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Memo from Caltech leadership Regarding Faculty Harassment/Discrimination Issues

Status Report From: California Institute of Technology
Posted: Friday, January 8, 2016

To: Members of the Caltech Community

From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President
Edward M. Stolper, Provost

Date: January 4, 2016

As some of you know, recently two graduate students raised complaints of harassment by a faculty member. Although the details must remain confidential, we nevertheless feel that this situation is sufficiently important that enough information must be provided to permit our community to evaluate the situation and to contemplate the changes required to minimize the chances of anything like it happening again.

The Institute followed its formal procedures for evaluating the allegations and per policy the allegations were communicated to the chair of the division. This resulted in a comprehensive investigation of the situation by a faculty committee that reported to the provost. The faculty committee concluded, and the provost concurred, that there was unambiguous gender-based harassment of both graduate students by the faculty member. The faculty member was placed on unpaid leave for a full academic year, and he is restricted from coming on campus. Importantly, in order to make sure that the two students involved and other students are protected against continuation or new instances of such behavior – while also endeavoring to ensure that their academic progress is not adversely affected – communications between the faculty member and members of his group are being carefully monitored. In addition to these professional and financial sanctions, the suspended faculty member must undergo professional coaching and training in how to mentor students before returning to campus. A demonstrable change in behavior and mentoring approach will be required before unmonitored interactions with students can resume. Structural changes in the division’s advising approach are being put in place to ensure that students are properly and effectively mentored. The faculty member appealed these imposed disciplinary actions, but the appeal was denied.

While we believe that our process for reviewing such situations when they arise proved to be robust and timely, and that the disciplinary and protective actions firmly and effectively address the particular situation, there are important, broader lessons to be drawn from the events that led to the harassment of the two graduate students. Consequently, the Institute is embarking on an effort to address the conditions that made such a situation possible. Caltech can and must do more to create an environment where every member of the community is positioned to succeed and receives the support necessary to flourish. The process of introspection in the wake of these incidents is only beginning, and it must involve all of our community: faculty, students and staff alike. We describe here briefly the efforts that are presently underway.

Institute-wide efforts

We have begun, and will continue and expand, a campus dialogue to identify steps to move us forward. At the Institute level, we have begun three significant initiatives that will serve both to help identify discriminatory and harassing behavior earlier than was the case in the current situation, and to help improve mentoring and provide additional resources for all students.

First, Dean of Graduate Studies Doug Rees is assembling a dean's advisory council to review the range of student experiences with their advisors. The council will develop recommendations regarding best practices related to the faculty mentoring and advising process, and it will make recommendations for how to best support the graduate student experience at Caltech.

Second, the graduate student/faculty colloquium has been scheduled for February 11, 2016. This is a student-led initiative that will include presentations and structured sessions to discuss the graduate student experience and the ways that Caltech can enhance opportunities for graduate student success. Convened by graduate students, this conference will provide a significant touch point for students and faculty to discuss important issues.

Finally, option-specific opportunities have been added for the community to learn about Caltech’s resources to protect against and remedy harassment and discrimination.

We are exploring as well opportunities for meeting with our graduate students before the graduate student/faculty colloquium on February 11, inviting smaller group discussions.

Changes in the divisions

We have asked the division chairs to take tangible steps to improve graduate student advising, mentoring, and monitoring; to improve divisional resources available to graduate students who are having difficulties with their advisors; and to provide mentoring for faculty in order to ensure that Institute expectations are communicated and to minimize the chances of such problems occurring in the future. The division chairs, provost, and president discuss regularly how to share best practices about graduate education among the divisions so that we can move forward most expeditiously and effectively.

Each division has initiated discussions and tangible modifications to the infrastructure supporting graduate students in order to address more broadly issues associated with graduate student mentoring and quality of life. Although each division’s culture is different, we have asked that in every case graduate students and faculty be broadly consulted and involved.

Across the divisions, chairs have instituted programs to make sure that every graduate student has an opportunity to learn about and discuss the numerous campus-based resources available for students who might want advice or help.

Divisions have established or are in the process of establishing advising structures and other mechanisms to make sure that every graduate student has a faculty member other than their advisor with whom they can consult about their progress and position.

Interventions established in some divisions and under consideration by others include:

Conducting periodic surveys of graduate student satisfaction and respond to important issues that surface via that process.

Introducing “women in …” programs where the women graduate students get together regularly to talk about careers, invite prominent women to speak on campus, etc., in order to establish important mentoring connections and expand professional connections across institutions.

Funding a professional graduate program coordinator to meet regularly with students, track student progress actively, work with the graduate option representatives when there are issues, help build community by organizing academic and social events, and serve as a confidential resource for students within the division.

Setting up a graduate student life committee chaired by a faculty member and including graduate student members, charged to examine and provide recommendations for changes to the advising structure, classes, orientation, recruiting, and graduate student quality of life outside of the laboratories and research groups.

Although these various efforts demonstrate that there is a commitment to progress across the Institute, there is clearly a lot of work remaining for us all to do. We will provide updates and share innovations periodically, and we welcome your involvement. Please contact Felicia Hunt, Assistant Vice President for Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Initiatives, at fhunt@caltech.edu for further information.

This painful incident reminds us that shared community values need constant attention. Improving our procedures and systems is essential, but at the same time we must reaffirm our commitment to excellence by creating an environment where every member of the community is valued and supported as an individual so that their talents can be fully expressed and their accomplishments soar. Together, we can and must strive to reach this goal, working together to bring change for the better.

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