He Fell In Love With His Grad Student — Then Fired Her For It

By Azeen Ghorayshi, January 12, 2016, BuzzFeed News

Christian Ott, a young astrophysics professor at the California Institute of Technology, fell in love with one of his graduate students and then fired her because of his feelings, according to a recent university investigation. Twenty-one months of intimate online chats, obtained by BuzzFeed News, confirm that he confessed his actions to another female graduate student.

The university investigation, which concluded in September, found that Ott violated the school’s harassment policies with both women. Ott, a 38-year-old rising star who had been granted tenure the year before, was placed on nine months of unpaid leave. During that time he is barred from campus, his communication with most of his postdoctoral fellows will be monitored, and, with the exception of a single graduate student, he is not allowed to have contact with any other students. Before returning, he must undergo what a school official calls “rehabilitative” training.

The sanctions were imposed quietly, but after an inquiry from BuzzFeed News about Ott’s case, the university’s president and provost emailed a statement to the entire university on Jan. 4.

“There was unambiguous gender-based harassment of both graduate students by the faculty member,” the statement said. It also noted that the faculty member — who was not named — had appealed the sanctions against him, but the university denied his request.

Ott declined to address most questions about his case, telling BuzzFeed News he was “constrained from commenting on the situation at this time.” But he challenged the idea that he was responsible for anyone’s firing.

“At Caltech graduate students are not ‘fired’ by the decision of a single faculty member,” he wrote in an email this week. “When problems with students arise, multiple faculty get involved and a solution is found that ensures the graduate student is not harmed.”

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