Wondering If I’m the Next Tim Hunt

14 Jun 2015

According to Yahoo News, Nobel Prize-winner Tim Hunt has lost “his position with the European Research Council science committee, his role at the Royal Society, and his honorary post at University College London.” This has happened because, at the World Conference of Science Journalists, he stupidly remarked that “girls” pose a problem in the lab because “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

On the one hand, I’m glad Hunt was called out. As I mentioned to my tweeps, twenty years ago I tried to call out a Nobel Prize-winner for his moronic sexist remarks, and got nowhere. This was at Indiana University around 1993 or so. As I recall it, Jim Watson had been invited to speak to health professional students—including many women—and a few of us getting our graduate degrees in History and Philosophy of Science had managed to score tickets.

I was primed to dislike Watson from his autobiography and especially from the way he had treated Rosalind Franklin. But I was still pretty shocked to hear him wander aimlessly through one blatantly sexist remark after another. He didn’t even seem to have the concept of a mature female colleague; he kept referring to all women in academia as “girls.” Then he moved on to talk about how his favorite day every year at Harvard was when they did the departmental picnic and the “girls” got up on some statue (I seem to recall it was a hippo?) and you could look up their skirts.

At this, I lost it, and screamed, “WE ARE NOT GIRLS.” There was a moment of silence in the auditorium, Watson mumbled something, and he moved on. The Midwesterners told me afterwards I’d been rude to a Nobel Laureate. My own mentors, when I told them about it, said I should have expected no more of Watson, and that that was why they hadn’t bothered to attend.

So when I heard Hunt had been called out, I felt a little bit of vindication twenty-some years later. People no longer put up with this shit. In fact, one of the science reporters who was there and who bothered to get a quick record of what people heard was a man—Ivan Oransky (a guy I already respected)—which suggested to me that even men now are startled and appalled by such sexist remarks.

At the same time, I’m disturbed by where this went. Losing multiple positions over one dumb set of remarks?

The mob that thinks this is a good idea seems to be composed largely of people I generally respect: feminist, pro-science, publicly-engaged. But I feel like they’re not thinking about this clearly.

Let me admit my biases here: The last couple of months have been rough for me. In just the last couple of weeks I published two articles that pissed off a whole lot of people on the science-y left, including one for WIRED on gender nonconforming children, and another for New Statesman on vaccine politics. These have each generated a number of calls for my head from people on the pro-science left.

In addition, as you may have heard, I live-tweeted my son’s sex ed class, and with no warning that went internationally viral. (If somehow you haven’t heard about that, you can read what happened through my articles in The Stranger and The Guardian.) That was not exactly a pleasant experience, and I quickly got the sense my medical school’s administration was none too happy to have their institutional name on the front page of the Washington Post in this raucous sex ed context.

I’m sure it didn’t help that I’m already on the outs with my medical school’s administration because they censored some of my work for fourteen months and the censorship only ended it a few weeks ago when I told them I was going to go public about it.

I edited the 2014 issue of Atrium, our program’s magazine, on the theme of “Bad Girls.” (See the PDF.) In March, 2014, the dean discovered the piece I edited and published in the issue, by the cultural anthropologist Bill Peace, about a rehab nurse giving Peace oral sex in 1978 at the age of 18 when he was newly paralyzed and wondering if his sexuality had ended. When the dean saw Peace’s article, our medical school had just merged with the hospital, and the dean was worried about Peace’s article sullying the hospital brand. The order came down to pull the issue offline, and my worried department mates did just that.

I first tried waiting patiently for restoration. Then I tried talking to the university PR people who know me well (I’ve worked with them for years). Then I tried telling off the dean’s office. Finally, the day after the sex ed class, I appealed to my provost, the chief academic officer of our university. I told them all how particularly ridiculous it was to put me in this position when I had a new major book out on academic freedom. Did they expect me to be a hypocrite?

Nothing happened—except that in the midst of all this, our university president co-authored an article in the Wall Street Journal about how much he believes in academic freedom.  Oh, and while in New York I had breakfast with Laura Kipnis and got to hear about the Title IX trial she was being put through at the same time I was struggling to get “Bad Girls” restored. (This was before she went public and Geof Stone wrote for HuffPo about our cases are two points in a scary line.)

Only when my medical school administration got scared of my going public, in May of this year, did they allow the censorship of Peace’s article and the “Bad Girls” issue to end. And in spite of The FIRE writing an outraged letter on my behalf to my university, Northwestern’s administrators have not responded. They have given no indication that they understand that the censorship was wrong. In fact, the email from the dean’s office, after I said I had had it with the censorship and was going public with Bill Peace, said only this: “At the current time we have no objection to [the program] reposting the prior published Atrium issues on the humanities and bioethics website.”  

In other words, they may yet censor it again.

If Northwestern decides to get rid of me, it will be easy for them to do so. I’m on a one-year contract that ends at the end of August. It’s a part-time gig. (As I explain in my book, I gave up tenure and went part time in 2004, in part to do more interesting work.) They won’t need to give any reason for ending my job, really. Budgetary shifts; personnel changes; blah blah. The truth is, it won’t be because I haven’t done a stellar job for Northwestern on a 20% FTE. I have. It’ll be because what I’m saying is off-brand and might offend somebody.

See, in my world, the fear of offending someone is reason enough to forget about academic freedom.

In the last twenty-four hours, I’ve been asking myself an interesting question: What if Hunt’s remarks, rather than being purely glib sexist stupidity, actually did represent an ideology he held? What if he genuinely believed that females are bad for science?

Would we then worry a little more about academic freedom—about his right to hold an unpopular view and still be a member of the academic community?

You know what? It’s easy to want to protect the people you agree with.

Here’s what some university down the road from mine has formally decided:

“Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

I want to work at a place like that. I’ll bet Tim Hunt does, too.