After The Verge reported last October that Texas Tech University’s biological sciences department was allegedly a hostile environment for female students, the Texas Tech administration launched an official investigation. Although the investigation was completed last spring, the university only publicly released the findings last month. To the dismay of many biology students and faculty, officials essentially exonerated the department of charges of sexism and sexual harassment.
The findings, which many see as whitewashed, dashed many hopes that the biology department at Texas Tech might be turning a corner in its long history of alleged sexist attitudes. The investigation was launched after the department chair, Ronald Chesser, had been caught on video making sexist remarks at a October 2015 retirement party. The party was for Robert Baker, a famed mammalogist whom some students called a “dirty old man” for his alleged decades-long habit of sexually harassing both graduate and undergraduate students. Another faculty member, Lou Densmore, had allegedly hosted sex-themed Christmas parties at his home, which some students felt pressured to attend. But while Chesser was formally suspended from his post for several months during the investigation, last April the department’s several dozen faculty voted two-to-one to reinstate him.
To make matters worse, during a hastily organized meeting with students last May, John Zak, a biologist and associate dean who acted as interim chair after Chesser’s suspension, seemed unaware of the university’s formal procedures for reporting sexual harassment. To the students’ amazement, he reportedly said that they should take complaints either to Chesser, to Densmore (who is currently the graduate advisor), or to Zak himself.
“Many of the graduate students are upset and worried that everything is going to be swept under the rug,” says Marina Fisher-Phelps, a graduate student who just received her PhD from the department this summer and has now left Texas Tech. “We are very angry about this. The biggest problem is that students are afraid to speak up because of repercussions within the department and in our future careers.” A number of current and former biology students told The Verge that they did not cooperate with the investigation, which was carried out by Texas Tech’s Office of General Counsel and its Office of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), because they feared retaliation.
The students “are all terrified of the consequences,” one of them said.
The university’s exoneration of its biology department comes even as new evidence has emerged about ingrained sexist attitudes among some of its faculty, including the distribution of a parody scientific paper at Baker’s retirement party heralding discoveries of a primate dubbed “Megalabia,” a crude reference to female genitalia (see sidebar.)
The Verge’s own investigation into charges of sexism at Texas Tech took place last year. Our inquiry began with allegations that Miguel Pinto, a researcher formerly at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, DC, had sexually assaulted a NMNH student. Pinto had done some of his graduate work in Baker’s lab, and had been disciplined in 2008 for sexual misconduct with an undergraduate while there. Zak, who was department chair at that time, let Pinto off with a verbal warning, and took no other action. (The NMNH later banned Pinto from working in its labs, shortly after The Verge’s report appeared. )
As a result of The Verge’s report, which included video excerpts of sexist remarks made at Baker’s retirement party, Texas Tech launched an investigation into three related issues: the allegations of sexism and sexual harassment against Baker; the overall claims of gender bias in the biology department; and the content of the video of Baker’s retirement party.
The university’s investigation almost completely exonerated both Baker and the department. A summary of the findings, posted on the biological sciences department website and attributed to Texas Tech’s president, Lawrence Schovanec, explained why. “The inquiry did not reveal any formal or informal allegations of a sexual nature against Dr. Baker,” the report concludes, “nor did anyone come forward with anecdotal information of inappropriate sexual conduct by Dr. Baker…” As for whether or not there was “an atmosphere of gender bias in the Biology Department,” the inquiry found in the negative other than “a very few remote isolated statements that were addressed at the time they were made..” The report did not elaborate on those episodes, nor did it make any mention of Densmore and his alleged parties.
The investigators did conclude that the remarks at the retirement party — by Chesser and a former Baker graduate student — were “inappropriate and offensive.” However, the investigators said, they “do not reflect an atmosphere of sexual bias in the Biology Department, nor do they reflect a pattern of inappropriate sexual bias, conduct, or attitudes by either Dr. Baker or the speakers on the video.”
Although students and faculty have known about these conclusions for months, Texas Tech officials only released the findings publicly on August 14th, after being made aware that The Verge planned to follow up on the first story. The university may have absolved the biology department and its faculty of wrongdoing, but as a result, new sources have emerged to testify to the department’s sexist history, as well as to the cavalier attitude with which they say the university has treated student concerns. Moreover, the grossly sexist “Megalabia” parody paper distributed at the retirement party was apparently ignored by the university investigation.
