A Boston University geologist and prominent Antarctic researcher has been placed on administrative leave with pay — and soon could face termination — after a 13-month university investigation found that he sexually harassed a female graduate student nearly two decades ago.
Provost Jean Morrison wrote in a Nov. 17 letter to faculty that investigators found, “by a preponderance of evidence,” that David Marchant “engaged in sexual harassment in violation of Boston University’s Sexual Harassment Policy.” Marchant was accused by Jane Willenbring, now a Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor, of calling her a “slut” and “whore” when she accompanied him on an expedition to Antarctica as a 22-year-old graduate student.
The researcher directed “derogatory and sex-based slurs and sexual comments at Dr. Willenbring during the 1999-2000 field expedition to Antarctica,” according to the provost. Her letter was linked from a brief statement on BU Today, the university's official online publication, that announced the institution's Office of Equal Opportunity had concluded its review.
Backed by statements from other individuals, Willenbring and a second graduate student brought a complaint against Marchant in 2016. The two women accused the professor of verbal harassment and physical abuse during that expedition, including throwing rocks at Willenbring while she urinated and blowing volcanic ash into her eyes. Science magazine first broke the story about their allegations in early October.
Morrison wrote that the investigation, based on 1,000 pages of records and 30 witness reports, did not find “credible evidence” of physical attacks. But the investigators concluded that the “sexual harassment was sufficiently severe and pervasive so as to create a hostile learning and living environment.” Marchant, a tenured professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, retains his status as a faculty member but is no longer on campus, the letter continued.
“Dr. Marchant is extremely disappointed in the findings and continues to maintain that he did not engage in any sexually harassing behavior in 1999 or at another time,” his attorney, Jeffrey Sankey, told the Boston Globe on Friday. He also said the findings would be appealed.
If an appeal is unsuccessful, the university will begin “proceedings to terminate his faculty appointment,” the provost wrote.
In late October, in the wake of media reports about the case, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee launched its own investigation. Marchant has received nearly $5.5 million in federal grant money since the late 1990s, the committee noted.
Several high-profile scientists have been accused of harassment in recent years. As The Washington Post wrote last month:
In 2015, BuzzFeed published findings from an investigation at the University of California at Berkeley that astronomer Geoff Marcy had violated the school’s sexual harassment policy by touching and kissing undergraduates.
Last year, prominent paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond resigned his position as curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A museum employee accused Richmond of sexual assault, and in a subsequent investigation three undergraduate students said he groped them at a field site in Kenya.
In September, Mother Jones reported on a complaint filed by cognitive scientist Celeste Kidd against Florian Jaeger, a linguistics expert at the University of Rochester in New York. Kidd alleged that Jaeger sent her sexual messages and pressured her into renting a spare bedroom in his apartment, where he would mock her body and diet.
The University of Rochester, which promoted Jaeger while he was being investigated, came under fire for how it handled the complaint. In a recent open letter, more than 200 brain and cognitive scientists wrote that they have urged students not to apply to graduate programs there.
As for the Boston University investigation into Marchant's behavior, Willenbring told the Globe that “common sense prevailed.”