Geoff Marcy

About a week go, NASA announced the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first exoplanet, and all I could do was think of the amazing Geoff Marcy. When it comes to exoplanet astronomy and the hunt for these objects, Marcy is THE guy (The Atlantic compared his contributions to Copernicus’s). He’s an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, and someone who was until recently someone I’ve wanted to meet and thank for his contributions.

Not anymore. It turns out Marcy is a serial sexual harasser and an insidious one at that. Reports published over Friday and Saturday paint a picture of a man given to the sadistic pleasure of hitting on, massaging, kissing and groping his students while perfectly aware that his standing in the academic community would protect him. BuzzFeed broke the story Friday by leaking details of Berkeley’s investigation into Marcy’s conduct in 2001-2010, as well as noting that the university hadn’t taken any serious action against him. To quote from BuzzFeed,

She didn’t register an official complaint until eight years later, by which time she’d left astronomy — in part, she said, because of the sexual harassment she and other female astronomers experienced. “When you’re a student and you see every complaint being ignored, and every male professor who has violated that have zero consequences, it really makes you not want to step forward,” she said.

Proof enough that the wider community at Berkeley was complicit in Marcy’s actions, refusing to act on complaints and hoping perhaps that the problem would go away. It doesn’t.

In the documents, the investigator wrote: “Based on the preponderance of evidence, I find it more likely than not that [Marcy] acted as reported by Complainant 3.”

Here’s an equally bad part:

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.”

He spent a decade sexually harassing students, and the university, when it finds out, sends him a note. Seems legit.

“After all of this effort and trying to go through the proper channels, Berkeley has ultimately come up with no response,” said Joan Schmelz, who until recently led the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.

What made the revelation more fucked-up was Marcy’s strange letter that, thought it was supposed to be apologetic by any standards, was simply the harasser trying to come off as the unfortunate fall-guy. He posted the letter after Berkeley’s worthless response left many of his peers and students angry and calls arose for him to not be allowed to attend the annual AAAS meeting, a major event for astronomers.

As some of you may be aware, concerns were raised with UC Berkeley regarding my conduct some years ago involving some women in our field. These complaints, which were raised last year, led to an official investigation by the University, which concluded three months ago. 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. Through deep and lengthy consultations, I have reflected carefully on my actions as well as issues of gender inequality, power, and privilege in our society. I was unaware of how these factors created unforeseen contexts and how my actions and position have affected others in ways that were far from what I intended. Through hard work, I have changed in major ways for the better.

Quoting from P.Z. Myers from his blog,

Note the tells. He doesn’t agree with each complaint; so there are some instance of harassment he thinks are justifiable? His behavior was unwelcome; yeah, that’s an understatement. But hey, it was unintentional! You have to forgive him, he didn’t really mean to stroke that student’s thigh. He was “unaware”. It’s all a lie. I don’t believe he was unaware; he knew every step of the way that his desire for sexual gratification was being expressed inappropriately, to students.

If he were honest, he would have said he didn’t care. He was preying on students, without concern for their careers, and conscious that his status in his field would protect him from any repercussions. He knew this. I wouldn’t accept an apology that didn’t fully acknowledge the depth of Marcy’s willful violation of his students’ working lives.

* * *

I’d blame Berkeley for its screwed vision of science – at least the way it seems from where I’m standing. Ask yourself: When Berkeley looks at Marcy, what does it see? It definitely sees the ability to support as well as benefit from the work of a leading astronomer (touted for the Nobel), but is it also so keenly invested in reaping only his research that it’d eclipse him from anything that jeopardised their association? And isn’t this attitude the origin of a harasser belief’s that his standing will protect him?

I’m sure there are numerous such “sexist jerks” around but it’s extra-painful when leaders fall, taking with them the not-easily-replaced leadership and influence that made it easier to chart a course in those fields. Then again, with three ‘leaders’ already having crashed in recent memory (Bora Zivkovic, Tim Hunt, now Marcy), it’s worth questioning how male scientists with questionable attitudes toward women (to put it mildly) are allowed to climb the officialdom ladder. Maybe we don’t place the right checks in their paths.

And on a personal level, Emily Lakdawalla said it best: