Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Setting a higher standard

There has been a lot written lately, on this blog and elsewhere, about bad behavior in astronomy and other professions. The human cost is terrible, and responsible scientists should not ignore them, even if they are not directly affected. The blog entries below about sexual harassment, and many of the responses are heart-breaking. And these are just the tip of an iceberg -- much more abuse and suffering is unreported than reported.

Having been head of a large physics department, and now as a university-wide equity officer, I have a lot of data indicating that in its prevalence of people problems Astronomy is not unusual among academic disciplines, nor among professions in general. I've concluded that theoretical astrophysics is much easier than optimizing the success of a talented group of people in an organization. Physicists solve easy problems using idealized models. A different set of skills is needed to solve real-world problems involving real people.

I have a lot of thoughts, a few recommended actions, but no master equation solve the problems preventing people from achieving their potential. Here are a few suggestions.

1. Care. One of my favorite quotes comes from President Theodore Roosevelt: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." The fact that you are reading this suggests that you do care; if so, please share it with someone else.

2. Assess. Astronomers live on data. Do a climate assessment in your organization to measure the experience and satisfaction of all people, and be sure to do it in a way that gives safety to everyone. There are probably people in your organization who are afraid to speak up. Maybe you're one of them. Find a way to express yourself anonymously in a way that the leadership will hear. Requesting a CSWA Site Visit is one possible way.

3. Lead. Leadership is first about being accountable to yourself, and then being accountable to others. Every faculty member is a leader, whether they acknowledge it or not. (I've often heard faculty say they don't want to become a leader, when what they really mean is they don't want to be a manager. There is a difference.) Indeed, leadership is not a function of rank or role; I've known many students and support staff who are outstanding leaders.

Department leadership (in a university, or in any segmented organization) is especially important, because culture and climate are local. It is therefore discouraging how little preparation is given to department heads and others who fill roles that call for genuine leadership.

Academia is unusual among the professions in having a set of highly privileged actors -- tenured faculty members -- who have great freedom in their actions. If that privilege is not balanced by responsibility and accountability, harm can result. Academic freedom does not convey the right to harm others.

In academia these privileged actors often feel a stronger affiliation with their colleagues elsewhere than at their home institution. After all, tenure, grants, awards, and status are conveyed in large measure by one's professional colleagues in an academic discipline. Weak tenure letters will not lead to a successful case no matter how much one's department colleagues love a faculty member. In effect, academic disciplines set the standards for admission to their practice.

This fact means it is not easy for an astronomer, say, to influence faculty behavior in a department of engineering, law, or medicine, just as it is not easy for a member of one of those fields -- even a Dean or Provost -- to influence faculty behavior in an astronomy department.

How, then, are we to improve the experience of astronomers? The answer seems clear. The astronomy community needs to enter the accountability chain of leadership. That is why it is so important that the AAS has an Anti-Harassment Policy. But it is not enough for the policy to be enforced at AAS meetings; AAS members should not adopt one set of standards for AAS meetings and different ones in other professional settings.

Recently I attended a workshop on abrasive conduct in higher education that was attended by ombudspeople, HR officers, legal counsels and a few university administrators. One of the themes that we discussed was the need to redefine academic success to include conduct, not just individual achievement. This is definitely counter-cultural in academia, where the tenure system focuses almost exclusively on individual achievement. I believe this is a place where professional societies can, and do, play a helpful role.

Although Astronomy is not unusual among professions in terms of its frequency of behavioral challenges, I am proud that it is among the more active disciplines in terms of setting higher standards. The work of the AAS Council and Committees, including CSWA, is helpful in this regard. More can be done, and I hope that the community will continue on calling for higher standards of accountability and professionalism in all settings.

[The image above is taken from the CSWA banner, where it is described as one showing  men and women astronomers interacting collegially. It is from the AAS Congressional Visits Day 2010.]