A Star Scientist From The Max Planck Society Allegedly Harassed And Bullied Her Colleagues

This post was translated from German.


Bernd Wackerbauer

Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

“Don’t waste any more time with him. He’s a fraud. He doesn’t even know what a computer program is.”

“…maybe you can try and avoid playing one side or the other — this is a bad Chinese habit”

Subject: Indians
“…constantly dishonest. They drive me crazy!”

These are snippets of emails sent to students and colleagues by Guinevere Kauffmann, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

Nearly a dozen such emails from the professor have been obtained by BuzzFeed News Germany. These emails are not about professional feedback, but rather about power, degradation and racism.

Guinevere Kauffmann is an internationally known researcher and recipient of the Leibniz Prize, the most important award for research funding in Germany. Nine graduate and post-graduate students told BuzzFeed News Germany that she has bullied students and scientists for years.

Kauffmann leads the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching with her husband Simon White and two other professors. Her husband is one of the most important astrophysicists in the world. Together, their résumés read like a catalogue of the most renowned research institutions in the world: Cambridge, Berkeley, Princeton, University of California Santa Barbara, National Observatory Beijing.

Kauffmann and White have the power to make careers – and to break them. Their influence extends far beyond Germany: White is “almost a god in China,” one of the young scientists told BuzzFeed News Germany. He, like most of the scientists coming forward with allegations, have asked for anonymity because they fear professional ramifications.

Over the last three months BuzzFeed News Germany has interviewed these students, analyzed numerous email exchanges between Kauffmann and her students, and read complaints filed by employees to the institute.

The research shows how employees and students are treated at one of the most highly respected research institutes in the world. While the institute in Garching outwardly presents itself as the cutting edge of German research, young scientists talk of despotism, fear of superiors, and destroyed careers.


Max-Planck-Gesellschaft / Via mpg.de

The accusations against the director are only the latest in a global debate about bullying and abuse of power in science. Women physicists and astrophysicists are making harassment allegations public under the hashtag #AstroSH. For example, famous physicist Lawrence Krauss was placed on temporary leave at Arizona State University following accusations of sexual harassment. And astrophysicist Rachael Livermore was harassed by a colleague in a scientific article so severely that she has since left the field of science.

In early February German news magazine Der Spiegel reported similar accusations at a Max Planck institute, yet without naming the specific institute (Astrophysics) or the professor (Kauffmann).

BuzzFeed News Germany is providing these details because after the report by Der Spiegel, the scientists who had complained felt that the institute did not take sufficient measures to review the accusations and protect students. Despite the allegations Kauffmann remains the director of the institute and, according to the Max Planck Society, which operates the institute in Garching, is currently advising one graduate and two post-graduate students.

The accusations against the director are only the latest in a global debate about bullying and abuse of power in science. 

Training arranged for Kauffmann has not improved her conduct toward students, according to individuals affected by the alleged behavior. That is why one scientist is stating accusations against Kauffmann to BuzzFeed News Germany for the first time, under her real name.

While speaking with BuzzFeed News Germany, a different scientist employed at the institute referred to the Max Planck Society’s approach as a “smokescreen tactic.” He wrote: “I would hope for disciplinary measures in the event of such incidents, for all individuals who exhibit such unworthy conduct.”

BuzzFeed News Germany offered to interview the professor so that she could comment on the allegations against her. Guinevere Kauffmann initially agreed to meet and wrote in an email, “I think it’s time that I respond to these accusations personally.” She continued, “I have much to say about leading women in science, how much fire they’re under.”

A meeting never came to fruition, however. The Max Planck Society advised Kauffmann against it and instead issued a statement in which the organization spoke on behalf of both the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics as well as the professor herself.

The statement claims that the Max Planck Society immediately investigates misconduct of any sort, provided there are sufficiently concrete indications of misbehavior, to put an end to it. The accusations against Kauffmann have been known internally since January 2016, it states. Kauffmann reportedly has been taking part in training since then, and there have been no further complaints.

The Max Planck Society thus contradicts its own statements made to Der Spiegel and BuzzFeed News Germany a few months prior. In late March the society stated that it had only been informed of alleged bullying during an assessment in June 2016.


Frank Leonhardt / picture-alliance / dpa

The Max Planck Society in Munich.

Two years passed after this assessment of bullying allegations, two years in which the Max Planck Society and the institute apparently made no changes to its complaint structures. According to an internal memo among the institute’s leadership from April 5, 2018, a change to the code of conduct was first discussed in response to the report in Der Spiegel.

