A Dozen UC Irvine Professors Express ‘Himpathy’ Toward Disgraced Colleague Francisco Ayala

Illustration by Richie Beckman

The stickers are easy to see. Anyone seated at the Starbucks merely has to raise his or her head a few degrees to see 18 clenched red fists next to the all-caps “#METOO” in the third-floor window of UC Irvine’s pumpkin-colored biological sciences building. On a section of campus that is especially Star Trek-like, with its sharp lines, clean walkways and pristine glass, the stickers provide a jarring reminder that sexual harassment exists here.

Professor Kathleen Treseder, who studies fungi, ecosystems and global change, placed the stickers in her office window. For some of her colleagues, her small act of free speech is an insulting act of gloating. “I was raised with this old idea that to lead a moral life, you pursue justice—and only justice,” said a UCI professor who requested anonymity after telling me about the stickers. “I think that gloating and justice just don’t very often share the same moral landscape.”

Treseder declined to comment for this story. But her attorney, Micha Liberty, agreed to speak. “These nameless cowards are nothing more than ignorant bullies engaging in unlawful retaliation with the blessing of UCI,” Liberty said. “They should learn the actual facts before they defame victims of sexual harassment.”

There’s an angry insurgency brewing on the UCI campus. Led by some of the university’s most esteemed professors, it seeks to reverse recent decisions made by the administration that, though tardy, ended up being brave—namely, convincing the eminently esteemed professor Francisco J. Ayala to resign. On Aug. 17, Science Magazine published a letter to the editor signed by more than 60 of Ayala’s colleagues—more than a dozen of whom hail from UCI—calling on the school to reverse course on Ayala because he was an “honorable” man (the letter was in direct response to this story).

“Those of us who are well-acquainted with Professor Ayala know that he is an honorable person, who throughout his career has treated his friends, co-workers and students in a respectful, egalitarian way,” stated the letter. “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.”

At a time when misogyny seems to be a guiding force in the nation, when women already have to put up with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh—accused of committing sexual assault back in high school—to the U.S. Supreme Court, an endless fight over abortion rights, job discrimination, a gender wage gap, inadequate women’s medical care, a lack of mandated parental and sick leave, as well as general racism, transphobia and domestic violence, this defense of Ayala is potentially harmful. By recasting Ayala as a victim, his defenders belittle the concerns and fears of not only the women who testified against him at UCI, but also all women who continue to face similar workplace harassment.

That said, there’s nothing surprising about the defense of Ayala, given the way society has long-protected powerful men. In this way, Ayala’s defenders are engaging in an old practice recently given a new name by Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University: “himpathy,” or the granting of undeserved sympathy to powerful men at the expense of the far-less-powerful women they harmed.

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Photo by Anthony Pignataro

Studies have shown that workplace harassment similar to the comments, unwanted physical touching, etc. that UCI investigators concluded Ayala was doing to his colleagues does real harm. According to an Oct. 17, 2017, NBC News story, sexual harassment can lead to high blood pressure, muscle aches, headaches and other manifestations of stress. “Sometimes sexual harassment registers as a trauma, and it’s difficult for the [patient] to deal with it, so what literally happens is the body starts to become overwhelmed,” said Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, a licensed psychologist, in the NBC News story. “We call it somatizing: The mental health becomes so overwhelming one can’t process it to the point of saying, ‘I have been traumatized’ or, ‘I am depressed.’ Essentially, it’s a kind of denial that, when experienced for a long state, can turn into physical symptoms.”

A few months later, in the Jan. 4 issue of Quartz, writer Leah Fessler documented still more troubling effects from harassment.

“Workplace harassment can cause severe stress, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as eating more junk food and smoking,” Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate professor of health science at Ball State University, said in Fessler’s essay. “If the stress and unhealthy behavior continues, it can cause chronic diseases such as depression, anxiety, pain disorders and poor metabolism. Eventually, workers may become so sick that they go on sick leave or don’t come to work.”

To be fair to UCI’s administration, asking Ayala to quit was difficult to do. Though this “Me Too” era seems all-powerful, it’s still a perilous, risky act for a woman to accuse a powerful man of sexual harassment or assault. And Ayala is a powerful man.

He’s a world-renowned scientist. He and his wife donated $10 million to the school. Until his resignation, UC Irvine’s Science Library and School of Biological Sciences were named after him. “He’s 84, with a very aristocratic background,” said Kristen Renwick Monroe, Chancellor’s Professor of Political Science at UCI and founder/director of the UCI Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality. “He’s the only person I know who stands when I walk into a room.”

