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A Response to Community Concerns About Our Professional Climate

Wednesday, May 6, 2015 - 15:42

President's Column

Dear Colleagues:

Many of you are aware of the current public debate over one of the two US-led giant segmented mirror telescope projects — a top priority in the past two astronomy and astrophysics decadal surveys. While most of us have handled discussion and debate over this issue in a respectful and fair manner, a few remarks disrespectful to indigenous groups have tarnished the debate and greatly offended members of our community.

I wish to express the American Astronomical Society’s unequivocal support for those who rightly brought this issue to the fore. I do not condone the language or the implied inequality of peoples, nor does the AAS, of which I am proud to be the current president. As stated in Article XI of the AAS by-laws and in the AAS anti-harassment policy:

“…the AAS is committed to the philosophy of equality of opportunity and treatment for all members, regardless of gender, gender identity or expression, race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or religious belief, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, veteran status, or any other reason not related to scientific merit.”

The increasing diversity of the astronomy community is one of its strengths. Astronomers may have a range of opinions and perspectives on various matters, but we speak as one on the principle of respectful discourse at all times.

The AAS anti-harassment policy specifically identifies proscribed behaviors, including these:

"...epithets, slurs or negative stereotyping; threatening, intimidating or hostile acts; denigrating jokes and display or circulation of written or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group."

While strictly speaking this policy applies only to AAS-related activities (see Scope of Policy), because that is where we have jurisdiction, it fundamentally reflects our Society's values: no group should be made to feel unwelcome, full stop. I firmly believe astronomy is at its best — and astronomers do their best work — when all are made to feel equally at home.

Our mission and vision statement includes “[supporting and promoting] increased participation of historically underrepresented groups in astronomy” — always, not just when it is convenient.

The moment I heard about the offensive email that started this controversy, two weeks ago, I began a conversation within the AAS leadership about how we might respond in support of our minority communities and an inclusive environment.

Let me be completely clear: there was never any ambiguity about our views of the disrespectful wording of that first email — not on my part nor on the part of anyone on the AAS Council, the Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy, or the AAS Executive Committee (which is the official acting body in-between Council meetings). There are not two sides on this issue. No one suggested the language was respectful or warranted; it was not. Nor was there any particular impulse to protect those who were disrespectful.

I also want to note that, two days after the offending email was sent, its author and the person who forwarded it issued apologies that, to me, appeared to be sincere and unqualified. Some of you disagree. Different opinions on this matter are not unreasonable.

Some have asked why, then, it takes two weeks for the AAS to speak publicly. I would hope that astronomers recognize the complexity of the current situation involving one of the highest priorities of our decadal surveys. Statements we make to address an unambiguous issue of equity in astronomy could be misconstrued as the Society taking a stand on the separate issue of a specific project. The AAS supports top decadal survey priorities, which represent a consensus of the astronomical community, and we must be extremely careful not to undermine this consensus. Regardless of one’s opinion on that matter, I hope the community discussion can continue, freely and openly, with politeness and respect.

In parallel with my discussion with the AAS leadership on how to respond to the evolving situation, the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, the AAS Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality, and the organizing committee of the Inclusive Astronomy meeting reached out to the community and crafted a response of their own. They forwarded to me a request that the AAS make a public statement (as indeed we were already discussing).

Coordinating all this has been challenging, and understandably several of you have expressed private and public concern over the AAS’s delayed response. To mitigate these concerns, I have chosen to post this letter, in which I speak as the AAS President and tell all of you, very clearly, that racism is unacceptable, that referring to groups as monolithic is not acceptable, and that the AAS is firmly committed to an inclusive, welcoming, professional environment. I do not want to let another day pass with any astronomer in doubt that we believe in this fully inclusive environment.

When I became AAS President, AAS Executive Officer Kevin Marvel advised that I would be most effective by focusing my efforts on at most two major initiatives during my tenure. I spent my year as President-Elect thinking hard about which of the many things I think are important should be my principal foci. One was clearly to foster inclusion and to support minority communities. (The other was to strengthen connections with industry and support broad graduate education toward multiple career paths.) The inclusivity issue is in urgent need of attention. In the past, our process has been to follow the lead of our diversity committees. I write to let you know that you have a President who intends to work closely with these committees and with other members of the Society and the profession, toward a time when no one has grounds to speculate about what the AAS posture is on the issue of racism or any other kind of discrimination unrelated to scientific merit.

Since the first AAS diversity committee was established 40 years ago, we as a community have made a lot of progress. But more clearly needs to be done. The Society’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies are essential to our mission to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe. Only when all astronomers feel welcome and supported in the profession will our discipline realize its full potential for excellence.

Respectfully yours,

C. Megan Urry
AAS Past President
Yale University