A British scientist has been disciplined for sexual harassment by his Irish university for showing a female colleague a research paper about fellatio in bats, triggering an outcry over academic freedom.
Leading scientists and academics including Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett have rallied to support Dylan Evans, after University College, Cork (UCC) placed him on probation for two years and ordered him to have counselling.
Supporters of Dr Evans, a behavioural scientist, said the university’s actions sent a dangerous message that areas of legitimate academic debate can be deemed off-limits if certain people find them offensive for personal reasons.
Professor Pinker, of Harvard University, described the sanctions as “absurd and shameful”. He said: “It runs counter to the principle of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, to say nothing of common sense.”
Dr Evans was disciplined following a formal complaint from a colleague, to whom he had shown a peer-reviewed article from the journal Public Library of Science One entitled “Fellatio by fruit bats prolongs copulation time”.
He told The Times that he had given her the paper in the context of an ongoing discussion between them about the evolutionary origins of human and animal behaviour, and that it had been intended to prompt debate and not to cause offence.
The colleague, however, accused him of sexual harassment, alleging a pattern of inappropriate and disturbing behaviour including kissing her on both cheeks and complimenting her appearance.
While an investigation cleared Dr Evans of sexual harassment prior to his showing her the bat fellatio paper, it found that this incident amounted to a joke with sexual innuendo, though it accepted he had not intended to offend.
Professor Michael Murphy, the UCC president, declared that the complaint of sexual harassment had been upheld, and punished Dr Evans by imposing a two-year period of “monitoring and appraisal” and requiring him to complete special training.
Several documents pertaining to the case, including the original complaint, have been posted on the internet, though Dr Evans said he had not done this. He added that he had never made sexual advances to the complainant.
Dr Evans said he had been very interested by the paper, which documented a rare example of oral sex in a non-human animal, the short-nosed fruit bat Cynopterus sphinx. He said the research, which was widely reported in the media, had implications for the uniqueness of human sexual behaviour, and he shared it with several other colleagues without complaint.
He said his colleague’s reaction had initially been friendly, and that he had been mortified to learn she had taken offence. “I was absolutely devastated by the complaint, as I certainly had no intention of upsetting her,” he said.
“She is an esteemed colleague who I hold in high regard. I said I was prepared to apologise for any offence caused, and offered to go to mediation, but all these proposals for an informal resolution were rejected by the university.”
He said that while he was happy to accept monitoring or training, he was not prepared to leave unchallenged Professor Murphy’s assertion that he was guilty of sexual harassment. The finding, he said, could deny him academic tenure, for which he will soon be eligible.
“I can live with the sanctions, but I can’t live with a factual finding of sexual harassment against me,” he said. “It has very serious career implications for me.
“I’m also very worried about the precedent this sets. This means that if you share published science with a colleague, and she happens to find it offensive, it is no defence that you were discussing a peer-reviewed paper without intent to offend. It bodes ill for academic freedom.”
More than 2,400 people have signed an online petition supporting Dr Evans, including leading evolutionary psychologists such as Robin Dunbar, Nicholas Humphrey and Geoffrey Miller.
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