Though Texas Tech says its biology department doesn’t harbor sexist attitudes, plenty of current and former members of the department disagree. On October 29, for example, less than a week after the article’s publication, mammalogist Adam Ferguson, a former graduate student in the department who is now collection manager for mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, posted his own thoughts on his public Facebook page:
“There is not a mammalogist out there that does not know Baker treats female scientists differently than male scientists, despite what he and Chesser say in the article. Everyone at [Texas Tech] sure knew it, including male and female faculty and students, but, we all chose to ignore it or laugh it off.” Ferguson added that he “saw firsthand and spoke with several students about instances of inappropriate behavior, behavior that goes beyond back rubs and awkward hugs, but I chose to do nothing.”
Fisher-Phelps, the outgoing graduate student, describes her own experiences with Baker. “He liked to unnecessarily touch female graduate students, including myself,” she says. “I also saw him do this with female undergraduates. He also liked to talk about women in a sexual way. I was in a meeting with him and he started talking about this female scientist he knew. How gorgeous she was and how if she wore this red dress to a meeting with him, he knew that ‘it was on.’”
Another former graduate student, who asked not to be identified, recalls being at a scientific meeting with Baker and walking by him at one point. “He said, ‘Hello, big tits,’” she says. “He thought that was okay.” On other occasions, she says, Baker, who is married, would ask “When are you going to run away with me?”
This same former student describes the “hugs” that Baker was notorious for giving to both graduate and undergraduate females. “His motive was to press his body firmly against a female student, lingeringly, so he could feel her body more thoroughly. We all knew why he did it. It made women uncomfortable, but what are you going to do? Baker wielded much power in the circle of mammalogy and in the biological sciences department. You did not cross him.”
Baker, in an interview last year, denied all of the allegations concerning him, including charges that he hugged students in an inappropriate way. The Verge reached him again by telephone at his home in Lubbock, 10 days after the university posted the findings of the investigation on the biological sciences website. Baker said that no one at Texas Tech had yet told him that the investigators had exonerated him of wrongdoing. Asked to respond to the new round of allegations, Baker would not confirm nor deny that he had commented on the size of women’s breasts or deliberately pressed women’s bodies to his own. “I don’t know what to say,” he answered. Baker said that he was unaware that he had made women uncomfortable and “never tried to do that.” He insisted that he had “treated all the women equally” and “always tried to look out for them” and help them advance in their careers.
Beyond Baker, there’s also Densmore’s sex-themed Christmas parties, which both students and faculty attended. These allegedly involved exchanges of sex toys and other kinds of erotica. One former student describes the first time she attended. “I had the idea that it would be gifts that were maybe off-color or mildly sexual in a funny way, but it was really, really raunchy,” she says. Another former student says, “At first I felt privileged to be invited, but after a while it became very uncomfortable for me and other women I knew.“ She and others explained that the parties reinforced the sexist culture in the biological sciences department, which also included habitual posting of photos from Hustler, Playboy and other magazines by graduate students in biology halls and labs.
Although three individuals have now told The Verge that they attended the parties, Densmore denies that they took place. “I have had no ‘sex-themed’ parties at my home, nor have I attended any,” he says.
Meanwhile, on November 23rd a group of 16 Texas Tech biology faculty members sent an open letter to this reporter, expressing their unhappiness with the sexist remarks on the video. “The lighthearted portrayal of sexual harassment in this video is appalling and antithetical to our beliefs about how faculty should treat students or any other members of our community,” the faculty wrote. “The fact that the offensive statements were intended as jokes does not reduce their offensiveness.”
In an email accompanying the letter, Sean Rice, an evolutionary biologist who organized its preparation, suggested that more of the department’s 41 faculty members would have signed it but that “some members of the faculty, especially those without tenure, might reasonably feel uneasy about signing a statement of this sort.” (Only one of the biology department’s 11 women signed the letter.)
For its original story, many current and former students and faculty talked to The Verge about the long history of sexism in the biology department. But as the university’s inquiry got under way, it became clear that the investigators would have difficulty getting witnesses to talk to them. Early in the process, Texas Tech’s vice chancellor and general counsel, John Huffaker, contacted me, asking me to encourage my confidential sources to talk to his team. Although I agreed to post this request on my personal blog, I also pointed out that I could not in good conscience directly suggest to sources who feared retaliation that they put themselves in danger. Huffaker’s request is noted in the university’s public statement, along with an ambiguous comment suggesting that no one volunteered to be interviewed.
The email trail of the investigation’s progress raises serious questions about just how hard the investigators really tried to talk to potential witnesses. Although the university’s public statement claims that investigators sent “multiple requests” to “Biology Department faculty, staff, and graduate students to be interviewed as part of the inquiry,” students and faculty told The Verge that the requests were minimal and only came very late in the investigation. Thus on January 27th, Victor Mellinger, Texas Tech’s deputy general counsel, sent an email addressed to biology faculty and staff describing the investigation and asking anyone “who may have relevant information, or who may know someone having such information,” to either contact him or Charlotte Bingham of the university’s EEO Office no later than February 3rd. An identical email from Mellinger did not go out to the department’s graduate students until January 31st, with the same February 3rd deadline.
The grad students, who are the most important targets and witnesses of alleged sexual harassment, say they were given only three days to come forward. Moreover, students say, this January 31st email from Mellinger was the first time they were told that they could provide information confidentially. Although Mellinger’s email stated that a February 3rd deadline had been set “in order for us to complete the inquiry as quickly as possible,” it did not explain why the investigators were suddenly in such a hurry.
Nor is there any evidence that the investigators tried to contact former members of the department, including Baker’s students, even though the allegations included episodes that went back many years. Since the investigation was made public on August 14th, The Verge has spoken to several former graduate students, all easily reached at their current institutions. None had heard from investigators. “I was not contacted during the investigation,” said one former Baker student. “I didn’t even know there was one. I don’t recall anyone I know mentioning it either.”
But Huffaker insisted in an email to The Verge that the investigation “was done in an appropriate manner.” Huffaker contested the statement of the students that they were not made “aware of the possibility of talking to” the investigators before January 31st, insisting that they were “invited to provide information in the fall of 2016, and several comments were received in the fall.” Huffaker declined, however, to make emails or other documentation available that would back up this claim, despite being informed that The Verge was already in possession of a number of emails provided by both students and faculty. Huffaker also declined to answer questions about why former students in the department were not contacted, and questions about the Megalabia paper and whether the investigators had known about it. He did, however, say that his office was still interested in hearing from faculty, staff or students who had “concerns” about the biological sciences department.
By early April, the investigation was formally completed, and the administration presented the results to biology faculty in a meeting on April 6th. According to faculty present at the meeting, the results were similar to those reported in the public statement last week, with one addition: while the faculty were told that there was no evidence of serious misbehavior by Baker, the investigators did report that he was sometimes “too familiar” with female students and hugged them too often.
Several scientists present at the meeting pointed out the investigation wasn’t persuasive, says one faculty member who asked not to be identified. That’s because vulnerable students had not been given clear-cut promises of confidentiality or protection from retaliation — a concern the students themselves have expressed. Even when reassurances were offered, some students say, they were not believed. University officials were evasive when asked if and when the conclusions would be published, raising further doubts that the administration really wanted to get at the truth, say sources in the department.
Days later, the faculty was asked to hold a secret vote on whether Chesser should be reinstated. The results, announced to the faculty on April 12th, were 23-to-13 in favor of reinstatement, and Chesser resumed his duties as chair the following day. This came as a keen disappointment to those who felt that, as one faculty member put it, the video was “disqualifying.” (It also came as a surprise to many students, who found out when they received an email from the department hailing the “Good news!”) But he and some others speculate that many faculty did not want to have to search for a new chair, especially since Chesser had only recently been appointed to the post. In fact, faculty and student sources in the department told The Verge, Chesser’s suspension was actually a sham, as he reportedly continued to sign documents and work from the department chair’s office during most of the time that Zak was supposedly acting as interim chair.
Another faculty member, who asked not to be identified, says that some senior members of the department actively discouraged colleagues from speaking out about the video. “While many felt that the content of the video constituted a damaging statement about our department, others thought it was no big deal and would quickly blow over,” this researcher says.
Brent Lindquist, the dean of Texas Tech’s College of Arts and Sciences, who bore ultimate responsibility for signing off on Chesser’s reinstatement, told The Verge that “the offensive statements in the video do not reflect an atmosphere of sexual bias” in the biology department. Lindquist adds that he “discussed the inappropriateness of certain content in the video with Dr. Chesser to ensure this does not happen again” and that Chesser has since undergone training about discrimination and sexual harassment.