But Ayala also, as an internal investigation conducted earlier this year showed, made life needlessly stressful and difficult for multiple women in UCI’s School of Biological Sciences. “This was a years-long problem,” said Liberty. “It was well-known at UCI. Graduate students would discuss it and share coping mechanisms: don’t ride the elevator with him alone; don’t work for him as a teacher’s assistant if you’re a woman. These women had their environment impacted and found ways to cope with it. It’s a burden no one should have.”

According to the investigation report on Ayala, he regularly kissed women on the cheek (or moved in very close and simulated kissing them on the cheek). In either case, he didn’t seek consent before doing so. The report also says Ayala often made comments to women about their clothing and/or physical appearances. The report notes that Ayala often touched women’s arms and shoulders, again without their consent. The report notes that on at least one occasion, Ayala suggested to a woman at an official gathering that she could sit on his lap.

Even when Ayala was helping a colleague, there was concern. In 2016, Ayala told Treseder he had nominated her to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). But Treseder told investigators that Ayala (an NAS member) also talked to her about how easy it would be for her nomination to get scuttled (Ayala denied making any such warning to Treseder; she ultimately did not get accepted).

UCI officials warned Ayala in 2015 that his actions were harmful. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Ayala’s problematic actions apparently occurred so often that even people who liked him—who were most definitely NOT complaining about him—told investigators that these sorts of things happened all the time. This paragraph from the investigation report, dealing with the testimony of a sixth-year grad student identified only as Witness 26, is a perfect example of what investigators kept running into:

“Witness 26 reported that she interacts with Respondent [Ayala] at committee meetings and at random events around campus. She stated that he is very nice to her and never bothers her. He has kissed her on the cheek on a couple of occasions, but it did not bother her. Sometimes, he would tell her that she looked nice; again, the comments did not bother her. She stated that, on one occasion three to four years ago, she was sitting in a seminar with Witness 7 [who is unidentified in the report] when Respondent came and sat next to them. He remarked that he was sitting between two beautiful women. He also stated to Witness 26 that, if the room got more crowded, she could sit on his lap. Witness 26 reported that, at the time, she was not bothered by the comment (and still is not), but that she believes the comment was inappropriate.”

Investigators brought the “sit on his lap” allegation to Ayala, who did not help his own cause. “When asked whether he [Ayala] ever told her she could sit on his lap, he stated that he did not say that to Witness 26,” states the report. “He reported that he made that comment only one time in his life and it was to Complaining Witness 1 [graduate student Michelle Herrera].”

Ayala’s response as a whole to the allegations against him rang rather hollow. “I have never intentionally caused sexual harassment to anybody,” investigators quote Ayala saying. “To the extent that my actions may have caused harm to others . . . I apologize from the deepest of my heart and of my mind.”

While technically an apology, Ayala displayed no understanding that his actions—regardless of his intentions—had caused harm. In the end, investigators concluded that there was sufficient evidence to sustain the allegations of complainants Treseder, assistant teaching professor Jessica Pratt and Ayala School of Biological Sciences Assistant Dean Benedicte Shipley.

Ayala resigned on June 28. “I thank and commend our colleagues who reported this misconduct,” UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman said in a statement released that day. “Coming forward with this information was extremely courageous. I applaud their bravery and apologize that they experienced inappropriate behavior from a member of our faculty. Professor Ayala’s behavior defied our core beliefs and was inconsistent with our policies, guidelines and required training. Given the number and breadth of the substantiated allegations, and the power differentials at play, I decided that keeping Professor Ayala’s name in a position of honor would be wrong.”

Each of Ayala’s defenders I spoke to had the same complaint about the investigation—that UCI denied Ayala due process. This is actually a common criticism in these investigations.

This was a Title IX investigation, and investigators were only looking for a preponderance of evidence. They had no subpoena powers and put no one under oath. And while Ayala wasn’t able to have his attorney cross-examine witnesses while they testified to the investigators, his attorney was able to respond to all testimonies.

If all this sounds outrageous, then chew over this: at no time did Ayala face any criminal sanctions. He was never arrested, read his rights, cuffed or booked. He spent no time in jail. University investigators gave him and his attorney all the evidence they compiled and allowed them to respond. And lest anyone think the whole investigation was a drumhead, the investigators tossed out the accusations from one claimant entirely.

But the evidence that Ayala repeatedly touched and talked to at least three other women in ways that the women found demeaning and unprofessional ultimately proved to be enough for investigators to conclude that Ayala had violated UC Irvine’s workplace standards. University officials then asked Ayala to resign, and he agreed.

