Francisco J. Ayala, Famed Biologist, Resigns After Sexual Harassment Inquiry

Francisco J. Ayala, one of the university's more generous donors and a star professor, will leave the university as of Sunday without "emeritus" status.
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Credit...Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Francisco J. Ayala, one of the world’s most eminent evolutionary biologists and a major benefactor of the University of California, Irvine, has resigned his position there after a monthslong investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

In a sharp rebuke, the university said it would remove his name from its School of Biological Sciences and its science library, as well as from graduate fellowships, endowed chairs and other programs, many of them started or nurtured with his funds.

In a letter sent Thursday to university employees, Howard Gillman, the chancellor, said Dr. Ayala, leaves the university as of this Sunday without “emeritus” status and that he “will abstain from future campus activities.”

In effect, the university has cut off one of its most generous donors and a star professor, an action one faculty member said left her “floored.”

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In response to an email to Dr. Ayala’s office, his longtime assistant, Denise Chilcote, said he was out of the country.

She forwarded a statement in which he said he regretted that what he thought of as “the good manners of a European gentleman” — compliments and kisses on the cheek — had made colleagues uncomfortable.

“It was never my intent to do so,” wrote Dr. Ayala, who was born in Spain and is now 84 years old. “Nor do I wish to put them, my family, or this institution through the lengthy process of further investigation, hearings, appeals and lawsuits.”

But Micha Liberty, a lawyer representing three of the four women whose complaints sparked the investigation, which began in November, said there is “a marked difference between gentlemanly behavior and sexual harassment in the workplace. We would not be here if we were talking about manners and gallantry.”

At issue, she said, were “inappropriate comments and other kinds of behavior,” including unwanted touching.

“This was a widely known problem,” Ms. Liberty added. “There were conversations people had, like stay away from him, don’t be alone with him, don’t be in an elevator with him.”

She said that despite earlier complaints, “the university had failed to curtail this behavior,” and that she and her clients are exploring “every potential legal option and avenue.”

The university identified the four women as Kathleen Treseder, who holds the Ayala Chair in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Jessica Pratt, an assistant professor in that department; Benedicte Shipley, an assistant dean in the biological sciences school; and Michelle Herrera, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Sexist hostility and crude behavior have long been acknowledged in science, but the problems have been met by decades of inaction, according to a report issued earlier this month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The report found that women often respond to this harassment by declining leadership opportunities, leaving their institutions or even abandoning research altogether.

Some of Dr. Ayala’s colleagues expressed shock at the allegations made against him. Apart from his many scientific honors, including the National Medal of Science, which he received in 2001, “he is a good human being,” said Virginia Trimble, an astrophysicist at the university. “I don’t know how else to say it.”

She said she was “floored” by the chancellor’s letter to the university community, and her first action on reading it was to send Dr. Ayala an email whose subject line read “I don’t believe a word of it.”

A number of other faculty members spoke in Dr. Ayala’s defense, saying they were troubled by the fact that the wider university community had not yet been able to read the report that led to his ouster.

“I have no facts, no information,” Donald Saari, a professor of mathematics, said in an email. “I do not even know what are the charges. But all of this is upsetting because it runs counter to everything I know about Dr. Ayala.”

People on both sides of the matter accused the university of acting in bad faith.

Ms. Liberty said that administrators had not taken earlier action on complaints against Dr. Ayala, because he had donated millions of dollars to the university.

Protecting Dr. Ayala “was more profitable to them and more important to their reputation than was the security and safety of their female graduate students and professors,” she said.

At the least, it is clear that many universities are not faring well in the #MeToo movement, said Kristen Monroe, a professor of political science at the university who is finishing a book on gender equality in the workplace, and who Dr. Ayala called as a character witness during the recent investigation.

“I am concerned that universities do not know how to deal with the due-process issues that come up,” she said. “Transparent, open procedures — we don’t have this.”

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