While the faculty were told about the investigation’s conclusions, students in the department were not. A month later, Zak, in response to questions from students, finally called a meeting for May 8th. He gave students a weekend’s notice and scheduled the meeting at the end of the day on a Monday, a time considered inconvenient by many. Nevertheless about 40 students attended. By all accounts it was not a happy occasion. “Dr. Zak made statements that downplayed the seriousness of sexual harassment and even said that sometimes in life we will encounter people with certain behavioral traits, and that we just need to learn to deal with them,” says Fisher-Phelps. She also described Zak’s apparent ignorance of the university’s sexual harassment reporting procedures, and his advice to take complaints to Chesser, Densmore, or himself. (Zak declined to be interviewed for this article, referring queries to the university’s communications manager.)
This account is backed up in detail by a second graduate student who attended the meeting, who asked not to be identified. This student adds that “most people displayed great dismay when they said there were no findings against Baker, that’s such obvious in-your-face bullshit.”
This same source also confirms that Zak did not tell the students about formal procedures in place at the university, such as Title IX of the US education code and the Texas Tech EEO office, that would bypass department faculty. And in an exchange that the students found particularly galling, Zak explained that sexual harassment training would now be required of everyone in the department, and that graduate students might be denied teaching or research assistantships if they failed to take it. But Fisher-Phelps says that when Zak was asked what the penalties would be for faculty who failed to undergo the training, “he laughed and said, well, maybe teach more classes? And laughed again. I and many other students were very upset at this seeming disregard for our concerns.”
Zak’s apparent lack of knowledge about the university’s obligations under Title IX to provide a safe space for students, faculty and employees to report harassment seems very surprising. “It is certainly concerning to hear that someone in a position of authority, leadership, or responsibility at a university would not be well versed in the way a school handles any issue involving sex discrimination, including sexual harassment,” says Anne Hedgepeth, the interim vice president of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women (AAUW.)
Hedgepeth adds that for a university leader to make light of sexual harassment is equally worrying. “The idea that sexual harassment or sex discrimination is not a big deal reflects really deep mores in our society, a very persistent environment that we see women scholars have to navigate.”
Sage Carson, project manager of the advocacy network Know Your IX, agrees. “The Department of Education says that employees should be trained about Title IX procedures,” Carson says. “We see an increase in the reporting of incidents when the policy and guidelines are clearly laid out.”
Last fall, while waiting to learn of his fate as department chair, Chesser wrote several letters to his fellow faculty members, apologizing for his comments in the video. Chesser reminded them of his own long and illustrious scientific career, and defended Baker as a major researcher who — as he put it in one letter — never treated his students “with anything but complete respect...” Chesser insisted that he did not intend his presentation in the video to be anything other than a “roast” of his colleague and not a representation of Baker’s own views.
Chesser repeated these sentiments in an email he sent to The Verge on August 14th. “I have been deeply sorry that my comments offended or embarrassed anyone other than Dr. Baker,” he wrote, adding that he “can guarantee it will not happen again.”
But the question remains: If Ronald Chesser’s sexist remarks at the retirement party did not reflect his own views, and if they did not reflect Robert Baker’s views, then whose views did they represent? If Chesser and the university are to be believed, sexism occurred without any sexists in sight. But that doesn’t jibe with the evidence accumulated over the last year, which suggests that sexism was rife in the Texas Tech biology department, especially among some of its most senior faculty. “Some women did survive the experience, and went on to do great things,” says one former graduate student who spent many years there. “But to a large extent, it was an old boys’ club.”
That might now be changing, as the university recruits younger faculty who are more committed to creating a welcoming environment for all students. The majority of the 16 scientists who signed the open letter criticizing the sexist remarks at Baker’s retirement party are from the biology department’s younger ranks. Unfortunately, however, the senior professors — including Chesser, Densmore, Bradley, Zak, and until recently, Baker (who still exerts considerable power in the field of mammalogy) — are still in charge.
Thus, it seems the university’s investigation was naïve and incompetent at best, and a clumsy attempt at a cover-up at worst. In light of a new round of allegations about sexism in its biology department, perhaps the university will finally sponsor a serious investigation — for example, involving an independent, outside contractor as some other institutions have done — that will really get at the truth. Only then will students and faculty be able to have confidence that Texas Tech is a safe place for men and women alike.