A prominent molecular biologist at the University of Chicago has resigned after a university recommendation that he be fired for violating the school’s sexual misconduct policy. He previously faced allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct while working at the University of North Carolina.
Jason Lieb’s resignation comes amid calls for universities to be more transparent about sexual harassment in their science departments, where women account for only one-quarter of senior faculty jobs.
Lieb made unwelcome sexual advances to several female graduate students at an off-campus retreat of the molecular biosciences division, according to a university investigation report obtained by The New York Times, and engaged in sexual activity with a student who was “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.”
Lieb, who has received millions of dollars in federal grants over the past decade, did not respond to requests for comment.
“In light of the severity and pervasiveness of Professor Lieb’s conduct, and the broad, negative impact the conduct has had on the educational and work environment of students, faculty and staff, I recommend that the university terminate Professor Lieb’s academic appointment,” reads the report, signed by Sarah Wake, assistant provost and director of the office for equal opportunity programs.
Lieb stepped down last month before any action was taken.
Before he was hired at the University of Chicago, molecular biologists on the faculty there and at other academic institutions received emails from an anonymous address stating that Lieb had faced allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct at previous jobs at Princeton and the University of North Carolina.
“Both U.N.C. and Princeton launched investigations,” the email read.
Yoav Gilad, a molecular biologist at Chicago who was on the committee that advocated hiring Lieb, said he and his fellow faculty members knew that in February 2014 Lieb had abruptly resigned from Princeton, just seven months after having been recruited from UNC to run a high-profile genomics institute.
But Gilad said that when it was contacted, Princeton said there had been no sexual harassment investigation of Lieb while he was there. He said efforts to find out more about what prompted Lieb’s departure proved fruitless. A Princeton spokeswoman said the school does not comment on personnel matters.
Faculty at Chicago said that Lieb had told them during the interview process that Princeton faulted him for not informing them about a complaint of unwanted contact filed against him at UNC, where he had taught for 13 years. But he told them he had seen no reason to do so because the investigation had not found evidence to support the claim.
Subsequently, he gave permission to Princeton to examine his personnel file. Chicago, too, received permission to look at the file, Gilad said, adding that the examination of the records did not raise red flags.
Gilad also acknowledged that during the interviews of Lieb, the college learned that he had had a months-long affair with a graduate student in his laboratory at UNC.
UNC officials would not comment on Lieb on Wednesday, citing personnel privacy, and would not say whether an investigation was conducted at UNC.
But according to his employment record, he was a full-time faculty member from 2002 to 2013. He was promoted several times during that period and was paid $172,000 as a distinguished professor of biology the year he left full-time employment.
A 2012 article posted on the website of UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center described the DNA research of Lieb, who was then the director of the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences. The article said Lieb was a V Foundation scholar and had won a Hettleman Prize for young faculty at UNC. Lieb praised the mentors he had at UNC, UC-Berkeley and Stanford University, where he had been a postdoctoral fellow.
He said he had been drawn back to UNC, where he studied as an undergraduate. “It was one of the few places in the country where I knew that the quality of science was very high and the quality of life was very high,” Lieb was quoted in the article. “It’s a great place for my family and for my career.”
When Lieb left full-time employment at UNC, he was listed as a temporary, unsalaried part-time adjunct professor in UNC’s biology department for one year from 2013 to 2014. Princeton’s website said he was appointed in July 2013 as a faculty member and director of a genomics center there. He would resign from Princeton one year later, in July of 2014, according to a Princeton newsletter.
Both the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology have fielded criticism recently for failing to publicly acknowledge their own conclusion that a prominent male scientist on their faculty had harassed female students until the details were uncovered by news media. A third case was reportedly unearthed only because of a bureaucratic error at the University of Arizona.
“Although institutions proclaim that they have zero tolerance for abuse of the policies that they claim to enforce, too often their primary concern seems to be secrecy and reputation management,” the science journal Nature wrote in a Jan. 20 editorial headlined “Harassment Victims Deserve Better.”
At Chicago, students praised the university for swift and decisive action. But some students and faculty members also raised pointed questions about whether the university had placed female graduate students at risk by hiring Lieb, who brought scientific cachet and a record of winning lucrative grants to a department that had recently lost two of its stars to other institutions.
He was on put on staff despite potential warning signs.
At Chicago, the hiring committee struggled, Gilad said, to balance a desire to protect students with a desire not to convict someone without evidence. He said that because Lieb had not been found guilty of any offense at North Carolina, the department of human genetics voted to hire him.
“It’s hard to say this in retrospect,” Gilad said, “but what’s the value of investigating anything if an unsubstantiated allegation itself invalidates the candidate?”
But Joe Thornton, a faculty member in the department who dissented, said in an interview, “I don’t think that’s the right standard to use.” He added, “It may be a legal standard, but we should be capable of making more nuanced judgments about the environment we’re creating for human beings that are doing and learning science.”
News & Observer staff writer Jane Stancill contributed to this report.