Dear ETH, speak frankly

Dear ETH, my alma mater, please tell us the truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. In September you suspended a professor until further notice and initiated disciplinary proceedings because he had sexually harassed several female students – that was an open secret for a long time. Speak plain text.

You admit internally that there were more serious cases in the past, but they were “solved” quietly and secretly. Please, finally give names, faces and voices to the problem of “abuse of power” in your sacred halls, so that as a phantom it stops polluting culture and damaging generations of students in their integrity and career prospects, and so that as a blanket of silence it stops offering protection to further problem cases. Speak plainly, please, and draw the consequences.

“ETH must do more against discrimination”.

I studied at the Department of Architecture and experienced how the boundaries of decency were crossed by professors and the power gap was abused – indeed, men were also affected. I heard sentences like “You are a woman, why are you studying architecture?” and “You are too self-confident for a better grade” when I asked about the reason for the in my eyes unjustifiably deep grade. I have colleagues who got naked skin imposed even below the belt line, not only – as in the current case reported by the WOZ – topless.

The Dean of the Department of Architecture does not want to tolerate discriminatory behaviour at ETH Zurich. That’s a good thing. But how do we notice this if it happens repeatedly and sanctions – such as “early retirement” … – remain secret? That’s the wrong message! That should be reversed.

Why do those affected want to remain anonymous? “Your professor or the assistants who used to teach you are now your employers or sit on the jury for your next competition,” says the tenor – the architectural world is small and the fear is that an accusation will destroy your own career. But it’s not the victims who should bear the consequences, but those who abuse their power. Or? Dear ETH, do something, now, publicly and consistently – for your future students and employees. Thank you!

Column in the Handelszeitung of 25 October 2018 by Esther-Mirjam de Boer