Leiden University astronomer Tim de Zeeuw removed from post after allegations of misconduct

The Lieden observatory
The Leiden Observatory (Courtesy: Leiden University)

The astronomer Tim de Zeeuw from Leiden University in the Netherlands has been removed from his post following allegations of “extremely unacceptable behaviour” that spanned several years. Annetje Ottow, chair of Leiden’s executive board, says that his behaviour included “intimidation, systematic vilification and unwelcome physical contact with one of the members of staff”.

In a statement provided to Physics World on 26 October by a lawyer acting on his behalf, de Zeeuw says that he “cannot agree” with the executive board’s decision but will comply with “all measures imposed”. De Zeeuw, 66, works in galaxy formation and was director-general of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) from 2007 to 2017. He retains his professorial title.

Leiden had initially released a statement on 18 October saying that one of its professors, whom it did not name, had subjected colleagues to “intimidating and unacceptable behaviour for a long period”. This conclusion had been reached by an investigation carried out by the university’s independent complaints committee following grievances raised by staff members.

The university said in its statement that the professor had been suspended as soon as the investigation began in May. Following the advice of the committee in October, they were banned from the university and not allowed to supervise PhD students.

Writing in an article for the university’s website on 21 October, Ottow stated that the harassment had “caused a lot of suffering” and that the victims will now be offered support by the university. “This cannot and should not happen in the workplace,” she said. “We want to prevent this kind of unacceptable behaviour in future or at least spot it at a much earlier stage so that prompt action can be taken.”

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However, Ottow added that the name of the person would not be disclosed due to “strict privacy rules”. “We are convinced, together with the complaints committee, that violating this privacy could cause even more harm to those involved.”

Ottow also said that there were “good reasons” why the professor had not been fired. After considering “the clear advice of the complaints committee and all the person circumstances”, Ottow noted that the executive board decided not to withdraw the professorial title.

Denied access

On 25 October, however, several reports emerged, including from the Dutch newspapers NRC and Mare, alleging that de Zeeuw was the professor in question. The news website Ruetir says it went public with the name “because there has been abuse at a public organization” and that he “occupied a position of power in relation to (scientific) staff and students”.

According to the NL Times, employees at Leiden Observatory were “furious” that the university had refused to reveal his name or dismiss him. Indeed, some employees felt compelled to publicly declare that they are not the accused.

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In the statement provided to Physics World by de Zeeuw’s lawyer, the astronomer says he “co-operated fully” with the investigation by Leiden’s complaints committee. “In May 2022, I was informed of allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ within the Leiden University Observatory, with no explanation of the complaints or the complainants,” he notes. “I was immediately denied access to the buildings. This was followed by a lengthy investigation by an independent complaints committee. The executive board adopted the advice of the complaints committee. This led to an extension of the suspension and withdrawal of rights and powers belonging to my position.”

De Zeeuw went on to say that it was “never his intention to hurt or harm” people. “I am very sorry that people have experienced my behaviour as negative. For that, I sincerely apologize. I do recognize that in the past period I have now and then been unpleasant and impatient in an old-fashioned way, which no longer fits in the current spirit of the times. I will comply with all the measures imposed.”

‘Not enough done’

De Zeeuw, who was also director of the Leiden Observatory from 2003 to 2007, was awarded the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 2018, which is given for exceptional service to the community. He is married to fellow Leiden astronomer Ewine van Dishoeck and in 2014 they founded the De Zeeuw-Van Dishoeck Fund to support early-career researchers in astronomy.

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In a statement to Physics World, ESO says it is “aware of the case of the professor removed from Leiden University and associated media reports” but says it has “no official information about their identity and cannot comment on reports that have not been formally confirmed”. ESO adds that it is “against all forms of harassment and is committed to a safe and respectful working environment”.

The Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPI-EP) in Garching, Germany, also announced it had ceased association with a “Leiden professor with immediate effect”. de Zeeuw was an “associated senior scientist” at the institute and his page on the MPI-EP’s site has since been removed.

Ottow says that the behaviour had been noticed before the official complaints had been made but “regrettably not enough was done about it”. “We want to push ahead with the lessons learned and areas for improvement. Alongside support and policies, this is about awareness,” she noted. “It’s really important that we talk about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour: let’s continue to do so.”

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