Interest in a public clarification of these accusations is thus especially high. Such clarification would be as good as impossible without clearly naming the institute and the professor.

In April 2018 Director Eiichiro Komatsu sent a memo [link to document] to employees and graduate students of the institute. In it he admitted that it is difficult to complain about professors in the Max Planck Society. He wrote: “While we take various measures to address problems, they do not always seem to work.”

He continued, “The current ombudsperson states that in the past six years since she took office, she has only been visited by two individuals. It would be naive to think that the absence of complaints means that there are none.” Indeed, many more people reportedly approached the woman before she was appointed ombudsperson.

Emails have been obtained by BuzzFeed News Germany showing that at least two young researchers expressed concerns about misconduct by superiors at the institute to various authorities, including the equal opportunities officer of the Max Planck Society and the chair of the works council of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics.

BuzzFeed News Germany has also acquired emails and statements from Kauffmann to students in which she refers to them as “frauds,” accuses them of fabricating data, and denounces them in front of other colleagues. Accusations that, when coming from such an influential researcher, can massively harm careers.

Regarding an Indian student she wrote that Indians cannot be trusted. She accused Chinese researchers of having a “bad Chinese habit” and sent them links to a medical guide so that they “will finally grow up.”

Another time she wrote to a female student: “We all know that young women don’t listen to elders.” And, “Gay men also have their problems.”

Kauffmann allegedly not only insulted students but also placed them under extreme pressure, and threatened to not extend their contracts or to fire them. According to multiple recipients, emails with personal attacks against colleagues were also sent to international colleges and thus potential future employers of the researchers in training.

“People depend on their letters of recommendation. If you get snubbed, that can be really bad for you,” said Hans (a pseudonym), who is obtaining his PhD in Garching. In his first telephone interview with BuzzFeed News Germany he began by saying, “I want this all to go public.” In that regard he is nearly alone at the institute. All of his attempts at directing affected individuals to BuzzFeed News Germany faltered, usually because people are afraid, he said.

In a later email Hans wrote, “It makes me furious and sad that we can’t do more. We’re faced with it every day and my friends have to endure it.”

A scientific assistant at the Max Planck Institute in Garching said that she was aware of bullying by Kauffmann and has warned future students about the professor. “Unfortunately they still took the job,” she wrote.

One of the students who came to the institute despite warnings is Nils (a pseudonym), a graduate student under Kauffmann from 2013 to 2014. It is still difficult for him to talk about that time. That is the first thing that he said when BuzzFeed News Germany called him.

Everything went well for the first year at the institute, he wrote. Yet in the second year he was faced with a scientific problem that he could not solve alone. Instead of supporting him, he said, Kauffmann placed pressure on him.

“She told me I’m too slow, which intimidated me,” he said, adding that he did not receive any help. “I isolated myself in my office.” Looking back, he said that was a mistake.

“I thought it was just me. The graduate student who couldn’t.”

Nils eventually solved his problem on his own, as well as programming a code and writing a scientific paper. Still, Kauffmann reportedly kept telling him to find a different profession.

“I felt dumb and incapable. She always posed ultimatums to me, even though I actually had enough time to complete my PhD on schedule,” said Nils.

The institute ultimately cancelled his stipend in 2014. Within two weeks he had no income. That was fatal for him as an international student. “I had no safety net whatsoever. I was simply trapped in Germany, without money, and unable to apply for unemployment,” he said.

This rule was changed in 2015. International graduate students at the institute now have employment contracts, and thus better protection against termination.

Nils stated that he spoke with Kauffmann’s husband Simon White and the ombudsperson at the time about the impending end of his stipend. Yet they were neither willing nor able to assist him, he said. To make matters worse, the only members of the committee overseeing his thesis were Guinevere Kauffmann, her husband, and one of their employees. Nils did not know who he could turn to. The case is reminiscent of the harassment scandal at the ETH Zürich, where a married couple was also running a research institute.

“I was embarrassed and felt worthless,” Nils told BuzzFeed News Germany.

Just one year later he successfully obtained his PhD at a different European research institute. When he began discussing his experience with Kauffmann, he noted that he is not alone in what happened to him.

“I thought it was just me. The graduate student who couldn’t.”

