Press "Enter" to skip to content

National academy president breaks her silence on ejecting sexual harassers

Marcia McNutt

Stephen Voss

By Meredith Wadman

It has been 7 months since the presidents of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in Washington, D.C., announced they had “begun a dialogue” about the standards of professional conduct required for membership in their exclusive ranks. In plainer terms, the three presidents of the prestigious academies—whose members are elected by existing members—were telegraphing their intention to try to find a way to expel proven sexual harassers and those found guilty of other kinds of misconduct. We “take this issue very seriously,” they wrote.

Membership in the academies is a lifetime honor, and the current bylaws of all three make no provision for ejecting members. But in April, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., was rocked by allegations that cancer scientist Inder Verma, a longtime member, had a long record of sexual harassment. The NASEM presidents’ statement followed in May. But it did not satisfy those pressing for change.

“It’s staggering that they continue to refuse to make clear if there will be consequences for misconduct, including sexual harassment,” Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, a San Francisco, California–based nonprofit that advocates for junior researchers, tweeted on 22 May, the day the presidents’ statement was released. “This statement does not say action will be taken, only that they will ‘re-examine’ their policies.”

Since then, NASEM has said little about the actions it is taking to expel harassers, although in June it issued a groundbreaking report showing that large numbers of women at all levels experience sexual harassment across the sciences. But the circumspection has not been for want of activity, according to NAS President Marcia McNutt, who broke her silence earlier this week in an interview with ScienceInsider.

Her remarks have been condensed for brevity and clarity.

Q: It was in May that you three NASEM presidents said you were looking into ejecting harassers. What has happened since?

A: The report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine came out in June. And that report was truly a watershed moment. I divide the timeline into two eras, BR and AR: before report and after report. Before the report came out, I was hearing things like: “Aren’t things getting better for women? Aren’t some of these problems in the past?” Or: “Yes, maybe there are still problems but aren’t these personnel problems or personal problems? … We are a PROFESSIONAL organization so we should concentrate on professional matters.”

After the report … I have even had women who actually prided themselves on being fairly knowledgeable on women’s issues who said to me: “I was surprised by that data in that report and in not a good way.” [The report makes clear] that this is not something in the past. And that this is not a minor issue. This is a major issue. And it’s happening to a lot of people. So the report comes out in June. The next meeting of the NAS [governing] council is in August. The council says: “OK, before we can say we are going to be able to remove them we have to say what the standards are for their conduct.” We quickly drafted a code of conduct. We got together with National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering and we harmonized the draft across the three academies.

[Since then] I have been going around the country, talking to members at regional meetings about the possibility of changing the NAS bylaws to remove members. And the response … has actually been quite positive. The appetite for the membership to really do the right thing, I have just been so energized by it. Especially when [they are] presented with evidence.

Q: What’s next?

A: We are putting together right now regional meetings in the [Washington], D.C., area and in Irvine, California, [hopefully in January 2019] that will focus just on the bylaw issue. Because by our [6] February [2019] council meeting we want to be able to have a good idea of what we want to draft into this bylaw.

Q: Are you on track to propose a bylaw change at the NASEM annual meeting in late April 2019?

A: Based on the meetings we have had to date, we see enough support that we are optimistic that should the remainder of the regional meetings be equally supportive that we think we could propose one. It’s an aggressive schedule … [but the] council’s goal and attempt is to do that.

Q: What would the bylaw change look like?

A: That’s what we would hope to work out. It has not taken full shape yet. But it would be providing the opportunity to remove a member under some sort of limited circumstances that would require some kind of process.

Q: So in the case of a proven harasser, will you require a vote on this particular person’s ejection before the full membership? Or will you put to the membership a process by which the council is able to assess the evidence and decide on ejection?

A: I’m not sure what I am foreseeing right now. The bylaws only allow for people to come into the academies and leave by dying or becoming emeritus [or resigning]. We need a change to the bylaws that would allow us some process for actually removing them, connected to … our code of conduct. Exactly how it would connect is undecided, but will be worked out in the next 2 months or so. I’m hoping it will be something the members will agree to and will think is fair. For example, it will have to have some kind of standards of evidence. Because I am sure the members will feel more comfortable about it if they feel there is no chance of it being politicized. … There is the concern that a small cabal could potentially distort the process for nefarious purposes if there are not the checks and balances in place.

Q: What do you say to a 25-year-old  graduate student who is being harassed by her principal investigator and is completely in his power and feels trapped. And she is asking: Academies, why aren’t you doing this now?

A: The academy really does care. … We definitely want to practice what we preach. We want to set the highest standards. We want to make sure that we are … that beacon for her and for the rest of the country. … The way we can do that is first of all by making sure that we have got our own house in order. … I know people feel like it has taken us a while to get here, but the important thing is we have to get the members on board.

Q: NAS’s 2352 members are 83% male and the average age of a member is 72. Are you nonetheless encouraged that the members will vote something through?

A: Yes. I am. I have been so encouraged by the degree to which so many of the—it’s not just the women in the academy … but so many of the men in the academy, too. They really care about their students. They care about their postdocs. They care about the academy’s reputation as well. And they see this as the academy’s obligation to be a leader.

Source: Science Mag