The following post is included in order to encourage the astronomy community to think about professional behavior and the importance of proper protocol in our professional activities. The content is verbatim from the letter that I sent to the IAU Executive Committee and the Steering Committee of Commission C. The response from the IAU General Secretary follows.
Communications with the President of Commission C will follow in another post.
–Dr. Stephanie Slater
December 29, 2015
To the Division C Steering Committee and other relevant parties:
I am writing to formally register my deep concerns related to the operating protocols of Division C of the IAU. I am a new member of the IAU and of the Theory and Methods in Astronomy Education Working Group, affiliations that I entered into with reasonable expectations as to the orderliness and ethical operation of the Division. However, in the short period since the official inception of our Working Group, I have observed irregularities that I believe constitute significant lapses of ethical, professional conduct, and a significant deviation from the protocols expected by most IAU members. These instances include a self-organized “investigation” of IAU members by Division C Steering Committee members, improper handling of confidential documents by Division C Officers, and verifiably false accusations of sexual predation made by Division C Officers. I set out my formal complaints, and my request for action, below.
Foremost, it has come to my attention that at least two officers of the Division C Steering Committee (e.g., Division Officers Pamela Gay and Beatriz Garcia) appear to have self-organized investigations of the activities of members of the IAU, and have disseminated their “evidence” to the membership of the IAU, using this supposed evidence as a call for action against another IAU and Division C member. They have publicly released their investigative activities against one member at this time; it is unclear if they have been engaging in other unpublicized investigations. It is my belief that they engaged in these secret investigations without any authority by IAU procedure or designation, and in direct conflict with the work of the bodies that do have authority. Dr. Gay, Dr. Garcia, nor any other member of the Division C steering committee have any formal training in the collection of investigative data, or in the analysis of such data. They further have not established agreed upon guidelines for what would constitute a “violation.” Without authority, expertise or established procedures, their activities make a mockery of due process.
I do not believe that their actions have been in keeping with the prevailing protocols or philosophy of the IAU or of its membership. Instead, it appears to me to be the act of a few who took on far more than their delegated authority to come to a decision that they appear to have made before due process began. While evidence provided by members of the community lead me to believe that Dr. Gay instigated this event, I cannot absolve Dr. Garcia. As a long-standing member of the IAU and as a professional who has taken on a formal leadership role within the IAU, she was well aware that this action was beyond her authority. Perhaps more seriously, as Commission President, Dr. Garcia disseminated a letter related to this “investigation” that included the signatures of other members of the Commission. Communications with those members indicates that they were not aware of the content of the letter, or simply do not agree with the content of the letter as drafted by Dr. Garcia, and they have asked to have their signatures removed. This is a serious abuse of a leadership position on Dr. Garcia’s part.
While this particular violation made opportunistic use of the community’s current obsession with all things related to sex and gender, Dr. Gay, Dr. Garcia and others like them, could just as easily use such tactics to “investigate” members’ professional behaviors related to funding, proposals, or publications. I do not desire to be a member of an organization that explicitly or tacitly condones such activities free of ethics or reasonable due process, and I believe most members of the IAU would agree. Consequently, this behavior on the part of Dr. Garcia and Dr. Gay must be addressed by the Division C Steering Committee in order to clarify the IAU’s position on allowing secret investigations of other members of the Union, and the IAU’s role in determining and enforcing behavioral norms across its 74-nation membership. Indeed, the IAU should determine if it has such a role at all.
More troubling, according to her own statement, Dr. Gay accessed files that are sealed and confidential, in direct contradiction to the adjudicative decision of the legally authoritative bodies, and offered to disseminate parts of these sealed and confidential files to other members of our community. Again, Dr. Gay’s actions, encouraged by Dr. Garcia, are starkly at odds with international norms for professional conduct, and are directly at odds with her professional responsibility to properly manage the confidential records and files of the Division to which she has access as an officer of the Division C Steering Committee.
