California Institute of Technology students are protesting the return of a professor of theoretical astrophysics, Christian Ott, following his suspension for harassing two female graduate students, BuzzFeed News reported. A 2015 campus investigation found that Ott violated Caltech’s sexual harassment policies by engaging in “discriminatory and harassing behavior.” He allegedly became infatuated with one of the students, whom he then fired, and repeatedly expressed his romantic feelings to the other. Ott was originally suspended for nine months, but his leave was later extended through August of this year, and no public explanation has been given for the change, according to BuzzFeed.
Ott was preliminarily allowed back on campus last week to observe a thesis presentation by a graduate student, reportedly at the student’s request. In response, several dozen students staged a sit-in demonstration in the astronomy department Tuesday, displaying a sign saying, “To support a safe working and living environment for all members of the Caltech community. We support you. You are not alone.” Undergraduates also sent a letter to the university’s president, Thomas Rosenbaum, saying that to “continue delaying but not outright banning Ott’s return to campus puts all students at Caltech, but especially female graduate students, in a state of uncertainty and fear for the future.”
Ott did not respond to a request for comment. A university spokesperson said Caltech respects the right of all campus members to express their views and is “committed to keeping the community informed as this process moves forward.” Whether Ott returns to teaching has yet to be decided, she said. A committee will assess Ott’s “behavior and progress” during his suspension, Fiona Harrison, division chair for physics, math and astronomy, reportedly said in an email to faculty members this week.
“Top priority will be given to the welfare of our campus community,” Harrison wrote. “We also believe in the potential for rehabilitation and the idea that individuals have the right to demonstrate positive, persistent change in behavior.”
The protests at Caltech are similar in nature to those staged against the return of an alleged serial harasser of graduate students to the University of California, Los Angeles, earlier this year. Gabriel Piterberg, professor of history, was allowed to return to teaching but faced protesters inside and outside his classes at the beginning of the semester (earlier protests sought in vain to keep him from returning at all). Piterberg denied the misconduct but agreed to take a one-quarter suspension as part of a settlement that halted a campus investigation into one student’s claims. The university also settled with Piterberg’s two accusers, who sued the university for responding insufficiently to their claims of harassment. Piterberg upon his return canceled several class sessions as a result of the protests, and the university eventually said that he’d continue to teach but that videotaped lectures would be available to students who chose not to attend class.