Geoff Marcy, the prominent astronomer found guilty of sexually harassing several female students between 2001 and 2010, has resigned from his tenured position on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. The action comes in the wake of a growing outcry over the university’s lack of sanctions against him for his misconduct, including an online petition expressing support for the victims.
In an official statement, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele defended the decision not to fire Marcy outright, but added, “We believe this outcome is entirely appropriate and have immediately accepted his resignation.”
Buzzfeed’s Azeen Ghorayshi broke the story last week, having obtained a copy of the internal report, and interviewed three of the four women who lodged official complaints of “inappropriate physical behavior.” One former graduate student said Marcy had placed his hand on her thigh at a post-colloquium dinner, then slid it upward to grab her crotch. Marcy denied this charge, but the investigator wasn’t convinced, writing, “Based on the preponderance of evidence, I find it more likely than not that [Marcy] acted as reported.”
Marcy also denied (through his lawyer) giving another young woman a back massage late in the lab one night, with one hand under her shirt — an act witnessed by Harvard astronomer John Asher Johnson, a former graduate student of Marcy’s. Johnson said Marcy’s inappropriate behavior with female students was common knowledge in the astronomy community, and expressed regret that he himself did not speak out sooner because he did not yet have tenure:
“I hate that academia’s power structure, which allows a single phone call from a senior member to sink a person’s career, so often forces junior people into silence for fear of losing their jobs. For this reason I am in awe of the bravery of the women who spoke out all the more; they were far braver than I and other male astronomers have been over the years.”
In the wake of the investigation, and Buzzfeed’s report, Marcy posted an apology of sorts in an open letter to the astronomy community:
“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women. I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had. For that and to the women affected, I sincerely apologize. 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.”
And what punishment did the university mete out after determining that Marcy had violated Berkeley’s sexual harassment policies? They gave him a “strict set of behavioral standards” to adhere to from now on, and told him if he didn’t behave, and the school received any more complaints, only then would he be sanctioned, and possibly fired.
This was widely perceived as an ineffectual slap on the wrist, given the seriousness of the violations, and the fact that his behavior had been going on for years. As Joan Schmelz, who until recently led the American Astronomical Society’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.” It’s more of a mild finger-wagging. Tsk-tsk.
Even worse, the department’s interim chair, Gibor Basri, sent out a jaw-dropping tone-deaf email to faculty about the news, writing, “Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire.” He made no mention of Marcy’s victims.
This did not go over well.
On Monday, 24 of Marcy’s colleagues in Berkeley’s astronomy department issued a statement declaring that he “cannot perform the functions of a faculty member.” The graduate students and postdocs weren’t silent either, calling out the university for its limp response:
“The University’s failure to impose meaningful consequences on Geoff Marcy — offering instead vague threats of future sanctions should the behavior continue — suggests that Berkeley’s administration values prestige and grant money over the well-being of the young scientists it is charged with training,”
The outrage wasn’t limited to the astronomy department. “I am so disappointed and revolted with my university,” Berkeley biology professor Michael Eisen wrote on his blog. “It is simply incomprehensible that Marcy was not sanctioned in any way and that, were it not for Ghorayshi’s work we wouldn’t even know anything about this.”
Faced with such a unified public outcry, Marcy capitulated and tendered his resignation. But the consequences are far from over. For instance, what will happen to his two graduate students at Berkeley?
Typically, students rely on their advisors for, say, access to the Keck telescope, Caltech astronomer Mike Brown told Gizmodo via email. “If your advisor no longer is at an institute with access, you could be in big trouble,” he said. Harvard planetary scientist Sara Seager told Buzzfeed that she and others have extended their support to Marcy’s graduate students, offering “to host them for a short term visit (if they need to get away) or help them transfer to another school with a suitable advisor.”
Okay, but what about his research grants? In Marcy’s case, Buzzfeed reports that this amounts to nearly $900,000 in federal grants, plus another $100 million earmarked for Breakthrough Listen, a private project to find extraterrestrial civilizations. (Marcy resigned from that position as well.)
Grants are usually transferrable, according to Brown, although NASA’s grants are awarded to institutions rather than individual scientists. Standard practice at Caltech, for instance, is to allow departing faculty to be visiting professors for a few years until the grants run out—that way graduate students and postdocs, who rely on such funding, aren’t left high and dry. However, “Presumably that is not going to happen,” said Brown. “Certainly it’s not the first time someone resigned a faculty position in a hurry, but I actually don’t know what happens [now].”
Sadly, Marcy is not the only astronomer—and certainly not the only scientist—to exploit the imbalance of power in academia to prey on their students. This has to change. Meg Urry, director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics and president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), outlined some thoughts about how to combat sexual harassment in a guest post for Scientific American:
“The culture of astronomy departments should favor the well-being of students as much or more than faculty. Every allegation of sexual misconduct should be investigated, not shunted aside. Consequences for harassers must be serious and consistently applied. And it is vital that we support women who do have the courage to speak up, who risk retaliation in the worse case and who often suffer disbelief or dismissal.”
Maybe the fact that Marcy didn’t get away with it in the end offers a glimmer of hope for the future. Maybe other serial harassers in the community will think twice now before hitting on that sweet young thing in the lab. And maybe, just maybe, a day will come when I won’t ever again have to take time away from covering cool science to write yet another post about sexual harassment. Because, in the words of my esteemed Gizmodo comrade-in-arms, Mika McKinnon, “Fuck this. Seriously, fuck this.”
The AAS has released the following statement on sexual harassment by faculty:
Last Friday, news organizations reported that one of our colleagues, Prof. Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), was investigated for having sexually harassed at least four women over a period of at least a decade. The two women mentioned by name in the news reports are respected AAS members. Prof. Marcy posted a letter of apology for his behavior on his website, which he also sent to the AAS and to several colleagues, and he has resigned from the UCB faculty and from his position as principal investigator of the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project searching for life beyond Earth.
Scientists do their best work in a respectful environment that “encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas” — to quote the AAS Anti-Harassment Policy, which is codified in our Bylaws. The AAS Ethics Statement states that “All people encountered in one’s professional life should be treated with respect” and furthermore, that “More senior members of the profession, especially research supervisors, have a special responsibility to facilitate the research, educational, and professional development of students and subordinates.” The statement specifically mentions their responsibility for “providing safe, supportive work environments.”
The AAS deplores sexual harassment and expresses its unequivocal support for the people who risk their own professional status by speaking publicly in order to protect others from similar abuse.
The publicity surrounding the recent incident offers an important opportunity for all of us to discuss, within our groups and institutions, what responsibilities we have as professionals and how we can ensure that everyone in our profession is afforded a safe, supportive workplace within which they can thrive. It is unlikely this kind of behavior has occurred at only one institution, and each of us should look carefully to our own spaces. The AAS believes this is a moment in which we can improve our professional climate in important ways, and we encourage everyone to discuss harassment in astronomy with their colleagues and to contribute to its eradication. For our own part, the AAS will create a special task force to expand the AAS Ethics Statement to include procedures to be followed in the event that an AAS member violates any aspect of its provisions.
We live in a special moment for astronomy, with major discoveries and new worlds to uncover. It is a privilege to participate in the quest to understand our universe. If we pay attention to climate and accessibility in our teaching, learning, and research spaces, we will benefit from a broader talent pool, new ideas, and new energy. Astronomy will be the better for it.