I cannot conceive of any way in which one could rationally argue that Dr. Gay or Dr. Garcia were unaware of the inappropriateness of these actions. In the case of Dr. Gay, she has been through formal training on the proper handling of confidential files in the USA, which is her home nation, the home nation of the authoritative bodies, and the source of these confidential documents. Given this training, which I have also completed, there can be no doubt that she knew she was violating the adjudicated decision of a sovereign agency from within the USA. It is unclear to me that Dr Garcia has been through such training as she is not a citizen of the USA or employed by an organisation answerable to its laws and statutes. However, given that virtually every aspect of our professional work depends upon confidentiality, it is certain that she understands the concept of a file being “sealed and confidential”.
To access and read files that the authoring body specifically determined should not be in one’s possession is unethical and corrupt. To deliberately disseminate the contents to others who should not possess these files, as Dr. Gay did, is beyond unconscionable. Members, including Dr. Garcia, who were willing to accept such files or approve of their dissemination knowing that they are confidential, are equally guilty of ethical misbehavior.
I cannot understand how this would be acceptable to members of the Commission, the Division, or the IAU, and I question how anyone could feel confident that their proposals or research can be competently and professionally managed within the Division, when the Secretary of the Division C Steering Committee does not adhere to the most fundamental document management protocols. The President of a Commission must also be trusted to view and manage confidential documents, such as proposals for working groups, symposia, and focus meetings. These are competitive proposals that are submitted and evaluated under the assumption of confidentiality. The Division cannot function with Officers who engage in the inappropriate handling and dissemination of such documents. This untenable situation must be addressed and rectified by the Steering Committee.
In the interim, the work that I have done within the scope of the Working Group on Astronomy Education Theory and Methods involves collaborations with members of the Division on a project that fulfills one of the two primary tasks of the Working Group, and which has involved the sharing of pre-publication papers. This work was conducted within the Division in the belief that standard protocols related to the handling of confidential documents would be observed. This work is grounded in my intellectual work, and more importantly, the intellectual work of my graduate students. Given the disrespectful attitudes related to confidentiality demonstrated by these Division Officers, I believe I must take two actions in order to protect the intellectual work of these students. The first is to suspend collaboration on this work with members of the Division while the Division clarifies procedures with regard to access to information and proposals that should not be shared. The second action is to call upon the Division C Steering Committee and the IAU leadership to prohibit these Officers from disseminating or replicating these students’ hard-earned intellectual work, and to treat replication of this work by these Officers or their colleagues, as serious academic misconduct.
These are my professional judgments related to organizational structure and ethical professional behavior. More personally, this particular group’s dalliances in, perspectives on, and lack of employment of intellectual integrity or honesty, related to purported sexual aggression in the field, are deeply offensive. Engaging in such delicate matters requires a dedication to rigorous judgment and sensitivity. Anything less allows abuse of the system by those who have no other pathway to mollify themselves, or to enhance their own career prospects. Such behaviors diminish our capacity to protect those who need protection, and draws us into a situation in which logic is irrelevant, evidence is cosmetic and the accusers indulge themselves in their ill-gotten rewards. In this case, by languorously encouraging the production and analysis of “evidence”, this group arrived at an irrational place where, among other things, it was stated that I personally engaged in sexual predation at the most recent meeting of the IAU — a meeting at which I spent every possible free moment vacationing with my grandchildren. This is absolutely disgusting.
If a man had dared to discuss the exposure of my body parts, my sexual activities, or had even suggested that I use research as a tool of vengeance and a means for a “power play,” as Dr. Gay did in multiple emails to Working Group members, we would be calling for immediate removal from office. These false accusations are not suddenly tolerable because Dr. Gay is a woman. Her behavior, egged on by Dr Garcia’s purported encouragement to provide additional “evidence” to committee members is outrageous and highly offensive. It is the worst kind of woman-on-woman aggression, and yet less offensive to me, and to my graduate students, than other aspects of the way this situation has unfolded.
