ETH Zurich to fire astronomy professor over ‘unprofessional conduct’

14 Mar 2019 | News

Swiss university says it working on improving the quality of leadership and supervision. Since the start of the year, the main selection criteria when appointing professors are not only excellence in research and teaching, but also in leadership

More than two years after the initial complaints were made, ETH Zurich has submitted a request to its board to fire a professor in the former Institute for Astronomy over accusations of misconduct towards PhD students.

In February 2017 several doctoral students accused a female professor at the Institute of Astronomy of “inept management conduct towards students.” Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag said the allegations involved bullying of graduate students.

The students in question were assigned to another supervisor in March, and in August 2017 the university quietly dissolved the institute.

Following an investigation, in November 2018 a special committee at the university concluded termination was not necessarily justified from a legal perspective because the professor was not given a chance to improve her behaviour. It recommended 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, the executive board of ETH has now decided to ask for the professor to be dismissed, saying the supervision of doctoral students is one of the key duties of all ETH professors. The board believes the professor lacks any insight into the effects of her own behaviour, “and thus it sees no prospect of improvement.”

“On behalf of ETH, I would like to apologise to those affected by the unprofessional conduct of their supervisors,” ETH president Joël Mesot said in a press conference on Thursday. 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.”

To avoid similar cases in future, ETH Zurich said it will improve the quality of leadership and supervision at the university.

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 said.

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.

An investigation into alleged research misconduct by the same professor has now been concluded as well. The committee found no evidence of scientific misconduct.

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