Reversing its previous ruling, Arizona State University has concluded that physics professor Lawrence Krauss breached the school’s sexual harassment policy by groping a woman at a conference in Australia.
The incident, which happened at a dinner in November 2016 in Melbourne during the Australian Skeptics National Convention, was revealed in February in a BuzzFeed News investigation that described allegations of unwanted sexual advances, groping, and inappropriate comments by Krauss over more than a decade.
The incident in Melbourne happened when one of Krauss’s fans took a selfie with him. A witness, microbiologist Melanie Thomson, filed a formal complaint with Arizona State in July 2017, stating that the professor had grabbed the woman’s breast. (The woman in the selfie did not complain to the university.)
In her complaint, Thomson included the photo, showing Krauss’s hand moving in front of the woman’s shoulder. But in October 2017, the university told Thomson that there was insufficient evidence to rule that Krauss breached university policy. (That same month, Arizona State rejected a public records request from BuzzFeed News for complaints about Krauss and said it could not release documents related to "unsubstantiated, unsolicited and possibly defamatory complaints.")
The school reopened its investigation in February. Its Office of Equity and Inclusion interviewed two other witnesses quoted in the BuzzFeed News story, two other people who did not see what happened but were told about it by the woman that same evening, and the woman in the selfie, who confirmed that Krauss grabbed her breast.
Krauss told investigators that the photo might have captured his hand covering up the camera’s flash, or perhaps helping the woman steady her balance. But the university did not find these explanations persuasive.
In a letter sent July 31, Arizona State Provost Mark Searle told Thomson that "the preponderance of the evidence" now suggested that Krauss had breached the university’s policy on sexual harassment and that he "did grab the right breast of the woman in the photograph."
Searle added that the university had paid Krauss’s expenses to attend the meeting. The professor’s behavior "created an offensive environment for academic pursuits," Searle wrote, and violated the school’s ethics code requiring faculty to "conduct one’s public and private lives so as to avoid bringing dishonor to oneself and the university."
"I’m glad they have investigated,” said Michael Marshall, one of the eyewitnesses who was quoted in the BuzzFeed News article. "Now we need to know what’s going to be done about that."
“The original investigation was basically a ‘he said, she said’ scenario, where they believed him over me.”
Thomson told BuzzFeed News that she felt vindicated. "The original investigation was basically a 'he said, she said' scenario, where they believed him over me," Thomson said. "And that’s the way these things often go."
She still wants Krauss to apologize, she said, and to withdraw his claim made to BuzzFeed News and in a nine-page response to the article, that her complaint was "fabricated with malicious intent."
"I call for him to retract his retaliatory, inflammatory, libelous remarks," Thomson said.
In his letter, Searle told Thomson: "Responsive action will be taken to prevent a recurrence of this conduct."
Krauss has already been replaced as director of the Origins Project, an initiative he founded in 2008 that has brought leading intellectuals to Arizona State’s campus to discuss the origins of the universe, life, and social systems.
According to Searle’s letter, the woman who was groped told university investigators that "the incident did not merit the man losing his career."
Krauss has been on paid leave since March, and the fate of his job at ASU is not yet clear. "It is the policy of the university not to comment on ongoing personnel matters," Katie Paquet, a spokesperson for Arizona State, told BuzzFeed News by email.
Krauss, who is currently traveling in Iceland, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.