Given the personal nature of our experiences with sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, we have little tolerance for individuals who fail to comprehend the role that “confidentiality” plays in the reporting of these acts, and we have no tolerance for those who use false accusations and rumors related to sexual aggression as a means to manipulate the community. As my spouse, Dr. Timothy Slater, informed some individuals within this community, in the last decade, I was sexually assaulted by a senior member of the astronomy community who followed his actions with stalking, and with very realistic assurances that he would ruin my career if I reported his actions within the community. This was not harassment, it was not a tap on the buttocks, nor a compliment that I did not appreciate. Instead, what I experienced was an assault that was followed by the perpetrator being taken into custody by authorities and subsequently institutionalized. During the same decade, our daughter was repeatedly hospitalized, on a suicide hold, prior to revealing that she had been repeatedly, violently sexually assaulted by a family member. Between taking both his wife and his daughter to innumerable therapy appointments and interviews with law enforcement, sleeping outside our daughter’s bedroom door to prevent her from attempting suicide in the middle of the night, and physically holding her while she struggled through flashbacks, blackouts and anxiety attacks, Dr. Timothy Slater somehow managed to graduate many female PhDs in astronomy in the USA, nearly all of them in his field. He has as a routine, found means for women who would normally have little chance of receiving any terminal degree, including women who are survivors of sexual assault and rape, to earn doctorates in astronomy and astronomy-related fields. As a group, we take the current flurry of unverifiable “sex accusation” attacks on prominent astronomers, and particularly on this astronomer, personally.
The ease with which some members of the Division would damage the career of any member by spreading gossip that he is a sexual harasser, but especially a man who has dedicated so much of his life to piecing back together his wife, his adopted child, and many other women, giving them a platform for their work, and providing a means for them to become financially independent, is profoundly and utterly offensive. Committed in the face of protest by some committee members, and without even a weak attempt to check easily verifiable facts, I judge such actions to be deeply, ethically and morally flawed, and a mockery of the entire idea of protecting women in the field from sexual predation. Individuals who abuse the community’s concerns about equity to make false allegations for personal gain are at odds with the advancement of real female and minority scholars. Indeed, in my home nation, the USA, false allegations of sexual predation are considered a criminal offense, as they undermine the very protocols put in place to protect individuals from such acts. Given our reliance upon such protocols, we stand firmly opposed to those who provide false statements about sexual abuses. In this case, the accusations of sexual abuses, made by Dr. Pamela Gay, a citizen of the USA, are verifiably false.
I have conferred with students, past and present, and we are in agreement:
- We do not believe that the IAU is the appropriate venue for investigating the behavior of members. Members are under the authority, rules and laws of their home institutions and their home nations. Any concerns about members should be filed with those bodies.
- We stand firmly opposed to the unethical possession and dissemination of confidential documents, in part or in whole, as the publication of those documents has been prohibited, with reason, by an authoritative body. We have all given statements to investigators under the assurance that our statements would be sealed and held confidential. We are collectively horrified at the ease with which other women, Dr. Gay and Dr. Garcia, would rob us of the protection we were promised. We will not be silent given the gravity of this violation of our rights.
- And finally, we will not share our intellectual work or resources with organizations or individuals who engage in thoughtless and malicious slander of our peers, particularly in this case, where the colleague being attacked is one who has done so much for us as we have worked to heal from actual instances of sexual predation.
We call on the Commission to clarify the Commission’s stand on these issues, and to take action to repair the damage done and ensure that these actions are not repeated in the future. We further call on Dr. Pamela Gay and Dr. Beatriz Garcia to retract publicly their defamatory remarks; and we strongly suggest that both women step down from their leadership positions, particularly Dr. Gay, who has demonstrated that she is uniquely unqualified to act as the Secretary of a professional organization with ongoing access to confidential materials and submitted proposals.
