ETH in the news again

The recent ETH announcements on misconduct within the school were widely covered by the press last week. Careful scrutiny of our higher education institutions – be it from the general public, leaders of civil society, or the media – remain key in insuring that allegations of misconduct are properly addressed.

Here below some of the reporting from the press:

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The new measures at a glance

Here below are the new measures proposed by ETH Zürich in order to better improve leadership and handle conflict situations. Speak Up! will closely consider these measures and the weight they could carry in addressing misconduct within the school.

Prevention and leadership

  • Since the beginning of the year, the main selection criteria when appointing new professors are not only excellence in research and teaching, but also in leadership. Any evidence of poor skills in this area will always require additional information or references to be provided.
  • Academic staff and students are to be more closely involved in the appointment process, by inviting them to sit on review panels, and their opinion will be considered in the selection process.
  • A comprehensive induction programme for new professors has been devised and is already in place. A similar programme will also be put together for doctoral students.
  • Leadership skills will be continuously improved through a comprehensive “leadership programme”. This will include, amongst other things, increased attention to questions of human resources management and supervision in the academic environment and an expanded range of management courses and coaching for professors.
  • By 2020 ETH will have multiple supervision for all doctoral students.
  • A new guideline for recruiting doctoral students will help professors to clarify expectations on both sides, as well as rights and obligations.
  • The annual appraisal interview for doctoral students will be made more systematic and will specifically address topics such as leadership, collaboration and professional development.
  • To reduce the dependent relationship between professors and doctoral students, the contracts will be redesigned by 2020 so that it is impossible to put pressure on doctoral students by threatening to withdraw or shorten their employment contracts.

Handling conflict situations

  • From the Autumn Semester 2019 onwards, regular training will be provided for the various ETH contacts and specialist units.
  • The number of ombudspersons has been increased from two to three, and now two (instead of one) trusted intermediaries are available to deal with allegations of scientific misconduct.
  • In future, the Office of Equal Opportunities will focus on promoting diversity and especially increasing the proportion of women at all levels of the university. Reports of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with in future by a specialised reporting office within the HR department. ETH is considering whether to set up an external independent specialist unit as well.
  • The process for dealing with reports or complaints will be revised and streamlined by the summer of 2019. The aim is to ensure that all reports are addressed and if possible resolved within six months.
  • To this end, case management will be gradually expanded into a full team. It will ensure that the right entities are involved and that all parties concerned are kept regularly updated on the progress of proceedings.

Is ETH Zürich turning over a new leaf?

On the 14th March the ETH School Board made a public press release in the face of rising dissatisfaction with how it has dealt with several allegations of misconduct at the school. The school announced that it will be firing a professor in the former Institute for Astronomy following an investigation into bullying.

ETH Zurich has submitted a request to the ETH Board to terminate the employment relationship with a professor in the former Institute for Astronomy. To avoid as far as possible similar cases from escalating in future, ETH Zurich is adapting its structures and processes and is launching a comprehensive package of measures to improve the quality of leadership and supervision at the university.”

The president of the school, Prof. Dr. Joel Mesot also apologized for the mistakes made in investigating these claims, and recognized these were institutional errors. Speak Up! welcomes this step, as an important and necessary moment in moving forward towards more transparent and professional processes for preventing, investigating and condemning misconduct.

Following the press conference, the School Board held an open event for members of the ETH to again apologize, present the measures and answer questions from students and staff. The preparation, communication and presentation of this event was a great improvement compared to how ETH addressed (or failed to address) these issues in the past.

Speak Up! attended the event, with members from several ETH departments currently involved in investigations into misconduct. It was able to take this opportunity to applaud the school board for apologizing to the victims involved in these cases, and communicating in a more transparent manner. Speak Up! stands ready to collaborate with the School Board in implementing change – but also to challenge and hold the school accountable should it fail to do so.

Speak Up! will closely follow the development of these measures, how they are implemented, and how they can be complemented by further institutional change.

President Prof. Dr. Joel Mesot & Dean Prof. Dr Sarah Springman
Press conference on 14th March 2019

How we got here

Our first General Assembly was an opportunity to reflect on our journey to founding Speak Up! Here’s how Alice, the new president of Speak Up! described the journey in the opening speech of our General Assembly.

You arrived in Zürich young, fresh and excited. With a job offer from one of the best research institutions in the world – an institution with star-status and the best minds. In a country known for its innovation, for its best practice and cutting-edge technology.

You worked hard to get here – graduating from the best schools. You arrived keen – you like learning, education, schools, teachers, institutions. You got ahead by playing by their rules.

But then, you start to notice something’s up – something’s not quite right – you feel unsure, unsettled. Is it about how knowledge here is being produced and published? Is it about how people are being treated?

A few old-timers try and warn you – give you a few hints in-between the lines – it seems like there is some insider’s knowledge – but you can’t quite grasp it.

So you think – it must be me – I don’t want to lose this job – I can’t afford to lose the money –Switzerland is expensive. Or, how am I going to explain this to the migration office – I can’t lose my work permit. And most of all you think – I don’t want to be a troublemaker. I’ll just put my head down and work harder.

Then one day it’s too much – it might be a specific episode that triggers you – or maybe you speak to friends and family who convince you this is not ok – its unacceptable.

But can you speak out? The costs are high – the institution and your supervisor far outweigh your junior status – you even admire their work, their contribution to academia. But something tells you you have a duty to speak out, to report what you’ve seen – even if you would rather not.

People warn you: don’t open the Pandora’s box, don’t betray your group, the school here tries to bury stories – you’re risking too much.

And indeed – when you do speak out the problems start. You have to build your own case, find allies, and expose yourself. Your reports are not treated with confidentiality. You are made to feel like you are the troublemaker. You are interrogated for hours, your behaviour comes under scrutiny – if this is true why didn’t you speak up earlier they ask you? You struggle to get legal counsel, you are not kept informed, the files are kept secret from you, and you are made to sign a secrecy agreement.  And in the end – your allegations are dismissed.

But you make it through – because at your sides, dozens of other voices decide to speak up as well – and their bravery spurs you on. Because decent colleagues show their support – tell you what you are doing is necessary and a service to the school. Because you find a decent lawyer – and generous donors to pay her. Because friends and family stick with you, listen to endless debriefs and have your back.

And once the investigation is over – you have nothing to lose – knowing that the process did not have your best interests at heart. Knowing that to protect your interests you need to reach out to allies, inside and outside the school.

You learn that you were not the only ones – you are just the tip of the iceberg. And you start hearing a choir of voices from groups all over the school who are going through the same process. Together you have experienced similar struggles, similar difficulties.

So together you decide to launch a new group and call it Speak Up!

It will be a place to share such experiences, to be heard and listened to – to learn peer-to-peer about what it takes to make a claim, a network to find emotional support, legal and financial advice. And a group that can build on its experiences and expertise to lobby for better practices in preventing, investigating and condemning misconduct.

And now we promise ourselves and others that:

When we witnesses and experience misconduct we … Speak Up!

As by-standers we won’t ignore discrimination and harassment but … Speak Up!

When we see breaches of scientific practice we … Speak Up!

Instead of sweeping misconduct under the carpet we … Speak Up!

And to make academia a better place to work and study we … Speak Up!

Speak Up launches! 🚀

And then they came! On the 8th March – International Women’s Day we launched Speak Up! in the backroom of an Alehouse.

Some we knew already – friends, colleagues, family, some had heard about us, felt concerned, and wanted to find out more. They signed up as members, and up to the mailing lists, made donations, and suggestions as to how we can move forward as an association. There were old folks and young folks, professors, students, and administrators – lab directors, alumni and interns. Thank you for all coming.

We voted in our board, approved our statutes – and even found an auditor for our accounts. So we are all above board, legal and legitimate now! And then we celebrated – the strength in coming together, our commitment to speak up, our hopes for getting things moving and pushing them in the right direction.

The board members for the upcoming year are as follows: Alice H as president, Margrit H as vice president, Laure L as treasurer, and fellow board members Rym, Samira, Tiziana, Nay, Jasmin and Edoardo. A dream team!

Our next step: collect our members suggestions for an open letter and petition drive to call for better practices in preventing, investigating and condemning misconduct at our school.

We will keep you posted!