An open letter from physics

The Physics Department Workplace Climate and Diversity Committee

Dear Washington University Community,

Last September, student publications alleged several instances of sexual harassment of students by faculty members and raised serious concerns about the working atmosphere in our physics department. These allegations came nearly simultaneously with the exposure of severe Title IX violations in other physics/astronomy departments nationwide and the disclosure of sobering statistics from the Association of American Universities (AAU) about sexual misconduct on college campuses.

The Washington University physics department recognized the need for action and convened an emergency faculty meeting regarding the publications. The department formed a Workplace Climate and Diversity Committee to spearhead department-wide efforts at reform, not only to properly react to past allegations but to proactively improve departmental climate for the future. Our committee consists of twelve members of the faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, eight of whom identify as female.

Committee members have met with stakeholders at all levels of the University, from the Title IX coordinator to the provost to members of the Student Union, in order to develop a plan of action. We have now instituted many major departmental measures to galvanize the positive change that we all desire.

Our primary, long-term goal is to provide a safe place for anyone in our department—student, staff or faculty—to come if they encounter any type of discriminatory behavior. We will address their grievances in whichever manner seems most appropriate, accommodating the complainant’s wishes for managing the situation while keeping in mind University policy.

The department will also collect information regarding departmental climate on exit surveys from graduating students, beginning this year. This will provide a source of information for further initiatives.

To build up community and provide a support structure for the women of our department, the department is funding a Women in Physics group, the “Conservation of Women-tum” (a pun on the well-known physics law of conservation of momentum), which holds monthly events for the 76 female physics staff members, researchers, lecturers, graduate students, majors and minors at Wash. U.

In the same vein, we have also started a peer-mentoring program for all new physics majors, partnering upperclassmen with underclassmen in order to help foster an environment of inclusivity.

We recognize that our department’s tenure-track faculty has unacceptably low gender and racial diversity: both in absolute terms and relative to peer institutions and national statistics. We are actively advocating for remedying the situation in the near-term future by raising awareness of the problem in the current student and faculty body and by adhering to best practices in the interviewing and hiring process.

In the meantime, we are trying to improve current faculty-student interactions. We have encouraged the faculty and graduate students to attend additional diversity/harassment training sessions provided by the University, and we promote these events in department-wide email announcements.

At faculty meetings and in conversations, we discuss appropriate faculty-student conduct. We have also started recommending that all professors and lecturers hold open-door office hours for students, with times posted on the physics webpage.

An important component pointed out by the recent Student Union Senate Resolution on Faculty Inclusion is the composition of speakers invited to our department. We have ensured that our colloquium and seminar organizers recognize the significance of having speakers who reflect the diversity of researchers in our field. This semester, including hiring interviews, there will be at least six female colloquium speakers out of 16 scheduled so far, compared to one out of 10 last semester. A faculty member at another institution who was suspended for sexual misconduct was promptly removed from our spring speakers’ list. We also are inviting prominent women and minority physicists, known not only for their research but also for their efforts in diversity and inclusion initiatives, to visit our department.

Other departments throughout our University, as well as our nation, face similar struggles in creating an inclusive environment, often unintentionally repelling away people who have the potential to transform their fields.

Until a small group of students found the courage to raise their voices in the midst of an environment that unwittingly silenced them, we lacked awareness of the scope and persistence of the obstacles women and minorities face in physics. We do not stand alone in these issues, and we do not want to stand alone in combating them. Join us in giving our community the power to recognize and overcome these barriers.

The Physics Diversity Committee has become an integral part of this conversation, and we have already made major headway. We encourage you to stand up in your department for those who feel they can’t.

Start the dialogue.