By contrast, women such as Treseder spent years trying to negotiate their careers around Ayala. They spent years wondering if the university would ever take them seriously. They spent years trying to find a way to work in a supposedly professional environment while the man who literally funded their department sexualized them on a regular basis. And now they have to get on with their jobs while some of their colleagues criticize them for being too sensitive, too vindictive, too fragile.

So, no, Ayala never received legal due process. But neither did the women who stepped forward against him.

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Photo by Anthony Pignataro

Soon after Ayala’s exit, the university removed his name from both the School of Biological Sciences and the Science Library. For women such as Treseder, it was a victory, of sorts. But others on campus feel quite differently.

“The charges were so minor,” said Monroe, who was one of Ayala’s colleagues who signed the Science Magazine letter in his defense. “I think this falls on generational lines. A lot of women above 60 say we don’t mind if someone opens a door for us. Some people say a compliment cuts you off at the knees, but a lot of older people say that’s ridiculous. A compliment doesn’t mean you’re demeaning them. The allegations are pretty mild, but the punishment was very severe. Ayala has had a very distinguished career. It’s really been a tragedy.”

Professor Elizabeth Loftus, who teaches in UCI’s Departments of Psychology & Social Behavior, as well as Criminology, Law & Society, and also signed the Science Magazine letter, agreed. “Some of us have been quite outraged,” Loftus said. “Why did we have to ruin someone’s life and stellar career? He got the guillotine for taking someone’s bubblegum.”

Fellow letter-signer and astronomy professor Virginia Trimble went even further, accusing the complainants against Ayala of being unreasonable. “The files released later indicate nothing to which a reasonable person might object!” she told me in a Sept. 5 email. “I remain of the firm opinion that Francisco Jose Ayala is an important scientist who has made major contributions not only through research, but also through defending evolution as part of school biology curricula in the courts, and in leadership of scientific organizations, and a good human being, though we disagree about some issues in the relationship between science and religion.”

Ayala’s defenders are engaging in that most loathsome of thought exercises—the ranking of female suffering. Sure, what comedian Louis C.K. did was bad (that would be asking female colleagues in the workplace if he could show them his penis), but he was no Harvey Weinstein (serial alleged rapist, along with a very long list of other alleged harassments and assaults). Oh, and comedian Aziz Ansari (who seems to have pushed the meaning of the word “consent” to its absolute limit) did nothing comparable to either, so he shouldn’t be punished at all.

There were other weaknesses in the arguments from Ayala’s defenders. Ayala asking a woman in the middle of a university gathering to sit on his lap—which he admitted to investigators that he did—was just a “joke.” Treseder’s allegation that Ayala once hovered over her as she tried to locate something on her computer, then placed his hand over hers so as to guide her while she used the mouse (an accusation UCI investigators found credible even though Ayala called it “utterly false” and “nonsensical”) couldn’t have happened because, as his defenders kept noting, Ayala is “computer illiterate.”

“He denies that,” Loftus told me, “but even if it did happen, is that sexual assault?”

This view that rape is the ultimate threshold for a woman’s pain and suffering is dangerous. It sends the very strong message to everyone—men and women—that all workplace harassment that isn’t rape just isn’t a big deal. It implies that sexual harassment in the workplace is simply something women have long had to put up with and should just continue to put up with.

This is what philosophy professor Manne calls “himpathy.” It’s the tendency of our society to sympathize with and even protect powerful men who’ve done wrong.

“Himpathy, in the simplest case, describes a reversal of that narrative, the flow of sympathy away from her, its proper object, up the social hierarchy to him, assuming that he is no less privileged given intersecting social factors,” Manne said in a Feb. 8 Jezebel interview. “This is if you hold fixed factors like race and class, among others.”

We see this a lot with powerful and famous men: Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K. “They took everything from Louis,” Dave Chappelle lamented on his Netflix special The Bird Revelation.

“People have to be allowed to serve their time,” comedian Michael Ian Black said on Twitter in late August—after Louis C.K. appeared onstage at a New York comedy club and joked about rape whistles.

The rhetoric of himpathy is always dire: “took everything,” “serve their time,” as though Louis C.K. got his head chopped off in the Reign of Terror (in fact, a UCI professor asking for anonymity used the “Reign of Terror” phrase to describe the fear of what will happen at UCI following Ayala’s resignation).

