An investigation by Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe concluded this week that high-profile astrophysicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss violated the university’s sexual harassment policy by grabbing a woman’s breast at a conference in Australia in late 2016.
“Responsive action is being taken to prevent any further recurrence of similar conduct,” ASU’s executive vice president and provost, Mark Searle, wrote in a 31 July letter to Melanie Thomson, a microbiologist based in Ocean Grove, Australia, who is an outspoken advocate for women in science. Thomson, who witnessed the breast-grabbing incident, received the investigative report from ASU’s Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) and shared it with Science.
In response to an email asking what specific actions the university is taking, an ASU spokesperson wrote: “Professor Lawrence Krauss is no longer director of Arizona State University’s Origins Project, a research unit at ASU. Krauss remains on administrative leave from the university. It is the policy of the university not to comment on ongoing personnel matters.”
Krauss, who is traveling in Iceland, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The news comes one day after Krauss announced on Twitter that his position as director of the Origins Project, which probes the beginnings of the universe, was not renewed for another 5-year term. ASU placed Krauss on paid administrative leave on 6 March, two weeks after BuzzFeed published an exposé describing multiple sexual harassment allegations against him. It barred him from campus during the probe. The university would not say whether it has reached conclusions on the credibility of the other allegations in that article.
Thomson first filed a complaint with ASU about the incident in July 2017. The university quickly concluded there was insufficient evidence to find that Krauss had violated ASU policy. But it reopened the probe in February, after publication of the BuzzFeed article, which described the incident in Australia, as well as several others. (Krauss offered an extensive rebuttal to the Buzzfeed article.)
“They should have believed me the first time,” Thomson says. “It’s ridiculous the amount of effort you have to go through to stop universities from just dismissing these cases. I have been traumatized by the process and I wasn’t even a victim.”
The incident took place at a gala reception during the annual Australian Skeptics Convention in Melbourne in November 2016, when a woman asked to take a selfie with Krauss. (Krauss is a prominent member of the skeptics movement, which disputes the existence of a god or supernatural powers.) The investigators interviewed two eyewitnesses, and two other witnesses who did not see the incident but were at the reception and spoke with the unnamed woman the same evening, soon after it occurred. They described her variously as “frazzled and troubled” and “shocked,” according to the report. One eyewitness to the selfie said the woman “reacted with shock and physically moved away” from Krauss. A second said that the woman “body check[ed]” Krauss immediately after he grabbed her breast.
The unnamed woman, who according to the report declined to be interviewed by investigators when the probe was first opened in the summer of 2017, did speak with them in March. She told them that “she did not feel victimized, felt it was a clumsy interpersonal interaction and thought she had handled it in the moment,” telling Krauss directly that his behavior was not OK. According to the report: “She also stated to the OEI investigator that the incident did not merit the man losing his career.”
Krauss denied to investigators that he touched the woman’s breast. Thomson provided the investigators with the selfie photo, with the woman’s face redacted. According to the report, it shows his right hand and arm coming over her right shoulder, with his hand in mid-air. Krauss told investigators he was either raising his hand to protect his eyes from the camera flash or reaching to steady the woman, who perhaps had lost her balance, he suggested.
Investigators found the woman and the four witnesses more credible, based on a preponderance of the evidence, according to the report.