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Chron. Ed. article refuted

Several members of the University community criticized a report in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, detailing accusations of gender-based harassment in Duke's physics department. They said the piece misconstrued facts and inadequately discussed the steps that have been taken to deal with harassment.


The lengthy article, entitled "Louts in the Lab," outlines allegations of mistreatment of female faculty members and graduate students by males in the Duke physics department. While many of the allegations have been previously reported--in The Chronicle and elsewhere--this is the first time the issue has been comprehensively treated by The Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication with wide readership in the academic community.


In a letter to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Provost Peter Lange wrote that the article "reflects more on the past than the present and more on the problems we all recognize than the efforts that have been undertaken to improve the situation. In doing so, it does a disservice to the department, to many of its faculty and its chair and to the University."


Physics professors from both sides of harassment allegations--both accuser and accused--contested the content of the article, though for different reasons.


Associate professor Roxanne Springer, who leveled numerous accusations against former visiting professor Sergei Matinyan and was featured extensively in the article, said although the piece accurately captured the wide variety of opinions about the harassment issue, she wished it had better communicated the strides the physics department has made since allegations first surfaced years ago.


Among the forgotten anti-harassment measures, Lange wrote, was the establishment of a new associate chair in the physics department to focus on improving teaching and mentoring. He also noted that the University has launched a review of the its harassment policy to ensure that it is effective "not only in principle, but in implementation" and pointed to surveys, intensified recruiting efforts and ongoing work by the department toward developing written guidelines and resolution mechanisms for allegations of harassment.


On the other hand, Springer added that the piece understated the patterns of harassment that have led to the disciplining of several faculty members, specifically citing a case documented in the report, in which Associate Research Professor of physics Thomas Phillips was disciplined for allegedly staring at physics lecturer Mary Creason's breasts.


"The implication was that Tom Phillips was taken out of the classroom based on her complaint alone," Springer said, "and that was absolutely not true. There was a history there."


For his part, Phillips vigorously objected to the content of the article, saying it was imbalanced and inaccurate. He complained that the author deliberately omitted information that left the piece one-sided.


Among the inaccuracies in the article, he said, is the description of the breast-staring incident. "I believe that what you'll find is that [Creason] didn't say what is attributed to her in relation to the incident in the hall that involved me," he said. Creason could not be reached for comment.


Phillips also said the reporter inaccurately credited an idea for department lunches to physics chair Harold Baranger, when she knew it was actually Phillips who came up with the idea.


Lange, Springer and Phillips expressed diverging opinions on whether the publication of the report was a good thing.


Lange expressed a generally optimistic view. "Although we were disappointed the article did not say more about what Professor Baranger and others have done to improve matters, we welcome the debate it will spark about the continuing responsibility we all face to help more women succeed in the sciences at Duke and elsewhere," he wrote.


By contrast, Phillips said the publication of the article damaged his reputation, led to a deterioration of the atmosphere in the physics department and will cause male professors to be overly cautious when dealing with female members of the department.


"I had been very careful not to tell anyone about what had happened to me because I didn't want other male professors to think if they had a conversation with another professor in the hall and didn't make eye contact, they could be disciplined. That has a very chilling effect on personal interactions," he said. "Now everybody knows about that."


Springer came out somewhere in between. She said she would be pleased about the article's publication only if it led to more people understanding what actually took place and if it sparked more support from the administration for the physics department's efforts to improve climate.


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