Arizona department of astronomy to illustrate the need for more open reporting of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the sciences.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., placed the confidential report into the Congressional Record on Tuesday.
In a speech, Speier called for a change in law that would require universities to disclose the results of sexual harassment investigations to other universities that are considering hiring their professors.
Former UA professor Timothy Slater was charged with creating a sexually charged atmosphere among his students with persistent sexual jokes, meetings at strip clubs and invitations to nude swimming and hot-tubbing.
He and current UA professor Edward Prather were found in violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy in March 2005 and required to take training in how to prevent it.
Slater left the UA in 2008 to become a professor at the University of Wyoming.
Chris Impey, deputy head of the department, a position he also held at the time of the investigation, said he still can’t talk specifically about the case, but said “severe and pervasive sexual harassment, to me, would require a more serious sanction.”
The report on the investigation into Slater was inadvertently released by the UA in response to a Freedom of Information request in 2010, said Chris Sigurdson, UA vice president for communications.
He said the document obtained by Rep. Speier was judged to “not be a public record” when a request was made for its release. “Somebody forgot or screwed up,” he said. Controls have been tightened on that process since then, he said.
Sigurdson said the university asked that copies be returned or destroyed. “We were assured they had been, but apparently not.”
Strip clubs every month
In August 2004, the UA’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office began investigating complaints made by several individuals against Slater. The individuals did not file a formal complaint, but the department requested an investigation.
None of the witnesses in the investigation were identified by name.
The report quoted Witness A as saying Slater “frequently told sexual jokes, made invitations to bathe in his hot tub (at house parties), and joked that bathing suits were optional.”
Witness A also said Slater and his (former) wife gave sex toys to guests and chocolate handcuffs to a graduate student. The witness also said Slater mentioned installing cameras at his house and inquired about the witness’ sex life.
Slater’s offensive behavior “included stopping in his tracks whenever he sees a woman walk by in a short skirt, even insisting that all conversations cease so he can take in the scene,” Witness B said in the report.
“On a regular basis, Dr. Slater has told Witness B she would teach better if she did not wear underwear,” the report said.
“On at least one occasion he grabbed her underwear through her dress, stretched it and snapped it, and said, ‘You’d look a whole lot better without these on,’” the report said.
Witness B also said Slater told her to “stand up, turn around — half the boys in your class are going home to masturbate after watching you teach.”
A conversation between Slater and Witness J, another member of the department, about visiting a strip club prompted Witness E to tell them the conversation made her uncomfortable. They told her they would try to stop in the future.
Still, Slater and Witness J made sexual comments in front of her, such as using a rating system to measure freshmen women, Witness E reportedly said.
Slater reportedly asked Witness C if she could give “some pointers” to a visiting graduate student about performing oral sex and later proposed having a threesome.
With regard to reports that he had given out sex toys at social events, Slater said in the report that he gave a female graduate student a pickle- or cucumber-shaped vibrator at a “pre-wedding” party. He did not remember giving a pair of chocolate handcuffs.
Slater told the investigator he did not recall saying he planned to install cameras in his house.
With regard to stopping to look at women in skirts and commenting on their appearance, “he states this was common practice for him” and he may have done it “one-to-ten-to-a-hundred times,” the report said. He denied having a rating system for women.
He reportedly said he did not remember telling a female colleague that she would teach better without underwear or snapping her underwear.
Slater told the investigator he is “sexually overt” and says things that are “inappropriate,” but he said he has his limits and snapping underwear or talking about oral sex went beyond those limits. Slater confirmed he and others in the department went to strip clubs every month and usually offered to buy lap dances for one another.
In March 2005, the investigator concluded that “Dr. Slater conducted himself in a sexual manner, that the conduct was to some both unwelcome and unsolicited, and that the conduct was pervasive.” As such, Slater violated university policy by creating a hostile work environment.
Rep. Speier said in a phone interview Tuesday that the UA report “is a reflection of much larger numbers in the scientific community generally.”
“It’s a long-standing problem and we need to address it.”
The American Astronomical Society, at its annual meeting in Kissimmee, Florida, this month, devoted a plenary session to the topic and awarded its Harold Masursky Award to scientist Christina Richey, who has been calling attention to the topic for years.
The issue gained prominence last year after University of California, Berkeley professor Geoff Marcy stepped down after he was found in violation of the university’s sexual harassment policies.
Buell Jannuzi, department head and director of Steward Observatory, said his principal concern about the release of the UA investigation was that it could make people reluctant to come forward when they are harassed.
Prather was also a respondent in the case. At the time, Prather was a postdoctorate researcher employed by Slater.
Prather, who is not identified in the report, was also found in violation of the sexual harassment policy, said Sigurdson.
“He was given corrective action, which he fulfilled in 2005 and was restored to good standing with the institution. When a faculty position opened up some years later, he applied, won it and remains in good standing,” said Sigurdson.
Sigurdson said he was unable to comment on Slater, who is not a university employee.
Sigurdson said the university’s goal in such matters is to stop the harassment, and that goal was met. He said the documents are kept confidential to protect the witnesses and the respondents.
On his blog at the Center for Astronomy and Physics Education Research (www.caperteam.com), Slater said he was required to take sexual harassment training and management training at the UA.
Slater said Tuesday he thought he had put the matter behind him after completing that training. He said his behavior was inappropriate and called it “youthful indiscretion.”
“I was a young kid (mid-30s) and all my grad students were my age. We had a pretty tight social network,” Slater said.
A statement on the CAPER website said Slater “has made no attempt to hide his role in, or the lessons learned from these events.”
It says: “CAPER believes that sexual harassment is a serious workplace issue, in which the employer is responsible for ensuring a safe and productive work environment. We stand opposed to the recent attempts to re-appropriate these issues in the name of a social justice war.”
The statement was written by Stephanie Slater, who is Timothy Slater’s wife.
Stephanie Slater said she suspects the UA released the report on purpose.
“It is well known that Tim and the research group at Wyoming are in a cut-throat competition with the UA. I don’t believe it’s an accident.”