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How can University College London be taken seriously after the Tim Hunt affair?

14 June 2015

8:14 PM

14 June 2015

8:14 PM

Question: which comes out worse from the Tim Hunt affair – the lynch mob on Twitter which brought him down, or University College London, which pulled the rug from under both him and his immunologist wife once they gathered that one of their own had said something off message? It’s a tough call, but I reckon, UCL, on the basis that it formerly had some academic and intellectual credibility whereas rationality was never the strong suit of the Twitter mob – the contemporary equivalent of the women who, in Greek myth, tore Orpheus to pieces for reason’s we’d better not go into.

Tim Hunt and Mary Collins have had their say in the papers over the weekend, in The Guardian and the Mail on Sunday, and the pieces make heartbreaking reading. His wife observed of their treatment by UCL:

‘I was told by a senior that Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked – though I was told it would be treated as a low-key affair. Tim duly emailed his resignation when he got home. The university promptly announced his resignation on its website and started tweeting that they had got rid of him. Essentially, they had hung both of us out to dry. They certainly did not treat it as a low-key affair. I got no warning about the announcement and no offer of help, even though I have worked there for nearly 20 years. It has done me lasting damage. What they did was unacceptable.’

I’ll say. Ditto for the European Research Council, which got shot of Prof Hunt from its science committee on the back of his sacking by UCL.’That really hurt. I had spent years helping to set it up. I gave up working in the lab to help promote European science for the ERC.’ At no point, he said, was he asked for his view; at no point were the remarks put in context – viz, that they were a humorous aside. So his reputation is in ruins; from now on he won’t be known as the Nobel man who did interesting stuff on cell division but as the disgraced scientist who said that men and women can’t work together in a lab.

Sacked. For making a joke. It’s hard to know where to start. Look, even if he had meant every single word of what he said in South Korea, it wouldn’t, shouldn’t have mattered. It’s not a big deal. It may be true: don’t know, don’t care. Actually, seems it is true, on the basis that he fell in love with his present wife when he was supervising her research, even though he was married to someone else at the time. Professor Hunt is a distinguished scientist. He wasn’t invited to talk about gender relations in the lab. It’s not his specialist subject; he was trying to be humorous, God help him. Yet his transgression was the modern equivalent of the sin against the Holy Ghost; the sin that shall not be forgiven. It would be nice to think that his colleagues at UCL would resign in solidarity at his being lynched for a thought crime, but I’m not counting on it.

Perhaps Richard Dawkins, who is of a similar generation, might come out in support, and with a bit of luck, he might, in full flow, say something similar. We have arrived at a terrifying state of affairs when academic bodies can force a scientist to resign on the basis of remarks that have nothing, not a sausage, to do with their area of expertise. He is entitled to make jokes, including jokes about women; if he were on a committee to do with encouraging girls into physics, I suppose it might be relevant, but otherwise, it just isn’t. UCL’s statement is a marvel of weaselly pusillanimity: ‘UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men, and the university believes that this outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality.” Look, university professors are entitled to say what they like within the limits of the law. Not being with the programme shouldn’t be a sackable offence. Can anyone take UCL as an academic institution seriously, ever again?.

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