Open Letter to Prof Robert Scherrer of Vanderbilt University

If you read science blogs much at all, you will have run into Rob Knop, either at his own blog, Galactic Interactions, or in someone else’s comments. Though I don’t always agree with him, I find him a cordial and thoughtful member of our virtual community. One of Rob’s particular concerns is the status of women in science, and he recently posted an entry on what happened when he tried to get a faculty meeting to come to terms with the idea that his department (Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt) is a hostile work environment for women:

We have an issue in our department right now which has (tangentially) brought up the issue of the climate for women in physics. We have a serious problem with the climate for women students and post-docs (at least). I don’t really know if it’s worse here than physics departments elsewhere; I know the climate is globally bad everywhere, and maybe it’s worse on average, or maybe it’s better on average. But I do know it’s bad here, and unless we think about it, it will stay bad.
In a short presentation to the department today, I included a slide with this statement on it:

The biggest problem among the faculty is that we all allow things to slide. None of us speak out when we see and hear things that we should be questioning. We are all, constantly, guilty of this; I can name a few instances for myself, and doubtless have forgotten many more.

In retrospect, using the absolute term “none of us” was probably a mistake, but certainly it’s rare when people speak out. This statement was close to a direct quote from a female graduate student I’ve talked to; I asked her what she thought the biggest climate problem was, and it was this: the fact that behaviors are accepted, not questioned, evidently by all.

It wasn’t pretty; you can read the whole thing here. It got worse: his department chair insisted that he take the entry down (which he did). In comments on Zuska’s post about all this, Absinthe posted the text of a letter she sent the dept chair, Robert Scherrer. I thought that was a good idea, so I’m doing the same:

Dear Prof Scherrer:
I write to express my concern over an article posted by Rob Knop on his personal weblog, in which he described the disappointingly negative reaction he received when he tried to get a recent faculty meeting to consider the level of discrimination faced by women in your department.
As a research scientist, sex discrimination in our “tribe” is of immediate and personal concern to me. I believe it to be a widespread and pressing problem and consider it a culpably stupid waste of human resources wherever it occurs. I expect better of my colleagues and professional peers.
I have been reading Prof Knop’s personal writing on this issue for some time, and regard him as admirably open-minded and fair in his approach. I have never known him to be anything but polite and reasonable. I make this point because I can only imagine that his presentation to your faculty meeting was of the same high standard: well reasoned and not in any way threatening.
For him to meet with a solid wall of aggressive denial that the problem even exists is, if anything, cause for even greater dismay than the hostile environment for women that he describes within your department. It took considerable courage for Prof Knop to broach this contentious topic with his colleagues. As chair, you are largely responsible for your department’s overall tenor and for its compliance with legal requirements for equal opportunity. I should have thought you would see Prof Knop as a welcome ally in this undertaking.
In fact, though, your response to Prof Knop’s article is cause for yet further concern. As I understand it, you demanded that Prof Knop remove the post (which he did). This was counter-productive at best, since the Web never forgets; indeed Prof Knop’s post is available in full elsewhere, and has probably attracted more attention as a result of your actions than it would have on its own. Prof Knop has explicitly disavowed the notion that your actions constitute censorship, but on this I disagree with him. His article made no mention whatsoever of anyone by name, nor of any sensitive business (hiring, tenure, or similar). The research community, and academia in general, needs more transparency — not more secrecy.
This is an open letter, having been posted to my own personal weblog. I understand that you are busy, and do not expect a reply. You should know, however, that I will be advising friends, students and colleagues of both sexes that they should avoid your department, and probably view Vanderbilt University itself with some suspicion, on the basis of this incident.

Update: More from Rob, in typically careful and reasonable style. He’s right, and I’m wrong, and I won’t be recommending to anyone that they avoid VU or Rob’s department.
For one thing, they have a pretty strong female and minority presence (see the first comment on Rob’s entry), which can only help in improving the situation — conversely, if they stop getting female/pro-feminist male/minority applicants, that can only be harmful. For another, reading the blog discussion of this whole incident will provide a good background for anyone considering VU or Rob’s department, leaving them armed with penetrating questions to ask at interview time.
I got a response from Prof Scherrer (I won’t quote it as I didn’t ask permission/give warning). He focused his reply on the fact that the meeting included legitimately confidential discussions, which I think is somewhat lame, but then he’s a dept chair and I’m just some weirdo on the internets. (Should I write him again to let him know the change in my position that Rob has caused? I lean towards “quit bothering the guy” myself.)

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