Tenured at 37 years old, Christian Ott was a rising astrophysics professor at the California Institute of Technology, BuzzFeed News reported.
In September, he was placed on unpaid leave for “
unambiguous gender-based harassment” and restricted from stepping foot on campus until the suspension is up in July.
Caltech remains tight-lipped about the incident, noting only that a faculty member was suspended but not identifying Ott by name.
But the BuzzFeed investigation, published Tuesday, shone a light on the scandal and identified the two female graduate students who worked under Ott and brought the harassment complaint to Caltech’s Title IX office.
The allegations revolve around Ott’s romantic feelings toward Io Kleiser, one of the students, and his inappropriate conversations with the other, Sarah Gossan, over the course of nearly two years.
BuzzFeed reported that in 2012, the 22-year-old Kleiser was studying supernovae and conducting research under Ott.
When she started struggling to balance her course load with her research responsibilities, Ott began to grow frustrated with Kleiser and told her he was unhappy with the effort she was putting into her research.
“It saddens me that research is coming last ????,” he wrote to her one night in 2013, according to BuzzFeed’s report.
Shortly after, he set up a meeting with her at a coffee shop — where he allegedly fired her, saying that he no longer wanted to work with her and to find another adviser.
Unbeknownst to Kleiser, Ott’s true motive for her dismissal had to do with his romantic feelings for the graduate student. He confided those feelings for Kleiser to another of his graduate students, the 23-year-old Gossan.
Gossan claims that Ott explained to her in a Skype chat that he was in love with Kleiser, according to BuzzFeed.
“The reason he had fired her was because he was concerned she was using her sexual influence over him to not do any work,” Gossan told BuzzFeed.
The site reported that over the course of two years, Gossan says Ott’s comments and behaviour to her became progressively more hostile. He began to damage her confidence.
“He slowly but surely made me feel worthless,” she told the publication.
She eventually went to Caltech’s Title IX office — which comes from the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination — to file a complaint.
Kleiser, still at Caltech but completely unaware that Ott had told Gossan he fired her because of his alleged romantic feelings for her, was contacted by the Title IX office. When she learned of the complaint and Gossan’s allegations, she said she was furious.
“Add my name. Talked to sarah. I am so mad,” she wrote the Title IX office in an email, according to Buzzfeed. “I will do whatever it takes.”
After an investigation by Caltech, Ott was suspended without pay.
Ott has declined to comment on his suspension and barring from campus to a number of news sources. He did not immediately respond to a request for further comment from Business Insider.
Caltech also did not respond to a request for further comment.
In order to begin teaching at the school again, he “must undergo professional coaching and training in how to mentor students,” according to a statement Caltech posted online.
Caltech’s suspension of Ott has been lauded by some in the field who feel it’s a positive response for a field that is often dogged with claims that it is unwelcoming for women.
“The letter says the institution is committed to doing better and that it plans to do a variety of things to make women feel welcome and supported on campus,” Meg Urry, the president of the American Astronomical Society, told Science Magazine. “So good on them.”
But many, including Kleiser, do not believe Caltech is doing enough, since Ott will be allowed back to the school in the summer.
“Because Christian still has a place at Caltech, I feel that I don’t,” Kleiser told BuzzFeed. “If they retain Christian and keep a place for him, then they may be inadvertently telling many students that those students do not have a place at Caltech.”
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