Is an Apology Enough?

Is Berkeley doing enough about a prominent scientist it found to have sexually harassed women for years? Did other scientists look the other way?

October 12, 2015
 
Geoff Marcy

Geoff Marcy, a professor of astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley, publicly apologized last week after a university investigation concluded he had repeatedly violated the institution’s sexual harassment policies. The allegations against Marcy involve unwanted physical contact with students over a decade, such as groping, kissing and massages. One of the incidents involved actions by Marcy at a scholarly meeting.

“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed [sic] by some women,” Marcy wrote in a letter posted to his university web page. “It is difficult to express how painful it is for me to realize that I was a source of distress for any of my women colleagues, however unintentional.”

The investigation, concluded earlier this year, came to light after BuzzFeed obtained a copy. Berkeley said that it gave Marcy “clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students,” and that he risked suspension or dismissal if he didn’t follow them.

Astronomy, like other science fields, has been dogged by complaints of gender discrimination. But the American Astronomical Society also has taken a strong stance against harassment, developing a lengthy antiharassment policy. It includes procedures for reporting, investigation and possible disciplinary action by the association.

Fellow scientists expressed their outrage -- if not surprise -- at the news on social media and elsewhere.

“Geoff's inappropriate actions toward and around women in astronomy is one of the biggest open secrets at any exoplanets or AAS meeting,” John Asher Johnson, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University and a former student of Marcy’s, wrote in a personal blog post, adding that he was sorry he didn’t speak out sooner against what he called his former professor’s “long con.” Johnson and others have said that Marcy’s behavior was enabled by his standing as the world’s most prominent figure in exoplanetary science, the study of planets beyond the solar system. He’s sometimes mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate, for example. The New York Times last year called him a “finder of new worlds.”

“‘Underground’ networks of women pass information about Geoff to junior scientists in an attempt to keep them safe,” Johnson wrote. “Sometimes it works. Other times it hasn't, and cognizant members of the community receive additional emails, phone calls and Facebook messages from new victims.”

Some have criticized Berkeley for not reacting more strongly to the complaints.

Joan Schmelz, a professor of astronomy at the University of Memphis and a former chair of the AAS’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, told BuzzFeed, “I’ve seen sexual harassers get slaps on the wrist before. This isn’t even a slap on the wrist.”

The discipline is taking action of its own. David Charbonneau, another professor of astronomy at Harvard, reportedly asked Marcy not to attend the upcoming meeting of the Extreme Solar Systems III conference at the end of November, and to step down from the organizing committee. Marcy reportedly agreed.

Marcy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Berkeley said in a statement, “We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action.”

Some have called for Marcy to voluntarily step down from work involving students. Kevin Gorman, a recent Berkeley graduate and the university's first Wikipedian-in-residence, for example, wrote in an open letter that he understood doing so might cripple Marcy's lab. But "I don't care," Gorman wrote. "I'm unconvinced that you belong on our campus at all, but you sure as hell don't belong in any role that involves student contact. Redemption is possible, but redemption takes time, not a blame-shifting apology letter and instant forgiveness." 

Johnson said that even if Marcy is "expunged" from astronomy's ranks, the discipline still must defeat its broader sexual harassment problem. 

"It will require a fundamental restructuring of the way we do business, and a reeducation of our field—all of us—in matters related to the culture of science and academe," Johnson wrote. "This will not be easy because our culture fosters a deep distrust and even hostility toward the 'soft sciences' such as sociology and psychology that provide us with the best tools for addressing our pervasive inequities. But if we are truly interested in a meritocratic scientific community that makes full use of its talent pool to understand the universe, we'll see this as a worthwhile investment. Until we do, there will be more stories filling more inboxes as we collectively shoot ourselves in the feet."

 

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