I have attached images of samples of correspondence in which Dr. Gay explains that she is acting at the encouragement of Dr. Garcia, and in which she offers to disseminate confidential documents. I am not attaching samples of her other statements as they are unpleasant to read, and because they constitute libel per se in the United States. I will be taking legal action against Dr. Gay in the United States courts system, and therefore will not disseminate any reproductions of her defamation. However, if any party would like additional descriptions of the types of defamatory statements she has made, or if you have any other need for clarification on these matters, please feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
My good wishes go out to Dr. Paulo Bretones and Dr. Tim Slater who have worked so hard on the Symposium 326 and on the goals of the Theory and Methods in Astronomy Education Working Group, and to our colleague Dr. David McKinnon, for having the good sense to recognize a liar when he saw one, and for having the backbone to do something about it.
CC: Officers of the Union, Division C Steering Committee, TMAE Working Group SOC, Sym. #326 SOC
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Piero Benvenuti <email@example.com>
Date: Wed, Dec 30, 2015 at 7:06 AM
Subject: Re: Formal Registration of Complaint Re: IAU Division C
To: “Stephanie J. Slater” <firstname.lastname@example.org
Cc: “Paulo S. Bretones” <email@example.com
>, Tim Slater <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, Kathy Eastwood <Kathy.Eastwood@nau.edu
>, Jay Pasachoff <Jay.M.Pasachoff@williams.edu
>, “Rosa M. Ros” <email@example.com
>, Magda Stavinschi <firstname.lastname@example.org
, David McKinnon <email@example.com
>, Cecilia Scorza <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, John Hearnshaw <email@example.com
>, Susana Deustua <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, “Pamela L. Gay” <email@example.com
>, Beatriz Garcia <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, Ruggles <email@example.com
>, Pedro Russo <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, MichÃ¨le Gerbaldi <email@example.com
>, “Saeko S. Hayashi” <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, Katrien Kolenberg <email@example.com
>, Kazuhiro Sekiguchi <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, Linda Strubbe <email@example.com
>, Silvia Torres Peimbert <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, Ewine van Dishoeck <email@example.com
>, Teresa Lago <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, Norio Kaifu <email@example.com
>, Thierry Montmerle <firstname.lastname@example.org
>, Francesca Primas <email@example.com
Dear Dr. Stephanie J. Slater,
I read with attention your Formal Registration of Complaint and I
would like to immediately clarify the position of the IAU on the case
you are raising.
The persons that undertook the actions reported in your Formal
Complaint acted at personal level: they were explicitly told by me
that they should not act on behalf of the IAU or Div C, nor even as
The reason is very simple and quite independent of any specific
alleged case: the IAU has neither the means nor the authority to
investigate and eventually judge alleged cases of harassment of any
type that may have occurred outside its specific activities, namely
outside its Symposia or Meetings.
The persons were told that, if they they wanted the alleged
accusations to be properly investigated, they should appeal to the
Entity that has the authority do so, e.g. the Employer of the alleged
The same persons were warned by me that using and distributing confidential
material is an illegal act and they were strongly discouraged to do
so. If they did, it is their own responsibility and the IAU can only
deplore their action.
For the very same reason above, the IAU cannot sanction actions that
were taken at personal level by an IAU member and from which the IAU
explicitly took distance. The members of all the Divisions’ Steering
Committees have been elected by the Division members through a formal
process and the IAU Executive Committee will monitor their behaviour
and performance uniquely on the basis of the specific activities of
The IAU deplores the fact that delicate personal matters are harshly
discussed in an inappropriate public forum and rejects any attempt to
drag the Union into matters that are far from its mission. We hope
that the superior and universal value of Science in general, and
Astronomy in particular, can bring the dispute to a more dignified, appropriate
level and free our energies to pursue the main objectives of our Union.
IAU General Secretary
Tel.: +33 (0)1 43 25 83 58
Well said, Dr. Benvenuti.