Wednesday, March 08, 2017

CSWA Update

It looks like there was a bigger shake-up at the CSWA than merely Christina Richey reprioritizing between work and volunteering. The Women in Astronomy blog has posted an interview with the new chair of the committee, Pat Knezek. I'll have something to say about her in the days to come. Interestingly, she is herself a past chair (2003-2007) of the committee. Last year, she took over Joan Schmelz's role in promoting awareness of "implicit bias". Schmelz, meanwhile, is a past two-term chair (2009-2015), and, importantly, the chair during the time that Geoff Marcy was being investigated for sexual harassment.

My hunch is that Knezek marks the return of some pretty entrenched power, but probably also a somewhat more cautious, liability aware, leadership of the CSWA. Indeed, as Kate Clancy noted in a recent interview (see comments to my post on that interview), implicit bias training is the preferred institutional response to Title IX pressures because they are less likely to lead individuals to sue organizations (like the AAS) than attempts to police behavior and punish harassers. Clancy, who is co-authoring the (still unpublished) CSWA Workplace Climate Survey with Christina Richey, was clearly unhappy with this approach. That's all very interesting to me.

But what suprised me about the Women in Astronomy post was the thank you note to the outgoing chair ... I mean, outgoing chairS:

The CSWA would like to thank previous Chairs Aparna Venkatesan and Christina Richey for their hard work. Aparna will be continuing on the committee as a member focusing on the CSWA cross-over with the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy. Christina will be shifting into a Past Chair position, and will continue leading anti-harassment efforts within the committee and the greater community.

I had never heard of Aparna Venkatesan before, and I consider myself an interested observer of the CSWA. I had always thought that Richey was the chair, and had been working alone in that capacity since she took over from Schmelz in 2015. I searched the WiA blog and did find a passing mention* of Venkatesan as co-chair in a post from January of this year, i.e., quite recently. I asked Kevin Marvel, the executive officer at the AAS, who had made the appointments and how it had happened, and I received the following response:

The AAS Council appoints chairs to our committees. Venkatesan was approved in a co-chair position in January 2017, it was a request from Richey to make the work load more manageable. Council was amenable, but given it was a small change, no effort to make notification was taken, although CSWA members were told when Council approved the concept. The changeover to Knezek when Richey decided to resign brought the matter before Council again and some discussion took place about the concept of co-chairs generally.

He believes that the council ultimately decided on a single chair at that time. I have to say I think this is a wise decision. I did not have much confidence in Richey's leadership, mainly because she has never answered a single mail from me, letting go-between from the AAS do it for her instead, and only after I took my concerns to the president. The co-chair structure often makes oversight of such committees more difficult because there is not single person who is answerable to the Council.

Like I say, I've got more to say about this coming up. But I just wanted to get these new facts down here. I'll develop my ideas about how this marks a transition from what we might call a harassment (or enforcement) regime to a bias (or compliance) regime. Both kinds of regime (like any power structure) pose a threat to the freedom of astronomers, but the threats are somewhat different. Interestingly, Schmelz appears to have run a kind of "hybrid" form during her six years as chair. I'm looking forward to learning more.

*Note that this interview does not announce that she has just been appointed. It merely presents her as, among other things, a co-chair of the committee. This style of communication is interesting to me. I'll probably say more later.

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