I believe most people have heard about Nobel-prize winning scientist Tim Hunt and his, shall we say, steep career dropoff after firing off some highly sexist remarks at a conference. He was excoriated on social media for all this, although in some sense we should thank him for launching the amazing #distractinglysexy meme. But then it turned out he left his academic post at University College London. He said he was “forced to resign”, which made me wonder:

#TimHunt had some form of tenure, right? Then how is it he was "forced to resign"?

— Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert) June 15, 2015

Well, it turns out that his position at UCL was “honorary”. That would explain how easy it would have been for him to be “forced” to resign without any due process.

Here are some things I’ve been thinking about, regarding all this.

  1. If you’re going to accept an “honorary” position, you have to keep in mind that the purpose of such positions is to be a public face of the university that grants it. As such, you have to watch what you say and how you say it. It’s not like an ordinary faculty position. Therefore the arguments in defense of Prof. Hunt grounded in “academic freedom” fail to persuade me. Prof. Hunt should have known better than to say something that inflammatory and crude when his position doesn’t allow for it. If that feels like blaming the victim, then I’d say that Tim Hunt is a victim in the same sense that a person who messes around with high-voltage electricity can be a victim of electrocution.
  2. Also, you have to keep in mind honorary positions are made and kept at the pleasure of the university. There is no “due process” for termination. (I could be wrong, because I don’t know the specifics of his appointment – other than it’s “honorary.”) One screwup and you could be gone. Or, you could be gone one day without any screw-ups at all but rather just because the university felt like it.
  3. This makes me appreciate the concept of tenure a little more. If Prof. Hunt had been speaking from a tenured position in the US, his remarks would have been just as dumb, but there’s no way a university could force him to resign without long, expensive quasi-legal proceedings at the university’s expense.
  4. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake to consider tenure to be the ultimate protection against being forced out of your job. Let’s face it: If the Dean or Provost of a college wants you gone, he/she will find a way to make it happen, tenured or otherwise. I personally have seen this happen. It’s merely more inconvenient for the person who wants the faculty member gone, if tenure is in place.
  5. This situation makes me more concerned about contingent faculty in the US, who also have no security in their jobs and can be released at any point, with or without good reason, even if they aren’t absurd sexists.
  6. Other people on different ends of the political and religious spectrum have academic freedom as well but I don’t always see academia rallying to their defense.
  7. Finally, from the Telegraph article: “Sir Tim was forced to resign his honorary post at University College London amid pressure from social media users.” It’s definitely true that Twitter was all over Prof. Hunt after his remarks, and deservedly so. Creating viral memes around controversial happenings is what Twitter does. But let’s not blame Twitter for this. Is Twitter now on the board of directors of UCL? UCL could easily have completely ignored social media and probably does on a regular basis. This whole situation is the brainchild of Tim Hunt and his employer, and nobody else.