What exactly does it take to remove an academic for sexual harassment?

Michelle Collins Oct 12, 2015

About midway through a long drive up North this weekend with friends, I turned to my phone for a little distraction, going through the normal cycle of checking email, Facebook and Twitter. It was in the second app that I suddenly sat bolt upright and exclaimed ‘Holy crap!’, leaning forwards to fill my two non-astronomer, non-academic friends in on the Buzzfeed article all over my timeline, detailing an internal UC Berkeley investigation into sexual harassment claims made against a well known astronomy professor, Geoff Marcy.

My surprise, it is important to point out, was not that Geoff Marcy had been accused of sexual harassment. As I work within a different subfield to Marcy, our paths have seldom crossed, so I have not personally interacted with him, and certainly have not experienced harassment from him. However, I have heard multiple accounts from numerous reliable sources of inappropriate behavior from him, spanning a time frame that is longer than my career. This includes the very public incident occurring at the 2010 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which was one of the complaints upheld by UC Berkeley’s investigation. So the news and the findings of the investigation were not a surprise. My surprise was that he had finally been investigated and found in violation of Berkeley’s campus sexual harassment policy. Given his status in the field (he is an incredibly successful astronomer, often tipped for an eventual Nobel Prize), he seemed almost untouchable. And perhapsn he still is. Because despite finding that Marcy had violated university sexual harassment policy on multiple occasions between 2001 and 2010, he has seemingly gone unsanctioned. The official response is that 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.”

So… don’t do it again, basically. Which has, understandably, deeply upset and frustrated many people throughout our community. A number of well written responses to this incident have been posted online, including this by Harvard astronomy Professor, John Johnson, this by San Jose State Philosophy Professor Janet Stemwedel, and this by Berkeley Professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development, Michael Eisen, on how disappointing and harmful both Marcy’s behaviour, and Berkeley’s response have been. And the question I find myself asking is this: what exactly is required to formally punish someone for sexual harassment? Apparently not a demonstrable track record spanning a decade. Apparently not even an admission of guilt (to at least some of the accusations, as can be seen in Marcy’s open apology letter). Even at this point, we can only expect institutions to address breaches of sexual harassment policy, and hence the law, with a slap on the wrist. And worse, with support for the perpetrator, as seems to be the case in an email from the chair of the astronomy department where they suggest that the person most hurt by these events is NOT the victims, but Marcy himself.

This is why I was so shocked upon reading the news. And my non-academic friends couldn’t grasp how this could be possible. How could a university protect a member of staff over the safety of their students, even when they had more than ample cause to dismiss him? How can we expect victims of sexual harassment and assault to come forwards when we demonstrate that, even for cases where guilt is established, nothing is done? The professional consequences for the victims seem far higher than for the perpetrator, with many leaving the field, or being forced out by those they accused, or their defenders. And this is why I admire and respect the bravery and determination of the complainants in this case against Marcy. And why I feel so deeply for them that the outcome has been inaction on Berkeley’s part. And I am not alone in this, as this open letter of support for the victims of Marcy, with almost 2000 signatures so far, demonstrates.

How can this be the system that we have? That our only defense against routine harassers is to exchange information with other women at conferences about who should be avoided because of their repeated inappropriate interactions with junior people and students in the field? My very first conference, I was taken aside by a female colleague who pointed out two individuals that I should be careful around, because of the way they pursued female students at meetings. One of them did indeed approach me during that meeting, and on subsequent occasions, in a way that I would categorize as unprofessional. Luckily, as I was made aware of his behaviour, I was able to swiftly extricate myself from these situations, and have gone on to informally warn others about him, without any negative consequences for my career. But given how careful he is to toe the line (his behavior is well described by the serial harassers playbook), I wholly expect he will also never see any real consequences for his actions.

That this is the system we must live with is maddening beyond belief. It is unacceptable. But sadly, given the current stance on the behaviour of Geoff Marcy, it seems that this is unlikely to rapidly change.