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Letter to the Community Dec. 2020

Dear Colleagues,

The Urbino Summer School in Paleoclimatology (USSP) is an annual course and workshop for graduate students, held in Urbino, Italy. It strives to bring together a diverse set of leading and up-and-coming scientists from a wide variety of scientific disciplines contributing to global paleoclimate research to teach and inspire the next generation of scientists in our field. The USSP strives to facilitate in-depth scientific discussion and stimulate innovative groundbreaking research and foster collaborations. In addition, conversations regarding important aspects of academia such as work-life balance, diversity and career choices are integrated in the course.

As co-directors, we recently invited all past instructors to provide feedback on the USSP. Conversations and comments that followed have shown us that most of you see great value in continuation of the USSP. We are committed to the future of the school and intend to continue to serve the community. The school has by now been attended by close to a thousand graduate students and postdocs, most of whom have had a great experience. Importantly, however, some members of our USSP community and the paleoclimate community at large are concerned that an exclusionary, even unsafe, atmosphere persists. As current co-directors we are doing our utmost to ensure the best possible learning and working environment for graduate students and instructors, so this concerns us gravely. We want to apologise to those that have been hurt, address problems, and confront the past head on.

This autumn, we received around two hundred detailed responses from past instructors, students, and members of our community via email, videoconference, and via an anonymous survey initiated by one of our instructors. This is in addition to annual anonymous post-participation feedback solicited from students who attended USSP every year since 2009.

Many comments from past USSP participants were positive, emphasising the importance of USSP as a forum for expanding paleoclimate knowledge and community networking. Yet it is clear from the recent correspondence that unacceptable instances of sexism, microaggressions, and exclusionary behaviour occurred at USSP over the years. Specifically, we are talking about sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, a culture where socialising in the evening while consuming alcohol was viewed as the norm, a culture where (mostly but not exclusively) women and junior instructors sometimes felt intimidated or excluded, and an atmosphere where unprofessional, sometimes disrespectful, behaviour by instructors towards other instructors occurred under the guise of open scientific discussion. While cultural differences may play a role in the interpretation of behaviour, we are unanimous in thinking that they in no way excuse incidents such as those described above in any setting, especially at an international summer school where cultural differences must be respected and universal rules related to professional behaviour and harassment must apply. Any behaviour that is not aligned with the expectations of our community and adopted by the EGU, AGU and other societies we are members of is unacceptable. We are committed to addressing past incidents that we are aware of and ensure that in the future all participants feel safe and welcome at USSP.

We would like to take this opportunity to sincerely and publicly apologise to those that have experienced instances of harassment and exclusion in the past. It is heart-breaking to know that some participants have had negative, even hurtful, experiences. Speaking up is a sign of courage, and we are appreciative to those that have spoken up and to those that have advocated for those that they know have been hurt. By holding us accountable, USSP community members are helping us see where problems lie and are helping us achieve our goals to foster an environment of inclusivity. Thus, we as co-directors, with the help of an advisory board, will institutionalise more effective measures and policies that will ensure that we are held accountable in the future. We are also committed to developing plans for actively recruiting faculty and students from underrepresented groups, providing anti-bias training, and mentoring new faculty to bring them into the USSP community.

To this end, in 2019, we adopted a Code of Conduct (CoC – current version here: that all USSP participants, including students, instructors, and guests are all obliged to adhere to, and formal mechanisms to deal with those who do not adhere to the CoC are in place.

The vast majority of incidents that we are now aware of were, as formulated by Clancy et al. (2020, PNAS), “below the water line”, meaning that these instances of harassment principally entailed disrespect and microaggressions. Because of this, they were not included in anonymous student survey data or directly reported to co-directors or ombuds-people at the time. Clearly, this indicates that reporting and accountability measures that were in place in past USSPs were insufficient. Therefore, some changes were incorporated over the past years and we are planning additional ones to make sure that all participants feel safe at USSP and incidents can be reported anonymously at any time to an independent board.    

Below we outline changes we have made to date:

1. Since 2015 we have on-site ombuds-persons (in the future these will be a mix of instructors and students, rather than just instructors) that can be contacted at all times during the summer school, independently of the co-directors.

2. Since 2015 we have offered sessions on diversity and inclusion in geoscience, these will be further integrated into the core course.

3. Since 2019 we have a clear and evolving Code of Conduct. We will now require that this CoC be signed by all students and instructors who participate in USSP. There will be clear and timely consequences for breaking the CoC.

4. Since 2019 we actively discouraged late night interactions between instructors and students with alcohol in bars, and provide ample opportunities for interaction/networking in settings that are safe and inclusive for everyone.

For all USSPs moving forward, we will:

5. Conduct personal discussions with anyone who has been (or will be) called out in the feedback that we received or reported on-site at USSP or to the independent advisory board (see #7 below). Sanctions on these individuals will depend on the severity and nature of the breach to principles of community as will be described in the CoC.

6. Provide clearer and more varied reporting mechanisms to students and instructors, both during and after the USSP, so that incidents of harassment or inappropriate behaviour can be reported anonymously and immediately investigated.

7. Create a USSP Advisory Board, advising on inclusion, equity, and reviewing student and instructor feedback as well as the long-term vision of the USSP. This board will be composed of people internal and external to USSP, and will include a student who recently attended the school. The board will work independently and will advise the USSP co-directors on handling any complaints.

8. Provide resources and best-practice information to all USSP participants on inclusive and culturally competent teaching and mentoring pedagogy, active listening, bystander intervention, microaggressions, and issues such as the diversity-innovation paradox.

9. Focus on effective pedagogy and continue to offer professional development sessions at USSP.

10. Strive to create a climate that favours diversity and inclusion. Actions include promoting diversity amongst students and instructors in terms of gender and country-of-origin, ensuring that social activities are inclusive, and putting practices in place that facilitate participation by attendees with young children. Other such measures will be proposed by the USSP Advisory Board in an effort to continually improve diversity, equity and inclusion.
We would like to explicitly state that all co-directors fully support the above statements and proposed changes to USSP culture and climate.
We think that with the above necessary changes and with the engagement of the paleoclimate community, USSP can offer a better experience for all involved, and spark ample discussion and scientific progress while providing professional development and networking opportunities. This way, the USSP strives to create an intellectually vigorous community in a safe environment for all instructors and participants.
We thank you for the time many of you took providing us with your feedback, which covered many aspects of pedagogy, course content, and organisation as well as the topics discussed above, and we will consider all of these suggestions in planning future courses. Please contact us if you have any comments or questions.

The co-directors of USSP

Simone Galeotti, Clara Bolton, Adina Paytan, and Appy Sluijs