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In the spotlight ETH Zurich acts over bullying

main building of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH, in Zurich

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is one of the world's leading institutions

(© Keystone / Christian Beutler)

Switzerland’s leading university, the federal technology institute ETH Zurich, has moved to dismiss a professor accused of bullying and pledged wide-ranging measures to tackle the issue.

The unnamed female professor, who founded the university’s former Institute for Astronomy with her husband, had been accused of subjecting students to bullying behaviour over a period of years. 

On Thursday, at a specially-arranged press conferenceexternal link, new ETH President Joël Mesot admitted that mistakes had been made in the past over the handling of such cases. “On behalf of ETH, I would like to apologise to those affected by the unprofessional conduct of their supervisors,” Mesot told a room full of reporters.

The ETH Zurich expects its community to treat each other with respect, and anything else is unacceptable, he said.

Move towards dismissal

The university has submitted a request to the ETH Board (its governance organ) to terminate the professor’s employment - for the first time in its history. 

The move comes despite the fact that a special committee set up to review whether the dismissal was appropriate had recommended against it, It said that a dismissal was not necessarily legally justified and recommended not allowing the professor to supervise doctoral students for at least two years.

However, because the supervision of doctoral students is a key duty of ETH professors and because the ETH does not see prospects for improvement in the professor’s attitude, Mesot and his management colleagues at the ETH Zurich decided otherwise.

“The decision was not only difficult, but also rather sad,” Mesot conceded. The professor’s research was internationally acclaimed but not allowing her to supervise doctoral students would have made it impossible to continue research at this level, he said.

The professor’s husband remains at the university, officials said.

Changes made

The highly-ranked institutionexternal link has recently been hit by several cases of bullying or misconduct allegations. In January it was announcedexternal link that a professor in the architecture department had been cleared of a sexual harassment allegation but was in breach of the university’s compliance guide. The professor decided to leave the university.

+ Read more about a student poll on bullying

To avoid such cases escalating in the future, the ETH Zurich announced further measures on Thursday.

They include changes to how doctoral students are supervised. By 2020, students must be supervised by at least two people, to “reduce the structural dependency of the relationship between supervisors and doctoral students”.

Rector Sarah Springman said there would be regular feedback sessions between doctoral students and supervisors to detect and address problems early on. This would raise supervision “to a new level”.

Model for others?

There will also be a leadership programme for professors to improve leadership skills which includes coaching for academics. A presentation of the coaching plan has already been given to other Swiss universities, so discussions are taking place at a nationwide level, Mesot said in response to a swissinfo.ch question at the conference.

Some of the measures announced on Thursday are already in place at other universities globally, but the ETH is “going a bit further” in areas, he added.

The university’s handling of conflict situations is being stepped up by increasing the number of ombudspersons and trusted intermediaries and, in future, by having a specialised office for reports of sexual harassment. The process for dealing with reports and complaints will be revised and streamlined by the summer.

Update: on March 29 the ETH Board said that it had discussed the dismissal requestexternal link and would have a hearing of the professor involved. It said it would have the reproaches that have been made, also in the media, concerning governance, the distribution of financial resources and gender equality at the ETH Zurich reviewed extramurally.

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