Andressa Jendreieck, from Brazil, worked at the institute until the summer of 2017, and is a friend of Nils. She no longer works in science, so she has no fear of using her name. She told BuzzFeed News Germany, “I’ve seen Guinevere Kauffmann screaming in her office. And she sent Nils emails that really destroyed him.”

Scientists affected by Kauffmann’s alleged behavior are certain that the Max Planck Society knew about the accusations, if not in writing. “The Max Planck Society has to know about it. Because there have been so many complaints,” said Sebastian (a pseudonym), who works at a research facility in Garching with a lot of personnel overlap with the Max Planck Institute.

In an initial statement to BuzzFeed News Germany in March 2018, the Max Planck Society said that it first learned about allegations against Kauffmann during the visit by the expert advisory committee in July 2016. The expert advisory committee is a group of external professors who visit the Max Planck Institutes every three years and evaluate the research being conducted there. There were no complaints before that visit, the society said.

BuzzFeed News Germany then confronted the society with emails showing that scientists had been complaining about bullying by the director six months before that, as early as January 2016. The emails show that scientists were turning to the director of the work council at the time, Ewald Müller. In response, the Max Planck Society wrote in a second statement:

“According to the Max Planck Institute, half a year before the expert advisory committee session a postdoc wrote about problems to a work council member, who in turn contacted the chair of the work council. There were numerous discussions between the executive director at the time Eiichiro Komatsu and the director both with and without work council involvement.” The scientist in question tells BuzzFeed News Germany that, contrary to this statement, no discussions were ever held with her.

BuzzFeed News Germany approached former Work Council Chair Ewald Müller for comment, but has not yet received a response.

“This matter with Guinevere Kauffmann and her husband is by far the worst. But the prevailing culture in the entire institute is bad. Things happen there that aren’t okay,” said Hans. Andressa Jendreieck agreed. “I get the impression many of the advisors are bullying their employees.”

All nine scientists who spoke with BuzzFeed News Germany say that the institute is profoundly hierarchical. You either endure it, or you break.

In theory there are many ways to file a complaint at the Max Planck Institute in Garching and within the Max Planck Society itself. Both have their own equal opportunities officer. There are thesis committees that accompany the graduate students through promotion. There are ombudspersons. And there is the expert advisory committee that comes to the institute every three years.

Yet all of these ways of filing a complaint have one problem: Students do not trust them.

First off, some members of the expert advisory committee are personal friends with Kauffmann and her husband, according to scientists who spoke with BuzzFeed News Germany. One can thus never be certain that the information is treated as confidential.

Secondly, the members of the expert advisory committees are selected by the president of the Max Planck Society on the basis of recommendations from the institutes. This means that they are not completely independent observers.

The Max Planck Society states in this regard, “The central task of the expert advisory committee is the evaluation of scientific work at the institute. The committee members are thus selected on the basis of their own excellent scientific credentials and corresponding scientific expertise in the respective field. Under these conditions the president defers to recommendations from the MPI, and there is thus scientific proximity to the institute.”

The expert advisory committee is insufficient as a monitoring body for other reasons as well, said Ondra (a pseudonym), who worked at the institute until recently. “We can’t wait three years for someone to come and to tell them that something’s not right.”

She said that when the expert advisory committee visited in 2016, she and other students approached the Vice President of the Max Planck Society, Ferdi Schüth, with their problems. He reportedly said that the professor has a “right to graduate students” and that he could not do anything about that.

BuzzFeed News Germany contacted Schüth for comment, but has not yet received a response. The Max Planck Society wrote, “Vice President Professor Ferdi Schüth was made aware of deficits in the care for graduate students in the director’s department during the expert advisory committee visit in 2016, and immediately sought to speak with her.”

Criticism of the advisors reportedly cannot be expressed to the scientists of the thesis committees, either. The thesis committee usually consists of three senior scientists, including the advisor, and is supposed to support students during their thesis. “Your advisor is their colleague, and so they don’t get all that involved when the students are unhappy. There isn’t much they can do,” Ondra said. “You can either leave or keep on suffering.”

“The Max Planck Society touts the expert advisory committee as something that can uncover all problems, but in my experience it’s a deeply flawed process and ultimately useless for reporting serious problems and protecting young employees,” wrote Kaleigh (a pseudonym), who worked at the institute some years ago, in an email to BuzzFeed News Germany.


Db Max-planck-gesellschaft / picture-alliance / dpa

This picture of the Milky Way shows the birth of new stars. The camera was developed in Garching.

