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Geologist’s sacking prompts outcry

Researchers say that Irina Artemieva’s dismissal from the University of Copenhagen runs counter to international academic standards.

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Irina Artemieva

Irina Artemieva is a solid-state geologist.Credit: Irina Artemieva

For the second time in three years, geoscientists are protesting the dismissal of a geologist from the University of Copenhagen.

The management of the university’s science faculty dismissed Irina Artemieva, a tenured professor and internationally esteemed specialist in lithology, on 29 July — saying that she has repeatedly failed to fulfil various administrative and teaching duties. They allege that she has failed to use the appropriate calendar to plan holidays; travelled to conferences without approval; and caused inconvenience to examination and teaching schedules. “Your actions and behaviour have had a negative impact on the performance of your duties relating to teaching and research activities in overall terms,” the faculty told Artemieva in the July letter informing her of her dismissal.

Artemieva denies the accusations, and defended herself in a 128-page document sent to the faculty of science after the management informed her in May that it was contemplating her dismissal. She says that all her external work activities, including field trips, conference attendance and editorial work, are standard professional undertakings that she has documented as required by the university’s rules.

An international group of 32 geoscientists says that the university’s action is problematic because the reasons given do not warrant the dismissal of a tenured professor, by international academic standards. This — combined with the similar dismissal of another geologist three years ago from the same faculty, which geoscientists also protested about — threatens the reputation of the University of Copenhagen and the Danish university system, they say in a July letter sent to the university after it had told Artemieva that it was considering her dismissal.

In 2016, the faculty’s management sacked Hans Thybo, a prominent geologist who at the time was president of the European Geosciences Union, over his use of a private e-mail account for work purposes. A group of geoscientists similarly criticized that sacking, and urged the university to reconsider its decision. Thybo, now a researcher at Istanbul Technical University in Turkey, appealed against the sacking, and received a settlement of six months’ salary after arbitration discussions between the university and a trade union representing academic employees — but he was not reinstated to his post.

Personal disagreements

“Throughout most of the developed world, a tenured professor can only be dismissed for gross misconduct or criminal activity,” the group of geoscientists wrote. “Professor Artemieva’s dismissal appears to be based on personal disagreements between her and the management of the department,” the scientists wrote. “At least on these occasions, the University of Copenhagen is not adhering to the international standards of academic freedom and the rights of its employees.”

“This new dismissal will damage the reputation of the university system and the country’s scientific community even more than the earlier case,” they wrote.

“Irina is an outstanding researcher, adviser and geoscience community member,” says Seth Stein, an Earth scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who organized the protest letter to the university. “Losing her would be a great loss to the geophysics programme at the University of Copenhagen.”

The University of Copenhagen declined Nature’s request for comment on the dismissal, saying that it does not discuss matters concerning individual employees. The Danish ministry for science and education also declined to comment on the case, or on the suggestion that the dismissal would harm Danish universities’ reputations.

‘Professional enmity’

Artemieva also says that her treatment has amounted to discrimination — complaints that the university says in its letters to her are unsubstantiated. The researcher, who is originally from Russia and was the only female professor in her department, says that she was consistently made to feel unwelcome after gaining her tenured position through an open call for applications. “No matter what I would do, I was facing professional enmity here from the very start. Whether because I’m Russian, or because I’m a woman in a male-dominated environment, or because I was more successful in fund-raising than others, I felt unwelcome all the time,” she says.

In Artemieva’s dismissal letter, the department’s dean, John Renner Hansen, says that the faculty of science “does not recognize the picture of [Artemieva] having been exposed to ‘harassment’, ‘bullying’ and ‘discrimination’ since you were appointed professor”. It adds: “Your actions have been confrontational and conflict-escalating … Rather than responding to the critique raised, you continue to make accusations against different management members.”

Artemieva, who has received legal support from a lawyer appointed by a trade union, says she hasn’t decided what legal steps she might take. She says that her long-running feud with the management has worn her down. “The results of these actions is my four months of sickness over three years and severe health damage,” she wrote in her defence statement.

Nature 572, 574-575 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02461-3

Updates & Corrections

  • Clarification 22 August 2019: An earlier version of this story misstated Hans Thybo’s primary affiliation. The text has been amended.

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