The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After years of sexually harassing students, superstar astronomer gets light warning

Geoff Marcy, known for his work finding exoplanets, received a mildly worded warning from the school. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley)

Update: Geoff Marcy now reportedly plans to resign

Geoff Marcy is one of the biggest names in astronomy, and he has helped lead the search for exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than our own, some of which could potentially host life. Last week, there were rumors that Marcy might receive a Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to the exoplanet hunt.

Instead, Marcy is being taken to task by the scientific community for sexually harassing women in his department throughout the years. On the day after the announcement for the Nobel Prize in physics, Marcy was posting a vague apology letter to his faculty page instead of celebrating the win that might have been.

[Sexism in science: Peer editor tells female researchers their study needs a male author]

On Friday, Buzzfeed's Azeen Ghorayshi broke a story that had been simmering in the field of astrophysics for at least a decade: The University of California at Berkeley had completed a six- month investigation of sexual harassment allegations made against Marcy, and the institution found that he had violated policies on several occasions.

From Buzzfeed:

Four women alleged that Marcy repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses and groping.
As a result of the findings, the women were informed, Marcy has been given “clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students,” which he must follow or risk “sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal.”

Marcy (who responded to a request for comment by directing us to his apology letter) seems to admit in his apology letter that harassment did indeed occur. But in a great example of the pervasive non-apology, he defends his intentions.

Others have done the same. In an e-mail to the New York Times, Marcy's wife, Susan Kegley, principal and chief executive of the Pesticide Research Institute, suggested that her husband's actions had been misinterpreted.

[Science columnist tells student bothered by breast-ogling prof: ‘Put up with it’]

“Others may interpret Geoff’s empathy and interest as a come-on. I can’t change their perspectives, but I think it is worth all of us examining how quickly one is judged and condemned without knowing all of the facts. The punishment Geoff is receiving here in the court of hysterical public opinion is far out of proportion to what he did and has taken responsibility for in his apology,” Kegley wrote.

In an article posted on the Daily Californian, a commenter who identified herself as a UC Berkeley faculty member defended Marcy as "a hug-giving kind of guy," and argued that his "warmth" made him a better teacher.

But in response to the investigation's findings — and UC Berkeley's apparent lack of disciplinary action — many members of the field seem to be taking a very different stance.

[Sexism often comes with a smile, study finds]

On Monday morning, an online petition to "support the people who were targets of Geoff Marcy's inappropriate behavior and those who have spoken publicly about it" had acquired more than 1,750 signatures. John Asher Johnson, a professor at Harvard, wrote a blog post detailing his turmoil during his time in Marcy's lab, where he witnessed harassment but felt unable to report it without hurting his career.

"With today's news story, I hope Geoff's long con of the astronomy community has finally come to an end," Johnson wrote. "That said, and if Geoff is finally brought to justice, it will only be a partial victory for our community."

Johnson goes on to point out — rightly — that many others in academia hide behind tenure to harass female students, however naive these powerful professors may claim to be about the nature of their attention. And even when harassment isn't "serial" in nature, it's these kinds of aggressions — unwanted touching, kissing or sexually explicit comments — that many women have to put up with repeatedly.

In an e-mail to The Post, University of Melbourne astrophysicist Katie Mack pointed out that Marcy's case is unusual only in that it eventually came to the public's attention. She wrote:

Nothing else is unique: there are other harassers, just as bad; there are other people "everyone knows" are creepy or harassing or dangerous for female students to be around; there are other secret internal investigations by universities after which no meaningful action is taken. There are countless women (and sometimes men) whose careers, safety, and health are undermined by people abusing positions of power. Many of those scientists leave the field because they can't or won't put up with it indefinitely, or because their careers have been so compromised by the abuse that they lack support and opportunities. There are countless professors who have enough prestige and security that they can rest assured that any complaints against them will be suppressed by their colleagues and covered up by administration.
This is how it works. This is the system in which we operate. Victims who come forward are put through a terrible ordeal in addition to the fear, self-doubt, and impossible choices imposed by their abusers. When victims go through the process, it rarely results in anything positive for them or punitive for the perpetrator. As long as universities have incentives to keep harassment quiet and to protect their faculty investments, and as long as the power structure of academia is weighted so incredibly heavily toward established professors, it's hard to see how anything will change. At the moment, universities have little incentive to protect students in cases where that protection would mean punishing (or losing) one of their Old Boys' Club stalwarts.
I hope that Geoff Marcy stops being in a position to harm students and colleagues. I hope that UC Berkeley goes to some kind of effort to make amends for the harm they've done by abetting him. But it's not just Marcy, and it's not just Berkeley, and it will take more than firing Marcy or sanctioning Berkeley to create an environment that's safe for us to get on with doing the science we love.

The number of women in physics and astronomy departments is growing, but it's still lower than it should be. And in a world where the hope of getting a Nobel nod matters more to a university than the safety and success of its female students, that's no surprise.

Read More:

Men (on the Internet) don’t believe sexism is a problem in science, even when they see evidence

Gender gap: Women welcome in ‘hard working’ fields, but ‘genius’ fields are male-dominated, study finds

Science columnist tells student bothered by breast-ogling prof: ‘Put up with it’

I’ve faced sexual assault, harassment and discrimination as a female scientist. My complaints were dismissed.