The University of Turku in Finland on Wednesday announced that it was terminating the employment of astrophysicist Christian Ott, who last year resigned from Caltech after an investigation found that he’d harassed two female students.
“I have considered the matter and decided that the employment of Dr Christian Ott to the University of Turku will be cancelled,” said Kalervo Väänänen, rector of the University of Turku, in a statement. “I came to this conclusion after extensively hearing the science community.”
A Caltech Title IX investigation in the fall of 2015 found that Ott had engaged in "discriminatory and harassing behavior" toward two female graduate students in his research group. Caltech suspended him for nearly two years, and Ott announced his resignation in August, after students protested his return to campus.
Ott was supposed to begin a two-year research position at the University of Turku's Tuorla Observatory on March 1. But on Feb. 1, scientists and professors from Finnish astronomy departments began circulating an open letter strongly condemning harassment. It has so far been signed by more than 240 people.
“Our concern and solidarity is first with victims of harassment, and with the right of all staff and students to work in a healthy and safe environment,” the letter said. “And while we also recognize the possibility of rehabilitation, it can only be at the end of a process that begins with an acknowledgement of the offense, and taking responsibility for the harm caused.”
The letter did not mention Ott by name. But on Feb. 2, 19 astronomers and astrophysicists sent a private letter to the University of Turku expressing their concerns about Ott's hiring.
“If people who have been found guilty of sexual harassment or gender-based harassment can simply move to a new institute, then this sends a message to people who have been the targets of harassment that the same thing can just continue," Syksy Räsänen, a cosmologist at University of Helsinki who helped write the open letter, told BuzzFeed News.
"We should really give due credit to Turku that they responded to concerns from the scientific community and did the right thing," Räsänen added.
The university's decision is an about-face from its initial response to the social media outcry.
“The University of Turku has a policy of zero tolerance towards harassment and bullying,” it said in a statement on Feb. 1, adding that the “reason for Dr Christian Ott’s recruitment to the University of Turku has been the strong evidence of his scientific merits of which several statements were received.” The school also stated that it had received information about Ott's behavior at Caltech that has not been publicized.
According to emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, Tuorla Observatory head Juri Poutanen claimed that there was no evidence that Ott had ever sexually harassed anyone. "A monster was made of him publicly in the media," Poutanen wrote (in Finnish) on Sunday to one of the critics of the decision to hire Ott.
Poutanen offered no further comment, and Ott did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Other scientists say the relevant issue isn't what Ott did or did not do, but rather that the university hired him without getting much input from their community first.
"The most important thing, I believe, is not Ott as a person or what he has done/not done, but that such a sensitive decision was made without first properly hearing the opinions of the scientists and students working at Tuorla Observatory, although a 15-minute 'discussion' was organized by the Director of the observatory," Esko Valtaoja, emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of Turku, told BuzzFeed News.
"Hopefully people have learned something from this deplorable incident," he said.