Jason Lieb is now publicly exposed as a sexual predator
The New York Times’ Amy Harmon’s article this morning made public the dismissal….er resignation of Jason Lieb from the University of Chicago. This is big news. A full Professor at an elite university is gone because of sexual misconduct. How often does this happen? Not clear (because it is typically hushed up as much as possible) but not tremendously often. How often is such a happening made public? Almost never.
UChicago has been my home for nearly a quarter of a century and I love her. I am also a woman and a person. So I have feelings which I will share here.
The buck stops with the University of Chicago
There is good and bad in this story. First the good. The good is that after Princeton and University of North Carolina appear to have kicked the can down the road, the University of Chicago put an end to the charade that Jason Lieb is an innocent victim of baseless accusations. The University of Chicago received a complaint, took immediate and appropriate action including affording Mr Lieb due process and came out with a conclusion. Mr Lieb violated the University’s sexual misconduct policy. This is now a matter of public record and any university that chooses to employ Mr Lieb, I am hoping this is unlikely, cannot plead ignorance.
There were rumors that Mr Lieb had left one or both of his previous institutions due to sexual misconduct. Yet, that is all that they were – rumors, hearsay. I know this because a colleague of mine told me about this case about a month ago, after Mr Lieb, in the words of Ms Harmon, “engaged in sexual activity with a student who was ‘incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.'” This abomination occurred at a scientific retreat that constitutes part of the academic training of students. After hearing this story, I seethed with smoky, dark anger. I immediately went back to my office and used all manner of search gimmicks that I could think of to try to find something on Mr Lieb’s past deeds. I hoped for a student blog, a campus newspaper article, a Facebook slam, anything. I could not find a thing. And so, ammunition-poor that I was, I did nothing.
Having talented smart administrators pays off
Luckily, there were numerous individuals from the retreat who came forward to document, in a single consistent voice, Mr Lieb’s latest hateful acts. And thankfully, Sarah Wake, the University of Chicago’s very impressive new director of equal opportunity programs and Title IX compliance, was there to listen to those complaints. Ms Wake performed a thorough and fair investigation, and ultimately made the recommendation to dismiss Mr Lieb. From complaint to recommendation was short, under the required 60 days and I think closer to one month. In sum, the University of Chicago shined in performing its legal and ethical responsibilities to those on our campus and to the academy at large. I credit Ms Wake in particular and the university administration in general for this accomplishment.
Why was Mr Lieb hired to begin with?
Now there is a bad part to this story, even beyond Mr Lieb’s hateful and harmful actions. Why was Mr Lieb ever hired by the University of Chicago to begin with? While this was obviously a mistake in hindsight, it is instructive to take ourselves back in time to the point when the hiring decision was made. Critically, the main thing available to the search committee was hearsay. Accusations can be baseless, appearances can be misleading, and everyone is entitled to due process. And I believe that is the tact that the search committee took, and I believe that this decision is defensible.
What is entirely regrettable and less excusable is that the hiring decision ignored at least one important piece of information. The search committee was aware that Dr. Lieb had admitted to “a months long affair with a graduate student in his laboratory at the University of North Carolina.” (from Ms Harmon’s article). This is an enormous red flag and should have thrown a big old wrench into the works. As quoted by Ms Harmon, Professor Joe Thornton, a member of the hiring department, said, beyond the “legal standard, …we should be capable of making more nuanced judgments about the environment we’re creating for human beings that are doing and learning science.” Professor Thornton is right. Sadly, the department ultimately chose to ignore the writing on the wall and hired Mr Lieb.
In the end, and admittedly greatly aided by hindsight, I think that the Department of Human Genetics’s decision to hire Mr Lieb was a mistake. Character matters. I sincerely hope and believe, lesson learned.