Caltech Professor Resigns After Student Harassment Findings

An internal investigation by the university determined the professor had displayed “discriminatory and harassing behavior” towards two female graduate students.

Caltech Professor Resigns After Student Harassment Findings

Caltech students protested in May after learning of discussions to allow the professor back on campus.

An astrophysics professor at the California Institute of Technology has resigned following a 2015 investigation into alleged harassment of two female graduate students.

Christian Ott was placed on unpaid leave by the university for nine months after the school launched an internal investigation which found the professor displayed “discriminatory and harassing behavior” towards the two students, reports BuzzFeed. His suspension was later extended to August 2017.

Ott’s Tuesday resignation came during a university committee meeting to decide whether or not Ott could return to campus this fall.

Back in May, students protested after discovering that the committee may decide to allow Ott back on campus.

The protest was a silent sit-in by a few dozen students in the school’s astronomy department. One student held a sign which read, “To support a safe working and living environment for all members of the Caltech community. We support you. You are not alone.”

The students also sent Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum a letter, stating in part, “To continue delaying but not outright banning Ott’s return to campus puts all students at Caltech, but especially female graduate students, in a state of uncertainty and fear for the future.”

Fiona Harrison, Caltech’s division chair for Physics, Math, and Astronomy, sent an email to the astronomy department following the protest, saying the school’s top priority is the welfare of the campus community but that the “potential for rehabilitation” for Ott was present.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, four faculty members from an independent committee consulted with students, postdocs, faculty, and Ott himself regarding the harassment.

The committee determined that Ott had made “significant progress on the behavioral issues that led to his original discipline,” stating he had gone through “rehabilitative training necessary for his return”, hence the decision to potentially allow Ott back on campus.

The Harassment Complaints

Io Kleiser and Sarah Gossan, the two women who were harassed by Ott, say they were disappointed in the school for taking a rehabilitative approach instead of firing him.

Kleiser had been a graduate assistant to Ott when he unexpectedly fired her. When she asked Ott the reasoning for her firing, he stated that he “couldn’t emotionally deal with her anymore”.

Following the firing, Ott confided in Gossan and confessed that he was in love with Kleiser.

“The reason he had fired her was because he was concerned she was using her sexual influence over him to not do any work,” says Gossan of conversations she had with Ott.

The contact between Ott and Gossan lasted for a year and a half in which he continued to speak about his struggles with his feelings for Kleiser.

Gossan says her relationship with Ott was harming her work and emotional well-being, saying that he would often degrade her intelligence.

It wasn’t until Gossan went to the Title IX office with her harassment complaint that Kleiser had learned about Ott’s confessions.

Kleiser added her name to the official complaint from Gossan after being presented with evidence of Ott’s feelings towards her, such as 86 poems he had posted on his Tumblr page about her.

Kleiser left the university in January and is finishing her graduate research at the University of California, Berkeley, but will still receive her doctorate degree from Caltech.

Gossan is continuing to study at Caltech.

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About the Author

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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