Edinger and Allison: Real Harassment with Real Consequences

Wesley Koseki

UC Irvine biology professors Steven Allison and Aimee Edinger stand with Biological Sciences Assistant Dean Benedicte Shipley (center), one of four women who stepped forward to report sexual harassment.

In the wake of a seven-month sexual harassment investigation, a powerful and distinguished professor, Dr. Francisco J. Ayala, resigned his faculty position at UC Irvine.  The University removed his name from academic chairs and scholarships, the School of Biological Sciences, and the science library.  Several senior UC Irvine faculty members have argued in the popular press and academic journals that Dr. Ayala’s punishment did not fit the crime.  As faculty in the School of Biological Sciences, we disagree. Dr. Ayala’s behaviors were unacceptable, and the sanctions were entirely justified.

Dr. Ayala violated both Title IX and University of California policies.  His behavior also violated our trust and undermined our sense of community.  Dr. Ayala appeared fixated on telling multiple women how pleasing their bodies looked.  Even during a formal interview at UC Irvine, he directed the conversation towards a faculty candidate’s body instead of her scientific achievements.  He repeatedly initiated unsolicited and unwelcome physical contact with subordinate women.  He made not one, but a steady stream of inappropriate “jokes” that demeaned women by portraying them as sexual objects.

Four brave women in our School spoke out against their mistreatment by Dr. Ayala.  They did this even though formally reporting sexual harassment can be more traumatic than the harassment itself.  They did this even though Dr. Ayala’s power, influence, and multi-million-dollar donations were a strong incentive to keep quiet.  By coming forward, these women ended the harassment of less powerful individuals whose testimony could be more easily swept under the rug.  By saying #MeToo, these women inspire us to re-affirm our shared values of civility and mutual respect in the workplace.

We have no desire for a politically-correct police state. Offering a welcomed hug to a close colleague or giving a compliment on a new outfit can be acceptable.  Dr. Ayala’s behaviors were not.  A powerful man sexualized junior colleagues in the workplace in a way that eroded rather than improved their self-confidence and morale. Prolonged exposure to this kind of harassment can be as damaging to careers and mental health as demands for sexual favors in return for advancement.

Attempts to paint Dr. Ayala as an “old world gentleman” who just got “caught with his hand in the cookie jar” are offensive.  A new moral landscape did not simply appear overnight.  Dr. Ayala knew the rules.  All faculty must take a two-hour course on sexual harassment prevention every two years—Dr. Ayala took it six times between 2008 and 2017.   In 2015, he was personally informed by UC Irvine’s Associate Chancellor for Equal Opportunity and Compliance that his behaviors were unacceptable.

We emphatically reject any suggestion that Dr. Ayala has been treated unfairly.  He chose to resign his position voluntarily, and he was represented by an attorney during the investigative process.  Dr. Ayala even publicly acknowledged that he had been told that unwanted touching and commenting on women’s appearances at work violated university policy.  His response?  Doubling down on these harassing behaviors and even suggesting to colleagues that some women would say there is not enough harassment.

There should be no confusion: Francisco J. Ayala is not a victim.  The women who endured Dr. Ayala’s harassment are respected colleagues who are making outstanding contributions to their scientific fields and our university community.  We applaud their courage in stepping up to report these inappropriate actions, and we deeply regret that formally reporting sexual harassment has further increased the negative impact on their careers and personal lives.  We find Dr. Ayala’s actions antithetical to our values, appreciate his voluntary resignation, and fully support the decision to remove his name from our School, buildings, and accolades.

Here is the link to a petition “Support the victims in the Ayala harassment case” signed by other UC Irvine biology faculty.

 

Aimee Edinger is an Irvine resident and Associate Professor at UC Irvine in the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology. She is also the Equity Advisor for the School of Biological Sciences. Steven Allison is an Irvine resident and Professor at UC Irvine in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology within the School of Biological Sciences.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org