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ETH Zürich opens investigation into misconduct allegations

26 Oct 2017 Michael Banks
Ariel view of ETH Zurich's campus in Honggerberg
Under scrutiny: ETH Zürich's campus in Hönggerberg

The executive board of one of Switzerland’s leading universities – ETH Zürich – has launched an independent enquiry in response to allegations of misconduct at the institute’s former Institute for Astronomy (IfA). The IfA was closed in August after several students raised concerns about the management practices of senior staff at the institute. According to a statement from the ETH Zürich, the investigation will now take “a more detailed look” at the situation and that could lead to “additional measures” being taken.

The problems at ETH Zürich came into the open in February 2017 when allegations were made by “several doctoral students” against a female professor who worked at the IfA. While the professor has not been named by ETH Zürich, according to the allegations, she demonstrated “inept management conduct” towards her students. A month later – at their own request – the students, who have also not been named, were reassigned to a different supervisor. After the university’s executive board discussed the issues – which have not been made public by ETH Zürich – an agreement was reached that the female professor in question would be given support if she wanted to supervise doctoral students in the future.

According to its statement, ETH Zürich decided to close the IfA in August because the professor was married to a man who was also employed by the IfA – a set-up that ETH Zürich says was “not ideal”. While the two professors remain in the physics department at ETH Zürich, the rest of IfA staff have been integrated into a newly created Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics.

“Having identified the problematic circumstances, the priority was to reform the inappropriate personnel structure as quickly as possible so as to rectify the situation,” the statement says. “Nowadays such a pairing within the same institute would no longer be possible.”

While ETH Zürich’s board “commended the prompt and appropriate action” that was taken, it has now opened an independent enquiry that will focus on how “poor management” can be quickly escalated higher up within the organization. “The alleged conduct falls well short of the standards we expect of our professors, and so we took swift action,” says ETH Zürich president Lino Guzzella. “The official enquiry allows us to take an even closer look at the facts and decide whether further measures still need to be taken.”

However, some astronomers have voiced concerns about how ETH Zürich has dealt with the situation and how the institution blamed it on the couple being married. Writing on Twitter, astronomer Jessie Christiansen from NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology says that ETH Zürich needs to “try harder”.

“As part of a married astronomer couple working at the same institute, I can assure you this [working alongside one’s spouse] is not the problem,” she says, adding that the issues rather emerge due to a “clear conflict of interest” such as a married couple supervising the same student or chairing the same committee. “I’d like to think we’re smart enough to put some protections in place that aren’t a blanket ban [on married couples],” she says.

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