Archaeologist accused of bullying is reinstated at Max Planck institute | Science

A Berlin court today reinstated embattled archaeologist Nicole Boivin as a director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH), a world-leading institute in the study of prehistory.

Boivin was removed from her directorship in October after an internal investigation by the Max Planck Society (MPG) reportedly found she bullied junior staffers and took credit for other researchers’ work, among other charges.

Boivin initially accepted an offer to remain at MPI-SHH in a diminished role as a researcher. Then, in November, she filed for an injunction with the High Civil Court (Landgericht) in Berlin, seeking to block her demotion while she challenges it. Judges granted the temporary injunction today, effectively reinstating Boivin as MPI-SHH’s director, with supervisory responsibilities over institute staff and a multimillion-euro budget.

In an email to staffers at MPI-SHH sent Monday afternoon, Boivin celebrated the decision. “I am very happy to be back in place,” she wrote. She called her removal “a massive miscarriage of justice I am confident will be rectified in the courts.”

MPG has pledged to continue to press for her dismissal. “This is disappointing insofar as this ruling does not take into account the welfare of the employees at the Institute,” MPG Secretary General Rüdiger Willems said in a statement on Monday. “[MPG] will appeal the ruling.”

Today’s decision turned on MPG’s decision to remove Boivin without the approval of MPG’s Senate, which her lawyer argued violated the society’s bylaws. MPG spokesperson Christina Beck notes German law gives an employer just 2 weeks to act once it becomes aware of grounds to immediately terminate an employee’s contract. That was too little time to convene and get the approval of MPG’s Senate, which includes politicians and representatives from outside the scientific community as well as prominent scientists and other institute directors. According to Beck, Willems decided to act within the 2-week window required by law, rather than wait for a meeting scheduled for mid-November.

But Sascha Herms, a labor lawyer who represented Boivin in court, argued that according to MPG’s bylaws, the 2-week clock wouldn’t start ticking until the Senate—which has the power to fire directors—was informed. The Berlin court agreed.

The court also considered whether Boivin or MPG would be more damaged if she was removed from her position while she fights the demotion. “They weren’t able to prove they have interests that outweigh the interests of Prof. Boivin,” Herms says.

Some current and former staffers expressed concern about Boivin’s return. “I worry that this temporary decision exposes junior scholars—particularly those who spoke about their experiences to the commission or to the press—to further abuse or retaliation,” says William Taylor, an archaeozoologist now at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who worked under Boivin as a postdoc.

But several staffers at MPI-SHH say it’s Boivin who has been treated unfairly. They argue that the yearslong investigation that led to her demotion was opaque and secretive. In an email obtained by Science, Beate Kerpen, MPI-SHH’s scientific director, complained to staff at the institute about the investigation’s “lack of transparency and communication” and “failure … to follow very basic legal principles ensuring fairness to all sides.”

The case has put MPG, one of the largest and best-funded basic science research institutions in the world, under an uncomfortable spotlight: Of the society’s 304 directors, only 54 are women. And in the past few years, several women have been removed from their director positions whereas only one man has been publicly demoted.

In a letter to MPG’s senate in November, more than 145 female scientists pointed out that recent demotions at MPG have disproportionately impacted women; the letter noted Boivin’s case but did not address its merits.

In November, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, a Nobel laureate and a director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, argued in a separate letter to her fellow members of MPG’s Senate that there are “deep-seated, unacknowledged prejudices against women in leadership positions” at MPG, according to press accounts.  

The letters frustrated some with inside knowledge of the situation. “It is hard enough to come forward in situations like these,” a doctoral student affiliated with MPI-SHH who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation told Science. “It is extremely discouraging to early female scientists to know that if they speak up against an established female scientist who is abusing their power, they will not only have to contend with an academic system that does not value or support them, but also a wall of established female scientists who do not care about their experiences.”

Some staffers hope Boivin’s reinstatement will stabilize the situation. “The decision to remove her without any warning and without a concrete solution in place had caused a lot of stress and uncertainty for us,” one doctoral researcher at MPI-SHH told Science. “This is better than the uncertainty of the last few weeks.”

Willems said in his statement that MPG plans to meet within days to decide how to “adequately protect the employees,” and to respond to the situation at MPI-SHH, where one of its vice presidents has been serving as interim director since late October.

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