Michael Balter, a long-time correspondent for Science magazine, announced today that he was taking a three-month leave of absence to protest the firing of four women in the art and production departments.
In an open letter to Science’s news editor, Tim Appenzeller, Balter wrote that it was “particularly painful and sad” for him to “register my profound dismay” over the dismissals.
“In what seems like one short year, we have gone from a culture appropriate to a nonprofit, membership organization like the AAAS, to the culture more typical of a Manhattan publisher or a Wall Street corporation—a culture in which even long-time, loyal employees are expendable and can be let go with essentially no notice,” Balter wrote.
Ginger Pinholster, a spokesperson for Science’s publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said she couldn’t comment on specific personnel matters, but “the way they [at AAAS] handle these changes to staff is always compassionate and humane…These departures seem to follow the exact protocol and pattern that they always have any time I’ve seen one at AAAS in 15 years.”
The departures were a necessary part of what AAAS calls its “transformation initiative, under way for a couple of years now, to move from print-centric to digital-first,” Pinholster said.
Balter wrote that the dismissals, during the week of Sept. 22, were handled with “brutality and insensitivity.” One colleague, for example, “was summarily fired and escorted out of the building; when she was allowed to return a few days later to clear out her desk, she was not permitted to talk to any of her former colleagues.” Another was offered a demotion, he wrote, and when she refused it was given one day to leave the building.
He raised questions about the handling of the other two dismissals as well.
Balter’s letter attracted attention on Twitter, where some participants wondered whether the staffers were let go for arguing against a recent Science cover that was widely criticized as objectifying the bodies of two transgender sex workers in Jakarta. Balter tweeted that he did not see “any clear evidence” that the firings were related to the cover.
For more, follow the Twitter discussion at Balter’s handle, @mbalter.