September 24, 2021

Colombian university fires prominent biologist accused of sexual harassment

The University of Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia

David Vargas/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

A prestigious Colombian university has fired a prominent biologist for sexually harassing students and other violations. Yesterday’s decision by the University of Los Andes (Uniandes) in Bogotá is the latest turn in a 15-month controversy that has divided the private school’s biology department, catalyzed protests, and attracted the attention of Colombia’s media. The case has also highlighted growing efforts by universities across Latin America to confront sexual harassment.

Adolfo Amézquita Torres, a herpetologist who entered Uniandes as an undergraduate student in 1985 and ultimately became the head of its biology department, was dismissed as a result of “ethical lapses,” “threats against the rights and dignity of students,” “inattention to conflict of interest standards,” and “negligence in fulfilling his duties and responsibilities,” according to a university statement.

The university received “dozens” of complaints about Amézquita Torres’s behavior, President Alejandro Gaviria Uribe told ScienceInsider after the decision was announced. They included allegations of favoring female students he was dating and retaliating against those who rejected his advances or voiced concerns about his behavior.

Amézquita Torres told ScienceInsider he did have consensual relationships with students but denied any harassment, favoritism, retaliation, or wrongdoing. He says he will seek to overturn the decision, which was handed down by an appointed academic council. “I will use all available legal tools to recover as much as I can of my dignity,” he says. (Last year, after he persuaded the university to overturn a similar earlier decision, officials there began a new review of the case.)

Those involved in the complaints against Amézquita Torres are applauding the university’s move, which comes after a lengthy process that all sides have described as marred by procedural missteps and a lack of transparency. “I am amazed. … I can’t believe they did the right thing. … I was ready for the worst,” says Ximena Bernal, a Colombian ecologist at Purdue University. She studied under Amézquita Torres in the late 1990s and last year joined other alumni in sending letters to the university expressing concern about his behavior.

The decision is likely to have an impact both within Uniandes and beyond Colombia’s borders, says Bernal, who was the lead author of a letter, published in Science last year and signed by more than 250 researchers that called on Latin American universities to do more to address a culture of “machismo” that has fueled mistreatment of female scientists and students. “I think this is going to send a huge message,” she says. “I think instructors are going to be much more careful.”

“This isn’t just about him. … It’s an action against bad behavior in science,” says one of the complainants, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears of retaliation. “It took us literally years, but something finally happened.”

Gaviria Uribe, a former government minister who became president of Uniandes in July 2019 after the initial complaints against Amézquita Torres were filed, says the case exposed flaws in the university’s policies and procedures for handling sexual harassment complaints. (The university first adopted a sexual harassment protocol in 2016.) He has vowed to fix those problems and says the university is taking other steps to change its culture, including offering legal resources for victims and adding courses on gender issues. “We will not tolerate any misbehavior whatsoever by any of our faculty members or administrative staff,” he says, adding that the university will need to define what constitutes appropriate relationships between students and professors. Officials will work with students who had been studying with Amézquita Torres to pair them with other supervisors, he says.

The case was divisive. Some students and faculty had rallied to the defense of Amézquita Torres, who spent decades studying the behavior of poisonous frogs and other amphibians. They praised him as a mentor and researcher and argued it was unfair to punish him for behavior—such as dating students—that had long been considered acceptable on campus. But his critics, who took to social media and staged demonstrations to pressure the university to take action against him, argue the pain he caused outweighed his merits.

Many hope the research community at Uniandes can now start to heal. “We expect rough days ahead,” says biologist Catalina Palacios, a Ph.D. student at Uniandes who served as an informal advocate for some of the complainants, “in terms of trying to rebuild the community here.”

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