Australian Professor Terry Speed has long been a champion for women in science, so it has shaken the field to the core to find out that he has been accused of harassing a junior colleague 16 years ago, when he was her mentor.
A Background Briefing investigation has revealed details of the complaint made to the University of California, Berkeley.
Professor Speed denied his conduct amounted to harassment but back in June 2017, a university-appointed investigator found Professor Speed had violated the institution’s sexual harassment policy.
No further action has so far been taken by the university.
Professor Speed is one of Australia’s most decorated scientists, and has been promoted by some science groups as a male champion of change.
He has served as professor of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley for nearly 30 years, and he is also the head of a bioinformatics lab at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Australia’s oldest medical research institute, in Melbourne.
In 2013, Professor Speed was awarded the Prime Minister’s science prize for his breakthroughs in statistics and bioinformatics.
At the time, he told The World Today that he would use his $300,000 cash prize to promote women in science.
“And it’s not as though I have in my genes any intrinsic pro-women thing — it’s more just that when you get used to women who are trying to overcome these barriers, you join the cause.”
Professor Speed is alleged to have harassed a postdoctoral candidate whom he mentored at the time, who for privacy reasons will be referred to as Barbara.
In April 2016 Barbara lodged a complaint with the university as “Complainant One”.
Professor Lior Pachter was a co-complainant.
According to Professor Pachter, Barbara enquired about making a complaint at the time the alleged harassment occurred, but she felt the university complaints process might harm her career.
The university launched a Title IX investigation, in accordance with requirements under US federal law to resolve complaints about sexual harassment.
The 47-page report detailed what happened on campus at the time, and the findings were filed with the university’s leadership for final determination.
In early 2000, Professor Pachter noticed that Professor Speed was spending a lot of time with Barbara.
Later that year Professor Speed invited Barbara for a research trip to Melbourne.
According to the investigation’s report, it was here that the alleged sexual harassment ramped up.
The investigator described in her findings how he walked Barbara home in the evenings and then wanted to hug, despite Barbara’s objection to the hugging.
The report described how the professor emailed Barbara first thing in the morning, and many times throughout the day.
He was disappointed when she did not respond as frequently as he wanted.
His emails to Barbara included references to her attractiveness and his interest in physical contact.
“I try to ignore beautiful women … this explains [my delay] in my falling for you,” one e-mail said.
Other e-mails referred to a wish for her to “sit on [his] knee all day” and a suggestion that “sweat[ing] a lot in close proximity” would be good for him.
“I do love you, you know,” he wrote.
Barbara needed help, and she confided in her colleague Professor Pachter.
“She would ask me for advice about what to tell him and how to manage her professional relationship with him in light of this attention that she didn’t want,” Professor Pachter said.
“She began talking to me about the fact that Terry Speed was engaging inappropriately with her, asking her for things she didn’t want to do and to have a kind of relationship she didn’t want to have.”
The Berkeley investigation cited emails from the time, where Professor Speed professed his love to Barbara.
In them he wrote that he was jealous when she spent time with others, and that he wanted her attention and wished to keep her close to him.
Throughout their emails and conversations — which were referenced in the report — he made it clear that he was not after sex.
Professor Speed talked about his longing for a romantic and intimate relationship.
Spiralling out of control
According to Professor Pachter, the situation deteriorated quickly.
“She kept asking for help to make the situation go away,” he said.
Barbara explicitly told Professor Speed that she wanted him to stop, and in an email she wrote to him:
“You must never forget that you are my adviser. Whatever feelings you might have, you should never act upon them. I got upset … because you are gradually becoming more suggestive again. It’s great that you seem to feel better lately, but I’m getting sick, and I’m getting very scared. I’m seriously considering leaving Berkeley and science altogether. I used to love doing research, but these days, I can’t seem to enjoy anything.”
Professor Pachter was himself in a precarious position.
