Leiden University has “removed” prominent theoretical astronomer Tim de Zeeuw, a former head of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), for bullying subordinates and what it calls “extremely unacceptable” behavior toward women colleagues over a long period of time. De Zeeuw will not be allowed to return to the university and can no longer supervise Ph.D. candidates. He will keep his job and salary, however.
In an 18 October statement about the case, the university did not mention De Zeeuw by name but instead talked about an anonymous “professor”; the university’s Executive Board says Dutch privacy law bans the school from publicly identifying the culprit. Yesterday, the Dutch newspaper NRC was the first to mention De Zeeuw’s name, based on unnamed sources. Today, De Zeeuw sent a statement to Science via his lawyer, Merienke Zwaan, that confirms he is the accused scientist. He acknowledged having been “unpleasant and impatient in an old-fashioned way, which no longer fits in the current spirit of the times,” but said he disagreed with the university’s decision. “It has never been my intention to hurt or harm people. I am very sorry that people have experienced my behaviour as negative,” De Zeeuw stated.
The university has not made the investigation report public, but a 21 October column by Executive Board President Annetje Ottow addressed to the academic community offered some details. “We are talking here about … abuse of power, gender discrimination and the systematic vilification and belittling of staff. It also includes inappropriate behaviour with an element of sexual intimidation: ranging from comments right down to unwelcome physical contact with one of the members of staff,” Ottow wrote. “All of this was under the constant threat of harming the complainants’ careers.”
In his lawyer’s statement, De Zeeuw confirms he was informed in May of allegations of inappropriate behavior and denied access to the university buildings during the subsequent investigation. The lawyer writes that the university investigation concluded there had been sexual harassment on the basis of email correspondence and at least one “unwanted physical approach.” But she said media reports about De Zeeuw’s “sexually transgressive behaviour towards women” were incorrect.
The Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, where De Zeeuw also had an affiliation, today told Science it had severed ties with a Leiden researcher based on a university investigation, also without mentioning a name. “While we have no evidence of misconduct by the Leiden Professor … we rely on and trust the proceedings and conclusions of Leiden University in this matter,” the institute said. De Zeeuw’s profile on the Max Planck website has been removed.
The decision not to name the main figure in the case set off a week of uproar and speculation about his identity that led colleagues to publicly deny involvement. “If you wonder whether I am the prof who was dismissed at Leiden University, it is not me,” Christoph Keller, director of science at the Lowell Observatory and a guest professor at the Leiden Observatory, tweeted on 20 October. Jarle Brinchmann, director of the Center for Astrophysics at the University of Porto, tweeted that he had been encouraged by someone at the Leiden Observatory to post a similar statement—which was “mostly a joke with some serious undertones,” Brinchmann said in an email to Science. The university’s choice placed “every male astronomer at the University of Leiden under suspicion,” says Dave Clements, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London.
Ottow defended the decision not to name the harasser. “As an employer we are bound by strict privacy rules,” she wrote. About the decision not to fire De Zeeuw, who is 66 and at retirement age, “There are good reasons for this relating to employment law,” Ottow wrote. “I cannot explain more without revealing details about the identity of the person concerned.”
“Make no mistake, this is a very drastic measure for him,” she added in an interview yesterday in NRC. “He is placed in total isolation; he is not allowed to have contact with staff or to enter the building.”
Others say De Zeeuw came out relatively well. The university’s penalty amounts to an “unlimited sabbatical,” Clements says. “There are many scientists out there who would see this as a glorious opportunity.”
A university spokesperson declined to comment other than to confirm the investigation has concluded. A graduate student at Leiden University who spoke to Science on condition of anonymity says the university encouraged Leiden Observatory staff and students not to speak to the media and to direct requests to the university spokesperson.
De Zeeuw is a “major figure” in astronomy, Clements says. He was appointed as a professor at Leiden University in 1990, became director of the Leiden Observatory in 2003, and was director general of ESO, a 16-member intergovernmental organization that operates some of the world’s most advanced telescopes in Chile, from 2007 to 2017. His own research focuses on the formation of galaxies, as well as their structure and dynamics.
According to NRC, four women at the observatory in May shared their complaints about De Zeeuw with the dean of the Faculty of Science, who reported the case to the Executive Board the same day. The board suspended De Zeeuw pending an investigation by the university’s Complaints Committee for Unacceptable Behaviour, which issued its verdict last week.
Several sources who asked to remain anonymous told Science that De Zeeuw has a reputation for being “power hungry” and for behaving “weirdly” around women, with reports of inappropriate behavior stretching back decades. An astronomer who worked at ESO as a graduate student while De Zeeuw led the institute says he was flirtatious and sexual with her and inappropriately touched her in social settings, including running his hand down her back and hugging her from behind. The researcher says the behavior was not egregious enough that she felt she could report it, but she discussed it with fellow students and other women and found that others had similar experiences. “He had no power over me directly as an individual,” she says. “I’m very grateful for that.”
Another woman who worked closely with De Zeeuw as a junior astrophysicist at ESO more than a decade ago says he used demeaning language, such as calling her a “good girl,” and that she frequently felt uncomfortable when she was alone in the office with him. Although she considers her own experience to be relatively mild, she was not surprised to hear about the independent panel’s findings. She says the belittling and intimidating behavior described by Leiden University was “just another little step from his general demeanor.”
An ESO press officer declined to say whether ESO, which is headquartered near Munich, ever received similar complaints. But a later public statement from ESO reported that the organization had banned De Zeeuw from its premises, and would revoke access to his IT account.
In her column, Ottow acknowledged that the university had received signals about De Zeeuw’s behavior before this spring. “It was noticed but regrettably, not enough was done about it,” she wrote. “For this to have gone on for so long means that the work environment was not safe enough.”
Ignas Snellen, who was appointed scientific director of the Leiden Observatory shortly after the investigation began, is taking the matter very seriously and is “trying to clean up the mess,” one researcher told Science. He “is really trying to be on the right side of this, but he is completely hemmed in by legalities.” Snellen declined to comment. In an email to staff members seen by Science, he wrote that “we need to ensure that unacceptable behaviour is addressed sooner in the future” and that the institute would clarify its procedures and provide training where needed.
Update, 26 October, 4:10 p.m.: This story has been updated to include a public statement from ESO.