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Bullying allegations Open letter defends ETH professors

Cupla and main building of the ETH Zurich, regularly ranked as one of the world's best universities


Some of the colleagues of a professor couple facing bullying allegations at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich have written an open letter of support. The move comes as more allegations about one of the professors came to light in the media on Friday.

The Tages-Anzeiger reported on Friday that there was an emotional atmosphere at the ETH Zurich over the case, which involves an unnamed female professor who founded the university’s institute for astronomy along with her husband in 2002. According to the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, which broke the story last Sunday, the professor was accused of subjecting students to bullying over minor issues and expecting commitment that included late meetings and constant availability. The allegations were first made in February 2017, but are said to date back more than ten years.

On Wednesday, the ETH Zurich, which has placed both professors on sabbatical while it investigates the matter, announced that an external expert would be brought in to carry out an administrative investigation. The institute for astronomy was quietly closed in August and the professorships split, with the university saying that the double appointment at the same institute had not been “ideal”.

The Tages-Anzeiger provided more detailsexternal link of the alleged behaviour, saying they were “more serious than previously known”. This included personal attacks. One student is said to have suffered a nervous breakdown.

Open letter

The professor couple are not commenting on the situation, but several colleagues and former students have signed an open letter in their defence, both the Tages-Anzeiger and Science Magazineexternal link have reported. The letter says that the couple are leaders in the field and have “built an absolutely world class astronomical institute in less than a decade.” 

It defended the female professor as unusually dedicated to her students. “If at times she comes across as a relentless task master, this owes to her commitment to her students and desire to maximise their career chances,” said the text.

Some science colleagues have said that there are few women professors in the physics department at the ETH Zurich - just two among 50 - and that it is not easy for them in a male-dominated domain.  “If you want to get on in astronomy you have to be tough,” George Lake, director of the Institute for Computational Science at the University of Zurich, told the Tages-Anzeiger.

Professor Lake, who has signed the open letter, said the female professor in question had been able to assert herself, which has now come back as an accusation against her.

The patriarchal nature that was part of much of the science world was more at fault than the professor, he maintained.

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