UCI Professors express “Himpathy” towards Francisco J. Ayala

By Brittany Zendejas

Several UC Irvine professors have penned a letter to Science Magazine expressing their concern that injustice was committed against their “colleague and friend,” Francisco Ayala, who resigned from UCI July 1 upon multiple allegations of sexual harassment.


Four women who held positions within the school of Biological Sciences and Ecology came forward with accounts of sexual harassment. The university identified the women as Dr. Kathleen Treseder, a professor and the current chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology,  Dr. Jessica Pratt, an assistant teaching professor, Benedicte Shipley, an assistant dean, and Michelle Herrera, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology.


The women’s accounts of Ayala’s misconduct ranged from inappropriate comments to unwarranted touching. On two separate occasions Ayala was reported to have made comments towards Dr. Pratt and a graduate student, on whose dissertation committee Ayala served, inviting her to sit on his lap.


“Ayala admitted the comment to investigators,” reported Science magazine, “calling it a one-time lapse showing ‘a horrendous lack of judgment.’”

A Science Magazine investigation found that on another occasion Ayala was accused by Benedicte Shipley of engaging in inappropriate and unwarranted touching.


” ‘I just learned that women don’t like to be told they’re beautiful, but I know you don’t mind,” Shipley recalled Ayala saying in 2016, rubbing her sides while kissing her cheeks — a behavior that occurred regularly, she said. A male professor noted the encounter and asked Shipley afterward whether she was all right, according to the report.’ ”


Despite Ayala’s multiple documented transgressions several of which were witnessed by others in the biology department, various colleagues of his still express sympathy, or himpathy, towards the professor. As reported in a letter submitted to Science Magazine, they hold that “the inquiry conducted by UCI lacked genuine due process, fairness, and full transparency. We urge UCI to acknowledge the possibility that its sanctions against Professor Ayala were enacted in haste and to reopen the case and investigate the matter more thoroughly.”


Ayala’s supporters argue that the allegations against Ayala cannot be credible because  “his lifelong commitment to teaching, research, and outreach on biological evolution has won him worldwide recognition. He has been a generous benefactor to the University of California and throughout his fruitful career has opened new fields of biological research, promoted mutual respect and independence between evolutionary studies and religious perspectives, played a key role in several major scientific organizations, and helped many Spanish-speaking female scholars and Hispanic students, in particular, both in the United States and throughout the world.


The use of accolades as a vindication of Ayala’s actions provoked concern among scholars. Dr. Katie Baines, a researcher of molecular, genetic, and population health science from the University of Edinburgh, vocalized her distress upon reading the Science Magazine article and realizing the gall of Ayala’s, “colleagues and friends” at putting a sexual perpetrator’s accomplishments ahead of the welfare of women.


Baines said, “I am struggling to find the right words to express my severe outrage that Science would deem it acceptable in 2018, after the overwhelming impact of the #metoo movement, to publish a letter supporting someone that has resigned their post following sexual harassment charges… This is tantamount to one of the major world news outlets saying something like ‘But Harvey Weinstein made loads of great films, why does it matter what his conduct towards women is like?  Surely Science has a responsibility to shape the environment of academic research? The power and influence that your journal has to amplify the voices of people affected by sexual misconduct is enormous and through publishing this letter you have chosen to raise up the voices of people that support the perpetrator of the abuse.”