Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Obscene Phone Calls and Emails

Today’s guest blogger is Maura McLaughlin. Maura has been a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University since 2006. She received her PhD from Cornell University in 2001 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory for five years before coming to WVU. She is a Cottrell Scholar, a Sloan Fellow, and serves as Co-Director of a recently awarded NSF Physics Frontiers Center.
I’ve been dealing with sexual harassment via phone calls and email by an astronomer, and I believe this originated with a colloquium that I gave in the spring. The harassment continued for months, culminating in me reporting it to his university, but no evidence was found and the case was dismissed. I remain incredibly frustrated, and also scared, and hope that by writing this post I might identify others who are victims of harassment by this same person. I have provided a lot of detail in this post, as I think it will be helpful, but have not included the name of the university or astronomer who I believe is responsible, as I know these allegations carry serious repercussions.

The months-long incident started when I gave a colloquium this past spring. After the colloquium, one of the several people who approached me with questions (I’ll call him "X") asked if we could meet later on to discuss my research. I agreed and suggested that he sign up for a slot in my official meeting schedule, as there were several still available for that afternoon. X said that he'd rather meet up informally, and requested my cell phone number. I told him that it wasn’t necessary, as I'd be in the visitor office from 4-6 pm and he could stop by anytime. X said something like "Yes but it would just make me feel better if I could check and make sure you were there" and for some reason (I suppose because he’s an astronomer at a prestigious university and it’s a work-related interest) I agreed and gave him my cell number.

He texted me at 4:30 or so to make sure I was actually in the visitor’s office, I of course texted back in the affirmative, and he showed up for a meeting at 5 or so. We talked for an hour. He demonstrated some odd behavior (he was barefoot, sat a bit close, and took over my laptop for brief stretches) but no alarm bells went off for me and it was generally a pleasant interaction. He asked if he could join our collaboration and attend our meetings, and I encouraged him to email me with his interests and we would discuss further over email.

That evening I had a lovely dinner with other faculty (not including X), got back to my room around 9 pm, set my alarm for 3 am (as I had a ridiculously early flight home), and crashed. Between midnight and 1 am my phone rang and I clumsily answered to a strange and menacing computer-generated voice (or perhaps a real voice put through a voice synthesizer) shouting the same sexually explicit directive (involving male genitalia) at me over and over and over. I immediately hung up, of course, and received two more calls after that initial one, both repeating the same thing. The calls came from Google voice so were anonymous.

I didn’t sleep much as it was disconcerting to get those calls, especially in an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar city. The next day on the flight back home, I thought about who could have made the calls. I had never one received a call like this on my cell phone; in fact I’d never received any spam call about anything in nine years of having my current number. And the call came just hours after someone who didn't really need my phone number requested my phone number. I hadn’t given my number to anyone else at University Y aside from the colloquium organizer. Therefore, I was really pretty certain it was X.

I felt incredibly violated, sick to my stomach really, that this could have happened due to participation in any academic enterprise. The next week, I thought about calling X's supervisor or calling someone at his University (let’s call it "Y"). However, I didn't know his supervisor well and it would undoubtedly be an awkward conversation. Plus, I had no absolute proof that the call was from X. What if I wrongly accused someone, when it just happened to be a wrong number or strange coincidence? I also had a huge number of work-related things to get done that week and frankly didn’t have the time to deal with the hassle of reporting it. In the end, I decided that the best thing to do would be to just forget about it and hope that it didn't happen again.

Unfortunately, however, it did happen again. The calls continued, intermittently, at exactly the same time and from the Google voice number. The one other time I picked up, there was another creepy voice (not the same as the first but equally menacing sounding) repeating a different, but similarly sexually explicit directive (this time involving female genitalia). Again the pattern continued with several repeated phone calls that evening (but I didn’t pick up the phone except for that first time). I also received calls from Google voice on my work phone at the same time as the home calls and the email.

The next morning, after this call, I checked my email and found one in my inbox titled "Richard Lovelace claims: New msec magnetar discovered in galactic halo!"