Professor Speed had started sending him emails, telling him that he had a crush on Barbara and asking for advice about how he could get to her.
Those emails were all submitted to the Berkeley investigators.
Professor Pachter said reading them again, 16 years on, still made him feel ill.
In early 2002 Barbara became depressed — she withdrew from campus life and lost all interest in studying.
“I know that she was thinking about the situation every waking moment for a very long period of time, not just when the harassment happened but for a long period thereafter,” Professor Pachter said.
The career ‘kiss of death’
In her official findings, the university investigator wrote that Professor Speed seemed oblivious of his ability to profoundly affect Barbara, and that he did not seem to understand the power imbalance in the relationship.
In 2002, when Barbara’s postdoc placement had come to an end and she was applying for jobs, Professor Speed was asked to provide a professional opinion of Barbara.
The Berkeley investigator uncovered an email with Professor Speed’s response to the request, in which he wrote that his opinion of Barbara was “high indeed”, but he would not be providing a professional opinion.
“I think you will have to use your existing impressions or seek other assistance,” Professor Speed wrote.
“I am very sorry to have to write in this way, but things between Barbara and me are not good, and it saddens me greatly.”
Professor Speed then forwarded this response to Barbara and asked her to meet with him.
In her mind, she told the investigator, this confirmed his behaviour was jeopardising her career and it could all be fixed if she just reconciled with him on his terms.
Professor Pachter agreed and told the investigator that the professor’s refusal was a terrible blow.
“I think that is the kiss of death in academia, when the mentor you came to do a postdoc with and that you worked with for a number of years is literally not willing to say anything about you.
“I think it’s even really more horrible that he then forwarded this correspondence to her — why would you do that other than to really show her, look, you see, you’re not going to get my help?”
When the investigator interviewed Professor Speed, he denied that his intention had been to harm Barbara’s career.
He said his refusal to send a professional recommendation was for technical reasons only.
There has been no evidence to suggest that Professor Speed has been involved in any inappropriate behaviour other than the incident involving Barbara 16 years ago.
The essential facts of the case are not in dispute, but Professor Speed’s interpretation of events is different to those of Barbara and Professor Pachter.
Professor Speed told the investigator in an interview that he believed his behaviour was not sexual in nature and did not amount to harassment.
The science community responds
In a statement, UC Berkeley refused to confirm or deny the existence of the investigation.
Tired of waiting for UC Berkeley to determine an outcome following the investigation’s findings, in January 2018 Professor Pachter penned a blog post about how Professor Speed had been investigated over allegations of sexual harassment.
His post rocked Australia’s science community.
Professor Speed was approached by Background Briefing about the investigation and its findings, but he declined to comment.
However he did write on his Berkeley webpage that Professor Pachter’s public representation of him was inaccurate and “not a reflection of me as a person”.
In the weeks after the case was revealed, a number of elite science institutions in Australia have flagged changes to their internal sexual harassment policies.
Michelle Gallaher, the co-founder of Women in STEMM Australia, said she was surprised to learn about the sexual harassment investigation against Professor Speed, particularly because of his reputation as a “male champion of change”.
“I think the incidence of sexual harassment is far, far higher than we ever imagined it would be,” Ms Gallagher said.
There are a number of initiatives by science bodies in Australia designed to stop the “leaky pipeline” — a term that describes how the number of women in science drop off as they climb the scientific ranks.
Ms Gallaher said some women leave STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) careers because of their experience with sexual harassment.
“The leaky pipeline is a very big problem — it’s more like a sieve actually and it’s very emotive that we lose so much talent,” she said.
Ms Gallaher said she wanted to see consequences following the investigation that found Professor Speed in breach of UC Berkeley’s sexual harassment policies.
She said it was important for her organisation to speak out about this incident, in support of sexual harassment victims in general and in support of the female complainant in Professor Speed’s case.
“I want the young woman involved to know that we stand with her, and understand exactly what she’s saying,” she said.