Dear Professor Arthur,
I am writing, on behalf of thousands of petitioners, to ask that you reconsider your decision not to offer to reinstate Sir Tim to his honorary position at UCL.
I appreciate that Sir Tim’s comments struck, as you’re recorded to have put it, “such a discordant note” and feel it vital to consider why. We live in the Age of YouTube and Reality TV, where judging complete strangers based on brief media representation has become commonplace. Further, commercial media are expert at splicing, twisting and spinning stories to create resonant emotional reactions for financial ends. Such engineered discord should not cost an innocent man his honour and, as Sir Tim himself feels, poison his future career.
Then there are those, such as Dame Athene Donald, who point out widespread concerns over sexist behaviour in science, interpreting the level of discord that followed Sir Tim’s speech as a touchstone illuminating their gravity. Sir Tim himself perceived this as the scandal’s silver lining:
“My comments have brought to the surface the anger and frustration of a great many women in science whose careers have been blighted by chauvinism and discrimination. If any good is to come from this miserable affair, it should be that the scientific community starts to acknowledge this anger, recognise the problem and move a lot faster to remove the remaining barriers.”
Of course, UCL should follow this advice. But where is the need to dishonour an innocent man? Sir Tim inadvertently opened the lid of a seething can of worms. Should we truly value equality and diversity by unravelling these worms, or merely send a signal that equality and diversity are valued by scapegoating the hapless fisherman?
You’re reported to have said there have been “very significant” representations not to reinstate Sir Tim. Given the media fury and subsequent reactions from those who haven’t seen (or who choose not to see) the full story in context, this is understandable. The bottom line, however, is that Sir Tim, after mentoring and supporting women scientists for decades, made a self-effacing ironic joke as an icebreaker to a speech which encouraged women to practice and promote science in Korea. He even made clear in his speech that his joke was a joke (though this wasn’t initially reported by the media). If a female scientist had done likewise, nobody would have batted an eyelid. UCL prides itself on equality, but where is the equality for Sir Tim? And will all male scientists at UCL have to refrain from gentle ironic humour in future? What will be the legacy of your decision?
UCL has commented that Sir Tim’s position was honorary and that it garnered no salary. However, following his forced resignation from UCL, the ERC also forced him to resign. Further, the Royal Society publicly distanced itself from Sir Tim. This matters because, in Sir Tim’s own words:
“I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic.”
Thus, there’s considerable damage to be undone. If, however, UCL leads the way by asking Sir Tim to return then much of the harm might be healed. You could reverse the snowball reaction.
You are reported to have said: “Our view is that reversing that decision would send entirely the wrong signal and I have reason to believe that Sir Tim would also not want that to happen.”
Perhaps, in the short term, you are right. But if, in reinstating Sir Tim, you told the whole story, from his may years’ work supporting women in science to the full context of his speech in Korea, I’m sure that most would hear your signal correctly. There are, moreover, more important concerns than people misinterpreting your signals; concerns such as honour, equality and fair play. UCL claims grand ambitions to raise its proportion of female students and researchers and to tackle all instances of sexism. This is no doubt extremely important but please don’t scapegoat an innocent man, who himself has done much for this cause, simply to send a signal that you’re fighting for equality when, in shaming him, little could be further from the truth. That’s politics, not ethics.
Please take some time to read the attached petitions, which include comments from, amongst others, various professors, researchers, feminists and former students and colleagues of Sir Tim. Between them, they have garnered over 6,000 signatures so far. We hope this will go some way towards changing your mind: