Dap Hartmann kijkt indringend op een bankje.
(Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Did Professor Tim de Zeeuw really do very bad things that justify harsh sanctions? If so, Dap Hartmann says it’s in everyone’s interest that this is made explicit.

Lees in het Nederlands

“He is not welcome at this university ever again,” said Leiden Executive Board President Annetje Ottow last year about the discredited Professor of Astronomy Tim de Zeeuw. Other institutes also declared him persona non grata, including the ESO (European Southern Observatory), the prestigious European organisation of which he was Director General from 2007 to 2017. The Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences kicked him out of its advisory board.

What did Tim de Zeeuw do to be punished so harshly? Did he rape or kill someone? Has he committed large-scale fraud involving money or scientific results? According to the local Leidsch Dagblad newspaper, he was ‘dirty and scary’. De Volkskrant newspaper mentioned ‘decades of transgressive behaviour’ and recalled an incident that I would characterise as an unusual sense of humour: you couldn’t just congratulate him on his birthday, you first had to earn that right. All the rest were unspecified allegations such as ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘unwanted physical contact’. The Leiden University Executive Board spoke of ‘abuse of power, gender discrimination, and systematically vilifying and belittling employees’. That sounds pretty bad and is obviously cause for concern. The fact that this has been going on for ‘decades’ is no excuse for that behaviour, but it proves that administrators knew about and tolerated it all those years. And now those same administrators are suddenly rushing to safety by persecuting miscreants whose behaviour they have condoned for decades. A hasty about-face to save your own face.

A hasty about-face to save your own face

Until the shit hit the fan, Tim de Zeeuw had a glorious scientific career and was regarded as one of the two most brilliant Dutch astronomers of the past 40 years. That other brilliant astronomer is his wife, Ewine van Dishoeck. Both graduated cum laude on the same day in 1984. After obtaining his PhD, Tim was employed by the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, where geniuses such as Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and Kurt Gödel preceded him. When I visited him there as a student in 1985, he was riding the old bicycle of Martin Schwarzschild who worked at Princeton University on numerical models of triaxial elliptical galaxies which Tim had theoretically analysed in his PhD thesis.

Perhaps Tim de Zeeuw really did do some very bad things that justify these harsh sanctions. It is in everyone’s best interest that this is made explicit. When a rapist or murderer is convicted, we know exactly what he has done and we can judge whether the sentence is proportionate to the crime. In the case of Tim de Zeeuw, nothing has been revealed that justifies this severe punishment. I find that unsavoury, not least because it surmises that your career may be in serious jeopardy if people find you ‘dirty and scary’. In our civilised society even rapists and murderers deserve a second chance. Is it then okay to retaliate Tim de Zeeuw’s objectionable behaviour by destroying his career?

And Dennis Wiersma saw that it was good.

Dap Hartmann is Associate Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Delft Centre for Entrepreneurship (DCE) at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. In a previous life, he was an astronomer and worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Together with conductor and composer Reinbert de Leeuw, he wrote a book about modern (classical) music.