During a visit by the expert advisory committee in 2007, Kaleigh complained to them that her superiors were not providing her with letters of recommendation. Without this letter, Kaleigh did not stand a chance on the job market. The conversation, she is certain, was supposed to be confidential, but she doesn’t believe that it was.

“After the visit it was clear that the directors all knew this problem had been discussed and that I was the one who brought it up. The confidentiality was not respected,” she told BuzzFeed News Germany.

Because it was discovered that she had complained, Kaleigh said she was summoned to Director Simon White’s office. There, Kaleigh said, White told her that he was annoyed that she had addressed the problem externally, because there were doubts about employing her anyway.

“That was pretty devastating,” she said.

She then tried to find a new job as quickly as possible. She felt that criticism was not tolerated at the institute. “Employees and students who report problems are shut out and treated as though they had betrayed the team.”

This may explain why, besides the report to the expert advisory committee, the Max Planck Society and the institute claim they have almost no written complaints on file. Yet according to the scientists who spoke with BuzzFeed News Germany, the lack of written complaints does not at all mean that these problems are not present.

“Whenever someone complains, it’s verbal,” Ondra said. “Even if you speak with the ombudsperson, there’s not an official complaint because it’s confidential. So the problem is that nobody knows what should actually constitute an official complaint.”

This is also criticized in the expert advisory committee report from 2016, which stated: “The position of ombudsperson in its current form is insufficient to address difficult situations: they are selected by institute employees and may be less inclined to discuss problems with the directors out of fear of consequences for their own career.”

As Andressa Jendreieck put it, “There’s no one you can speak to and not be afraid of.”


Afp / AFP / Getty Images

Neighboring galaxies, as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“I still haven’t rediscovered my love for astronomy,” said Amanda (a pseudonym), who studies galaxies neighboring the Milky Way. For most people these galaxies are still very far away, but for astrophysicists they are quite close. Their stars can still be seen when you go out to the yard, lie on your back and look up at the sky on a clear summer night.

When Amanda talks about her work you can sense the fascination she once had for her career. She speaks of gases that expand, or make up space, or are responsible for the creation of the stars and the birth of the cosmos. She always wanted to be a scientist, even as a child. She was entirely certain in her profession. Then she met Guinevere Kauffmann.

Amanda worked directly for Kauffmann and, along with Ondra, was one of the scientists who approached the expert advisory committee in 2016. In emails Kauffmann accused her of errors she did not make. BuzzFeed News Germany has obtained emails from Kauffmann that students and postdocs had submitted with the expert advisory committee complaint. “Just grow up,” one said. In another, Kauffmann wrote that “he can’t even understand a computer program.”

After the visit by the expert advisory committee, the leadership of the Max Planck Society immediately spoke with the director, the society told BuzzFeed News Germany. Kauffmann took the accusations very seriously, the Max Planck Society added, and immediately agreed to “professional training” and to daily monitoring in the workplace.

“We have not since received any new complaints. The executive director confirmed to us last year that the situation has improved in the meantime,” the Max Planck Society said.

The scientific assistant who warned others about Kauffmann told BuzzFeed News Germany that the professor is now being “very closely supervised,” and that this has improved the situation.

The Max Planck Society told BuzzFeed Germany that it would be illegal to report on these cases.

The Max Planck Society told BuzzFeed Germany that it would be illegal to report on these cases, because they happened years ago. “Due to the dated nature of the allegations, any identifying report would be illegal,” the Society wrote.

But journalists are, in fact, allowed to report on past incidents, especially when they occurred only a few years ago. Furthermore, some scientists told BuzzFeed News Germany that Kauffmann continues to harass employees and students.

The training did not change anything, said Ondra. “What did change is that she isn’t present at most meetings anymore. So her behavior is less visible, but she is still problematic.”

A scientist employed at the institute said that these measures aren’t enough. “As far as I know the Max Planck Society has not taken any measures except for the training, which hardly anyone at the institute was officially notified of. I think this policy of obfuscation is harmful and unreasonable.”

BuzzFeed News Germany asked the Max Planck Society and the institute whether students, scientific assistants and parties other than the executive director were questioned about Kauffmann, and whether they have perceived an improvement in her conduct.

The Max Planck Society did not address this question in its response.

Pascale Müller ist Reporterin für Politik und sexualisierte Gewalt. Kontakt: [email protected]

Contact Pascale Mueller at [email protected].

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