Manne’s 2017 book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny delves into himpathy—how and why it occurs, as well as why we can’t seem to get away from it (she’s also working on a follow-up specifically on himpathy). “The specific form of himpathy on display here is the excessive sympathy sometimes shown toward male perpetrators of sexual violence,” Manne wrote in Down Girl. “It is frequently extended in contemporary America to men who are white, nondisabled and otherwise privileged ‘golden boys’ such as [convicted rapist Brock] Turner, the recipient of a Stanford swimming scholarship.”

This flipping of the narrative—converting the accused into the victim—can do great damage to those who’ve actually been wronged. “[W]ith regard to the rape victim who comes forward and bears witness to his crime, the question too often becomes ‘What does she want out of this?’” Manne wrote. “She is envisaged not as playing her difficult part in a criminal proceeding, but rather as seeking personal vengeance and moral retribution. What’s more, she may be seen as being unforgiving, as trying to take something away from her rapist, rather than as contributing to upholding law and order.”

Though himpathy is at its ugliest when used to defend rapists, we can also see it on display with famous and powerful men who’ve been shown to harass and demean women in the workplace. For this story, I showed the above quotations from Ayala’s defenders to Manne, who criticized the Science Magazine letter to the editor defending Ayala on Twitter.

“These quotations [from Ayala’s colleagues] seem to me to draw on a plethora of rationalizations to avoid admitting the obvious fact that an offender of this nature needs to be treated in line with new cultural norms, if the culture is to change for the better,” Manne said in a Sept. 11 email. “These quotes are full of excuses that amount to non sequiturs—he’s old; he’s distinguished; he’s a nice guy to them.”

In Down Girl, Manne refers to this as the “honorable Brutus problem”: Because someone like Ayala is nice and distinguished and generous to the university, he can’t possibly also be someone who demeaned women—colleagues—in the workplace. And even if he did do all those things that his accusers (and investigators) said he did, didn’t all the other good he did give him a pass?

Of course not, but that may not ultimately matter.

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Illustration and design by Richie Beckman

On Aug. 28, UCI’s Academic Senate held an “emergency meeting” on sexual harassment and subsequently released an open letter to all faculty members. While not mentioning Ayala’s name, the letter calls for more “transparency” and “due process” in matters in which faculty members are accused of misconduct. “We strongly urge faculty members to consult with the Senate and make sure they understand their rights prior to accepting any proposed sanctions,” stated the letter. “The Academic Senate supports the right of all faculty to pursue research and teaching in an environment free of any type of harassment. We stand united in our belief that the rights of all faculty must be respected and that discipline must be based on the principles of fairness, transparency and due process.”

Earlier this year, UCI also conducted a “climate assessment review” within the School of Biological Sciences of gender and diversity equity issues, according to a UCI spokesperson. The School of Biological Sciences is also now participating in Green Dot Bystander Intervention training, which teaches people what to do if they witness acts of harassment or violence.

As with many universities, UCI has a lot of work ahead of it. In fact, Ayala’s name had barely been chiseled off the Science Library when English professor Ron Carlson suddenly resigned “after being accused of sexual misconduct with an underage student when he was a teacher at a prestigious Connecticut boarding school in the 1970s,” according to the Aug. 28 Los Angeles Times.

Though UC Irvine officials have no plans to reverse course on Ayala, the horizon is very cloudy on future sexual harassment investigations in academia. That’s because the Department of Education (DOE) is rewriting Title IX.

“The proposed rules, obtained by The New York Times, narrow the definition of sexual harassment, holding schools accountable only for formal complaints filed through proper authorities and for conduct said to have occurred on their campuses,” the paper reported on Aug. 29. “They would also establish a higher legal standard to determine whether schools improperly addressed complaints.” These changes would “substantially decrease” the number of sexual harassment investigations at colleges, the Times reported on Sept. 10.

You didn’t think the Trump administration was going to let a system set up to protect women who fight back against repeated sexual harassment just continue, did you? Donald Trump’s whole philosophy of government (if you can call it that) rests on a foundation of unrepentant misogyny. Still, for defenders of those victimized by sexual harassment, like Liberty and Manne, there’s no other recourse than to keep fighting.

“One doesn’t have to be intent on retributive-style or harshly punitive treatment of individuals in order to think that sexual harassment should be rendered definitively unacceptable within institutional settings, by making the necessary adjustments in how we treat these behaviors, and what policies we implement,” Manne said in her Sept. 11 email. “So, overall, I say: no more himpathy. And no more himpunity. It is time for behavior this harmful to women (for the most part, though not exclusively) long perpetrated predominantly (though, again, not exclusively) by men to have real consequences.”

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