Volunteer Writer: Mckenzie Ferrari
On October 18th, 2022, Leiden University – located in the Netherlands and one of Europe’s largest research institutions – released a statement declaring that an unnamed professor was suspended from the university for “subject[ing] various colleagues to intimidating and unacceptable behaviour for a longer period.”
Multiple staff members at Leiden University filed complaints with the institution’s independent behavioral committee; such complaints included “sexually transgressive behavior” and the vilification and degradation of female employees.
An investigation into the professor’s behavior began in May 2022, but a decision by the behavioral committee was not reached until October.
The professor remained unnamed at the time of the initial statement due to privacy legislation, according to the president of the Executive Board Annetje Ottow.
It wasn’t until eight days after Leiden University’s official statement, on October 26th, that the professor was officially unmasked by multiple news outlets as Tim de Zeeuw, astronomer and former director of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) from 2007 to 2017.
The ESO consortium is composed of organizations from 16 countries and operates some of the most technologically advanced telescopes available, such as the aptly named Very Large Telescope and Atacama Large Millimeter Array.
De Zeeuw’s own research focuses on galaxy formation and structure, and he has also advised at least 25 Ph.D. theses since his removal from the university, according to a biography posted by the BBVA Foundation.
In statements to Physics World and Science submitted by his lawyer, de Zeeuw claims that he disagrees with the verdict reached by the behavioral committee, but he will comply with “all measures imposed.”
In his statement, he further claimed, “I am very sorry that people have experienced my behaviour as negative. For that, I sincerely apologize. I do recognize that in the past period I have now and then been unpleasant and impatient in an old-fashioned way, which no longer fits in the current spirit of the times…”
This is not an apology.
In his statement, de Zeeuw fails to take responsibility for his actions.
What is further disappointing is that – since the writing of this article – de Zeeuw is still allowed to claim affiliation with Leiden University on all research articles and collect a paycheck.
He is simply banned from campus.
Harmful behavior and sexual misconduct are unfortunately still widespread in the science world.
In the field of physics and astronomy, Neil deGrasse Tyson – the popular science communicator and astrophysicist – was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct on multiple occasions.
Following internal investigations, deGrasse Tyson was allowed to resume filming for his popular TV shows Cosmos: Possible Worlds and StarTalk and to keep his position as the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, NY.
There is hope for change, however.
Astrobites, a popular blog run by astronomy and astrophysics graduate students written for an undergraduate audience, released a statement affirming that the blog would not acknowledge any future research papers published with de Zeeuw as an author and would be removing any past acknowledgments of the researcher from the site.
Additionally, the blog stated, “It is again incredibly disappointing that the act of creating an environment in which we are all free from harassment, bullying, and abuse is falling on some of the most junior voices in our community. As Astrobites is a collaboration of graduate students, we are, yet again, calling on the more senior members of our community, namely tenured faculty, to stand with us and stop giving voices to known harassers.”
The outpouring of support from the astronomy and physics community after de Zeeuw’s removal illustrates the changing values within higher education and research.