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Astronomer who directed European observatory removed from university for harassment

Astronomer Tim de Zeeuw, who was head of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) between 2007 and 2017, has been “removed” from his duties at Leiden University, Netherlands, after an investigation concluded that he bullied subordinates and engaged in “extremely unacceptable behavior” with female colleagues.

According to a statement by the president of the university’s Executive Board, Annetje Ottow, the investigation involved allegations of abuse of power, gender discrimination, and vilification and belittling of staff. “It also includes inappropriate behaviour with an element of sexual intimidation: from comments to unwelcome physical contact,” Ottow wrote. “All of this was under the constant threat of harming the complainants’ careers.” The astronomer has been barred from entering the university and supervising doctoral students, but will keep his job and salary, since he is close to retirement.

On October 18, the university announced the removal of an astronomy professor but did not name him, citing restrictions imposed by Dutch privacy law. The resulting speculation led to many astronomers at the institution publicly announcing that they were not the culprit. “If you wonder whether I am the prof who was dismissed at Leiden University, it is not me,” tweeted Christoph Keller, director of science at Lowell Observatory, USA, and a visiting professor in Leiden.

On October 26, after being named in newspapers, Tim de Zeeuw confirmed that he was the accused scientist. In a statement given to the journal Science through his lawyer Merienke Zwaan, he admitted to being “unpleasant and impatient in an old-fashioned way” and recognized that his conduct “no longer fits in the current spirit of the times,” but said he disagreed with the university’s decision. “It has never been my intention to hurt or harm people.”

According to his lawyer, the university’s investigation found de Zeeuw guilty of sexual harassment based on email correspondence and at least one “unwanted physical approach.” But he denied that his client engaged in “sexually transgressive behavior” as reported by the Dutch press. The Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, with which the astronomer was affiliated, announced that it had severed ties with him based on the Leiden University investigation’s findings. The ESO, a consortium of 14 European countries that manages three observatories in Chile, said it has had no links to its former director since 2017, but has banned him from all facilities and meetings and canceled the email account he had kept out of courtesy. In April 2013, Tim de Zeeuw gave an interview to Pesquisa FAPESP regarding Brazil joining the ESO.