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student treatment ETH Zurich opens enquiry into professor bullying case

The Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich has announced that it is opening an independent administrative enquiry into allegations of bullying against two professors. Further action may yet be taken, the university said.

ETH Zurich is one of the world's top universities.


The allegations by several doctoral students, first made in February 2017, centre on 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 condescending requests and late-night badgering about minor issues. The alleged bullying ranges back more than ten years.

On Wednesday, the university, which had placed both professors on sabbatical while it investigates the matter, announced that an “external expert” will be brought in to carry out an administrative investigation.

“The alleged conduct falls well short of the standards we expect of our professors, and so we took swift action,” ETH Zurich President Lino Guzzella said in a statementexternal link. “The official enquiry allows us to take an even closer look at the facts and decide whether further measures still need to be taken.”

Splitting professorial couples

What these further measures may be is unclear. Steps taken so far, according to the press release, include a system to “protect doctoral students,” which involves close support of the professor in question if she is asked to supervise PhDs in the future.

The institute for astronomy was also definitively closed in August, the university said, and the couple split apart into separate professorships. “Nowadays such a pairing within the same institute would no longer be possible,” said ETH Zurich.

The university said that it will not comment further on the case until the enquiry is completed and submitted to the ETH board.

The case raises concerns that professors might enjoy too much power at Swiss universities, and has led to some academics demanding a reform of universities to restrict it. 

ETH Zurich is regularly ranked as one of the top ten universities in the world.

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