At today’s press conference, ETH President Joël Mesot expressed regret that cases of unprofessional management had arisen at the university in the past. “On behalf of ETH, I would like to apologise to those affected by the unprofessional conduct of their supervisors,” Mesot said. ETH expects all members of its community to treat each other with respect – anything else is unacceptable.
Describing these incidents as merely the misconduct of individual professors, however, would be an oversimplification, Mesot said: ETH as an institution has also made mistakes. When concrete reports were made, escalation channels did not always operate efficiently and communication with the parties concerned was not always ideal during the subsequent proceedings. This is exactly what happened in the case of a professor at the former Institute for Astronomy. In October 2018, ETH Zurich acted upon the recommendation of an administrative investigation and
opened dismissal proceedings
. To this end, a special committee was set up to review whether termination was appropriate.
No longer a reliable basis for collaboration
Now the Executive Board of ETH Zurich has submitted a request to the ETH Board to terminate the employment relationship. This decision was made despite the special committee reaching the conclusion that termination was not necessarily justified from a legal perspective. The committee pointed out that the warning given to the professor came too late, leaving her no chance to improve her behaviour. But the committee also confirmed that the allegations contained in the investigatory report were mostly true, that the professor’s behaviour towards her doctoral students was unacceptable given the highly dependent relationship, and that she also showed a lack of insight and failed to understand that her behaviour constituted misconduct.
The committee therefore recommended that the professor should be closely monitored and should never again be allowed to supervise doctoral students, or at the very least for a minimum period of two years. However, because the supervision of doctoral students is one of the key duties of all ETH professors, and because the Executive Board believes the professor lacks any insight into the effects of her own behaviour – and thus it sees no prospect of improvement – the Executive Board believes there is no longer a reliable basis for trustworthy collaboration in future.
investigation into alleged research misconduct
by the same professor has now been concluded as well. The committee found no evidence of scientific misconduct.
ETH improves its structures and processes
ETH Zurich is making intense efforts to ensure that it prevents such escalations as much as possible in future. It has learned important lessons from recent experiences – and from the mistakes it has made in the past as an institution – and plans to improve its own processes and structures with a comprehensive package of measures. “Our professors should not only be the very best when it comes to research and lecturing, but also in leading their groups,” President Mesot stresses. “Most of them already are today. They appreciate that consistently excellent research is more achievable in a motivated and well managed group.” In future, ETH will provide even more intensive support for the professors in their role as supervisors.
The Executive Board sees the most urgent need for action in the areas of prevention and leadership, as well as in concrete steps to deal with conflict situations (see info box below). Special attention will be paid to the supervision of doctoral students. To reduce the structural dependency of the relationship between supervisors and doctoral students, the Executive Board has decided that in future students must be supervised by at least two people – a key element of the new package of improvement measures. In addition, ETH Rector Sarah Springman says that dialogue between doctoral students and their supervisors will be improved through regular feedback sessions, so that problems can be identified at an early stage and quickly resolved. “With these measures, along with others derived from best practices in our academic departments and other universities around the world, we will raise the supervision of doctoral students to a new level,” Springman says. Even so, the ETH Rector also stresses that such fundamental changes take time, but ETH is committed to consistently following this path.