Former observatory head removed from university post after 'unacceptable behavior' allegations: report

gray domes atop a building with clouds in behind
The astronomical facilities of Leiden University. (Image credit: franswillemblok via iStock Editorial/Getty Images)

A Netherlands university has removed a former observatory head from his post after allegations of "extremely unacceptable behavior", according to a report.

Tim de Zeeuw, now a former astronomer with Leiden University, confirmed the removal Wednesday (Oct. 26) in a statement via a lawyer to Physics World (opens in new tab). He was also past director-general of the European Southern Observatory between 2007 and 2017, and past director of Leiden Observatory from 2003 to 2007.

The statement said the astronomer "cannot agree" with the university's executive board decision, but he will follow "all measures imposed," the report added. 

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The European Southern Observatory performs research using facilities like the Very Large Telescope in Chile. (Image credit: ESO/P.Horálek)

Leiden officials issued a statement (opens in new tab) on Oct. 18 that reported the results of an investigation caused it to remove a professor, which it did not name, who "subjected various colleagues to intimidating and unacceptable behavior for a longer period." The professor was suspended while the investigation took place, officials added.

"The professor will not be allowed to return to the university [and] will no longer be allowed to supervise Ph.D. candidates," Leiden officials wrote, pledging they would "look critically at the lessons that we as a university must learn from this, and how we can ensure that unacceptable behavior is addressed sooner in the future."

The Leiden investigation took place "after various members of staff had submitted a complaint to the dean about the professor in question," university officials added, noting the investigation included an independent complaints committee as well as the university's executive board.

Both the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany and the intergovernmental astronomy organization ESO also cut ties with the former Leiden professor. The removal from Max Planck was reported in Physics World, while ESO officials issued their own statement (opens in new tab) Wednesday.

"We express our deep support and sympathy for the victims of this harassment. ESO is strongly against all forms of harassment, bullying and other unacceptable behavior," ESO officials said, adding the astronomer is banned from all observatory premises, meetings and information technology facilities.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace