ETH News: President Mesot, since you took office, there has been very little communication about the various cases of alleged management misconduct at the university. Why have you chosen today in particular
to make your first media appearance
In my role as the new ETH President, I wanted to get to know all the different areas and issues in the university as quickly as possible. This is because in principle I only want to speak about things I really understand. So, I originally set aside 100 days to form a clear picture before publicly presenting my impressions and setting out the strategic direction for the future development of our university. During countless discussions with my colleagues, however, I sensed the impact these negative stories were having on them. The headlines have clearly also affected the vast majority of ETH members who do an excellent job for the university on a daily basis. This opened my eyes to the fact that it was not just the public, but also ETH members, who expect answers from their President. I decided to call a press conference today because we have just reached an important decision we want to communicate – a decision which was not easy for us to make and which we knew would prompt additional questions. At the same time, I would like to use this opportunity to describe the measures ETH will be taking to improve the quality of its leadership and supervision of doctoral students.
The decision in question is the Executive Board’s request to the ETH Board to dismiss a professor. Why is this request being made, when the committee that the Executive Board formed to review the appropriateness of dismissal actually concluded that the professor’s employment should continue?
Let me briefly recap. As soon as the Executive Board learned about the incidents at the former Institute for Astronomy, it took immediate measures and 18 months ago launched a comprehensive administrative investigation. This investigation concluded that the professor in question was guilty of serious misconduct over an extended period. The external independent investigator recommended terminating the employment relationship. The Executive Board responded to this by deciding to appoint a committee – as required by law – to review whether dismissal was warranted and to provide me with a recommendation.
And this committee has now reached a different conclusion from the administrative investigation report.
The committee confirms that the allegations against the professor contained in the investigation report are mostly true and that her behaviour towards her doctoral students was unacceptable given their highly dependent relationship. In addition, the committee emphasised the fact that the professor showed a lack of understanding as to why her behaviour constituted misconduct. But yes, it does indeed arrive at a different conclusion: dismissal is not necessarily justified from a legal perspective. The committee points out that the warning came too late and so the professor did not have the chance to improve her behaviour.
So the professor doesn’t deserve a second chance?
In principle, I believe everyone should be allowed to make a mistake and also be given the chance to put things right. Personally, I would have liked that to happen in this particular case. But the professor displayed a complete lack of insight into her behaviour over the entire course of the proceedings, and even now does not see it as misconduct. In my opinion, this showed there was no longer any basis for trustworthy collaboration in the future.
This committee comprised professors from ETH and other universities. In your eyes, does the opinion of professors on this matter count less than the opinion of an external investigator?
Of course, the committee’s opinion is very important to me. I can understand their argument, but at the end of the day I come to a different conclusion. The supervision of doctoral students is one of the key tasks performed by our professors. So, if the committee now recommends suspending the professor from this task for at least two years, she will no longer be able to perform one of her main duties. As far as I am concerned, the professorial committee’s recommendation is therefore not a realistic option. As a result, the Executive Board has made the difficult decision to request that the ETH Board dismiss the professor. But this decision was a painful one, believe me. ETH has made mistakes as well. I wish that we had responded earlier, opened a dialogue with the professor many years ago, offered her support measures and given her a timely warning before things were left to escalate.
In another case involving a professor in the Department of Architecture who was accused of sexual harassment, ETH came to a different conclusion and decided not to go for the dismissal option. Why were these outcomes different?
It is impossible to compare the two cases. Nor is it true to say that ETH decided not to take any disciplinary measures. Before this could happen, the professor pre-empted potential sanctions by handing in his resignation after the investigation had been concluded. In my view, the professor displayed a type of behaviour that I find unacceptable and would not have tolerated. I want to encourage a climate at ETH Zurich in which everyone can develop and realise their full potential. There is no place for any form of harassment or disrespect here.
So, lessons need to be learned. What’s going wrong at ETH?
Additional cases of inappropriate behaviour or poor supervision have come to light in recent months. Something seems to have gone wrong in both these cases. Obviously the actual bad behaviour, on the one hand, but on the other hand also the fact that ETH as an institution has in the past failed to act quickly enough or has not provided adequate protection for those affected on both sides (accuser and accused). I am very sorry these people had to go through this, and I would like to apologise on behalf of ETH for these failings. Generally speaking, I see two key areas of action needed to prevent such cases in future, or at least minimise the damage that bad conduct can cause. First, more attention needs to be paid to leadership at ETH. We need to identify, tackle and resolve conflicts more quickly and more directly. Second, we need to overhaul the processes for dealing with reports from victims.
And what does that mean in concrete terms?
In the area of management, for example, we are already giving much more weight to leadership and social skills when assessing candidates, and we are expanding our range of leadership courses and coaching. But there is also a whole series of measures being implemented by the Rector to improve the supervision of doctoral students.
Can you give more details?
Currently, doctoral students at ETH are usually assessed by the same people who supervise them. This structure can lead to considerable dependency. In future we want everyone starting doctoral studies at ETH to have at least one other support person apart from their appointed dissertation supervisor, a solution that already works well in various departments. Involving additional people ensures that any conflict arising between the main supervisor and the doctoral student can be resolved swiftly. Generally speaking, I am convinced that many conflicts can also be prevented if both sides are clearer about their respective expectations. Managing these expectations is also one of the supervisor’s tasks.
And what measures do you plan for dealing with anyone reporting misconduct?
The way we deal with reports and complaints will be revamped and streamlined by the summer of 2019. The aim is to ensure that all reports are addressed immediately and, if possible, resolved within six months. At the same time, we will gradually expand our case management, turning it into a full team. This is meant to ensure that the right entities are involved, and the affected parties are kept informed about the current situation. Our reporting offices should find solutions as quickly as possible to bring an improvement of the situation for all parties concerned and prevent any further escalation of the conflict.
Researchers require a good deal of freedom to engage in cutting-edge research, and there is strong pressure to perform. Isn’t there a danger that ETH is overreacting with the planned measures and placing excessive limits on these freedoms – and hence the university’s strong performance culture?
Our measures are in no way intended to limit research freedoms. The freedoms enjoyed by our researchers are the key success factor at ETH. And our researchers are very responsible in the way they treat these freedoms. After all, despite all the public interest in these cases, we mustn’t forget that the overwhelming majority of our professors do a brilliant job to ensure that young talents can develop at ETH. I have no problem with an emphasis on performance, either. Completing a doctorate at one of the world’s top 10 universities absolutely requires a high level of performance. And cultivating this performance is a core professorial duty. We want to make sure we continue to focus on performance in future, but this needs to happen in a fair and respectful way. I expect fair play from everyone.