I didn’t know, but I wasn’t surprised.

No, I take that back. I was surprised that the story was broken by Buzzfeed. But I wasn’t surprised by the content.

Geoff Marcy resigned from his position in the UC Berkeley Astronomy department, and he seems to have been removed from his other appointments as well. A great deal has already been said about this elsewhere. Bluntly, he sexually harassed women. An investigation found him guilty of sexually harassing women, and he was summarily slapped on the wrist. When this was made public (and there was no indication that this was meant to be made public), he resigned.

I’m not going to make paeans about how this is a triumph for student well-being at Berkeley because it’s honestly an embarrassment. It took ten years. For him to voluntarily leave.

I’m also not going to hold my breath for some Great Purge of Problem PIs. This just won’t happen. It probably won’t happen until the entire current generation of tenured professors has retired.  It will probably be a problem well past my generation of academics.

I’m only going to hope that fewer students avoid Berkeley because they’ve heard stories about this sort of thing happening. But when this is the response by the Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion, I can hardly blame them if they do:

“Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn’t include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). 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.”

In defense of the rest of Berkeley, the student response has been overwhelmingly supportive of the actual victims of Marcy’s harassment. Berkeley astronomy students email-blasted a letter to the department reflecting the broad consensus of the Berkeley physics graduate student community which I’m reproducing below for more visibility. The sentiment contained in this letter is essentially universal among every graduate student in every discipline that I’ve talked to about this.

The following statement represents the consensus reached by the UC Berkeley Astronomy Department graduate student community as of October 12th, 2015:

The determination by UC Berkeley’s Title IX Office that Astronomy Professor Geoff Marcy violated the University’s sexual harassment policies is deeply troubling. We are appalled by Geoff Marcy’s actions, and by the extended length of time his behavior continued without repercussions. Our concern is compounded by the University’s decision to forego immediate disciplinary action, and by the secrecy surrounding the findings: most members of the Department learned about the report—months after it was issued—from an article on BuzzFeed.

First, we offer our support to the women who have experienced sexual harassment from Geoff Marcy, and we pledge to work to make the Department safe and supportive for everyone, and to advocate for a zero-­tolerance sexual harassment policy.

This incident, and its handling by the relevant authorities, are symptoms of problematic attitudes ingrained in UC Berkeley as a whole, and the Astronomy Department in particular. 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. That at least some members of the Department were aware of Geoff Marcy’s penchant for inappropriate behavior and remarks—if not the full extent of his transgressions—for a decade leading up to the Title IX proceedings indicates that Department leadership has, historically, suffered similarly misaligned priorities.

The response issued by Astronomy Chair Professor Gibor Basri casts doubt on whether current Department leadership can adequately address this issue. Professor Basri’s email—which failed to extend support to victims of sexual harassment and instead directed students and postdocs to offer Geoff Marcy their sympathy—was inappropriate and offensive. We ask that Professor Basri relinquish leadership of this case to a faculty member who will not be biased by a long­standing personal and professional relationship with Geoff Marcy.

It is especially disappointing to watch these events unfold only months after the conclusion of a climate survey in our Department, which highlighted the need for substantive changes to the Department’s sexual harassment policies. Though several recommendations were drawn from the survey findings, none—as far as we are aware—have been implemented. It is time for the Astronomy Department to reaffirm its dedication to creating and maintaining an environment free from sexual harassment by immediately:

  1. Issuing an official statement in support of the women who were targets of Geoff Marcy’s sexual harassment
  1. Proclaiming a zero-­tolerance sexual harassment policy
  2. Guaranteeing the safety of young scholars by relieving Geoff Marcy of any teaching and mentoring responsibilities that allow him to interact with undergraduate students
  3. Aiding and supporting the students and postdocs he currently advises

Whether and under what circumstances Geoff Marcy should continue his relationship with the University of California is complicated, and the opinions of the graduate student community on this matter vary. We ask the Department to coordinate with the University to impose proportionate sanctions, while remaining sensitive to the academic needs of the graduate students in Geoff Marcy’s research group.

Preventing sexual harassment requires swiftly responding to incidents, and working proactively to address the systemic problems that allow harassment to happen. We are therefore coordinating with postdocs and faculty in Astronomy to craft a broad series of recommendations, which we encourage the Department to adopt. These recommendations include:

  1. Codifying the Department’s commitment to enforcing appropriate and timely consequences on Department members who violate the University’s sexual harassment policies
  2. Developing frequent and effective sexual harassment training for all Department members
  3. Moving toward greater transparency surrounding the results of future Title IX investigations—in particular, when investigations substantiate allegations of sexual harassment

We further request faculty support building interdepartmental alliances to revise the University policies and practices that led to our current crisis. While we are disturbed by the actions of some Department administrators, we recognize that several Astronomy professors were instrumental in initiating Title IX proceedings. These faculty members have communicated to us their intent to advocate for a just resolution to this incident, and to support the graduate student community.

We thank those professors who have reached out, while acknowledging that many other faculty members likely share their intentions.

We recognize that sexual harassment is pervasive in Astronomy and throughout academia; ours is not, unfortunately, an isolated incident. We hope that by taking the steps outlined above, UC Berkeley can become a leader in combating this issue, rather than an abettor of harassment.


Feature image courtesy Perhelion, CC 1.0 Public Domain License.

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