This title, though a bit strange, is right in my line of work, and the email promised "PDS and timing properties of xray emission". The email was from Bjork Raz (, an address I didn’t recognize. But because of the astronomical subject matter, I clicked on the link in the email anyway. It directed to a threatening pornographic video (involving male genitalia). The time on the email was exactly the same time as the phone calls the night before (within minutes). This made it clear that the person making the phone calls was an astronomer (I doubt that there is generic pornographic spam circulating with magnetars in the subject line), and strengthened my suspicion that it was X. (FWIW, I’ve never received any follow-up work-related email or call from X).

I posted something about the email in a pulsar-related facebook group the following week, asking if anyone else received this same spam. (I hoped that maybe this is something widespread and not crafted especially for me). No one replied that they had, but a friend responded suggesting that I go to the police about the situation. The thought of going to the police had honestly never occurred to me, but she was adamant and also shared a similar experience. I deleted the facebook post shortly after, as I became worried that X would see it (or someone would tell him about it) and have a chance to remove evidence of the harassment. Emboldened, I decided to contact someone at University Y about the situation.

I first emailed X’s immediate supervisor to set up a phone call - unfortunately he was away but we set up a phone conversation for the following week. I wanted to give him a heads-up, but I knew I'd lose my nerve if I didn't contact someone else at University Y right away. Therefore, on the same day I also contacted University Y's Title IX office, which directed me to another office dealing with sexual harassment. I spoke with a woman in that office who was very helpful and understanding; it was cathartic to tell the story to someone, in person, and have it taken seriously, She promised that University Y would do a full investigation into the allegations.

I emailed her the information about the times of phone calls and I forwarded the sexually explicit email I received. She said they would attempt to trace the email. I did also eventually talk to X’s supervisor when he returned to campus and explained the situation. He was very receptive and helpful and promised to support an investigation.

Three weeks after I provided the information, University Y approached X and asked him whether he was guilty of the calls and emails; he denied any contact with me. They seized his laptop and searched it. They sent me an email that stated that they "found no evidence to support any communications to your cell phone nor did they find any evidence of the Google voice mail number you identified. At this time we are concluding our investigation." (The Google voice mail statement makes no sense to me as any call from Google will originate from that number). There were no details given about the search and there was no mention of the email sent by X to me and whether they were able to trace it or to identify other Gmail accounts on his laptop. The email I received about the conclusion of the investigation was from the investigator who interviewed X and cc’ed three others (the person I’d initially discussed the situation with, X’s supervisor, and another member of X’s department). The investigator did also call and leave me a voice mail message about the conclusion of the investigation. I emailed back expressing disappointment and the hope that they would have traced the emails or phone, but I never received any additional communication from the investigator or the other three people cc’ed on the email, including anyone in X’s department.

I am left with many mixed emotions. I feel embarrassed that I went to the trouble of reporting this (it was incredibly difficult for me to make that initial call). I am also frustrated that the investigation was concluded so quickly. I’ve not gone to the police, mostly because I just don’t know if I can go through this process again with no resolution. The calls have not stopped; the most recent one, just this past weekend, differed from previous ones in that the harasser left me an explicit voice mail message, similar to the others, even though I did not pick up. Clearly, if the harasser is X, the investigation itself (in which X was given my name) was not enough to stop the harassment. It would be easiest to simply let the incident go, but I am terrified to visit University Y again. Even if the harasser is not X, I know it is an astronomer and it seems likely that it is an astronomer at University Y since the first call was received on the evening of my visit there. I am also nervous about attending astronomy meetings anywhere if there's a possibility that X might be there. I’m even hesitant to go to a meeting in the same city or area as X lives. At the same time, there remains a possibility that the perpetrator is not X, nor anyone at University Y, but another astronomer from a different institution, which makes me even more nervous as I’ve therefore no clue who it could be.

Please contact me and let me know if you have received calls or emails similar to what I described. I would be very surprised if I was the only victim of this harasser and hope that if enough people have experienced this we can determine who is responsible so that this does not continue to happen.