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Prominent Astronomer Named in Sexual Harassment Case, and We’re Not Gunna Take It Anymore



Sometime on Friday the news broke: famous astronomer and discoverer of exoplanets Geoff Marcy has been accused of sexually harassing female students for years.

(See UPDATE below for how you can help!)

(UPDATE 2: Geoff Marcy has resigned. See below.)

This news came as a surprise to some. It was a sigh of “FINALLY!” for others.

Me, I wasn’t surprised, though I didn’t know about this particular one, not having moved in circles with him in astronomy. Or maybe I was one of those who was never properly “warned” as women have been doing for each other for years. But I’ve seen this pattern before, and I know several serial harassers are out there in astronomy.

The details are in a piece on BuzzFeed but the highlights are:

– An investigation within UC Berkeley has found that Marcy violated campus sexual harassment policies due to the reports of four women.

– Marcy has been instructed to clean up his act or risk further sanctions.

– Marcy posted an apology letter that, in my opinion, reeks of non-pology, privilege, and “boo hoo I got caught.”

There are even more details about this case that are being shared among social networks, publicly and semi-privately. Things that make me shake my head in shame, and others that give me hope as I watch brave young astronomers standing up to fight this injustice.

But we’re seeing an all-too-familiar pattern. Senior male in field harasses younger women, gets away with it for years while some of these women leave as a result. Other people in field turn a blind eye, or quietly warn their colleagues. In the rare case like this one where the man’s name is made public and he is found guilty by an internal investigation, he gets a weak slap on the wrist. Add to that, Berkeley is already on the hook for not properly handling sexual violence cases.

Some internal details have been more widely shared than others, such as this email which was sent to the UCB astronomy faculty from the current chair of the department and which has been confirmed by several sources, including in one brilliant open letter by a UCB undergrad. The most damning line in this email says, “Of course, this is hardest for Geoff at the moment.” Hardest for the perpetrator?! Not the survivors? Not the people who put their asses on the line to get this investigation underway in the first place? And this from the Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion, no less.

The one silver lining in all of this is the emphatic response it has elicited in the astronomy community. Some of us, at least, are quite done with this and won’t tolerate sexual harassment in our field. In fact, there’s a whole list who have signed a petition saying just that, though the cynic in me wonders if there are any other harassers or abusers hiding in plain sight there as well. After all, Marcy himself was on the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy for eight years and even co-led a study of sexual harassment in the field. Although this is before the timeline investigated by Berkeley, some private, first-hand reports put his bad behavior as happening much earlier. All I can say is… ew.

This shouldn’t be business as usual. We’re reaching a critical mass of people who won’t put up with this anymore, even if many of us are still young, untenured, and not yet in positions of real power.

Many are calling for Marcy to be fired, and this shouldn’t be seen as an out-of-proportion response. It shouldn’t matter how tenured, famous, and well connected you are, sexual harassment of students by a professor and violation of specific sexual harassment policies should be grounds for immediate dismissal. What are we telling our students if that’s not the case? This isn’t about making an example. It’s about backing up university policies so they actually matter, making a true attempt at providing justice for the survivors, and making an honest attempt at fixing some of the power imbalances in astronomy. But I do hope that Marcy’s firing would send a message to all the other serial harassers out there that their days of predation are numbered.

I’m a professor now, and a new and untenured one at that. But even I know that the welfare of our students is important, more important than the career and ego of a professor.

So as this works its way through the astronomical community, I want members of other communities in the sciences and technology to take note. I can pretty much guarantee that you have serial sexual harassers in your community, too. You may not have heard about them, especially if you are a man. You’ll want to deny such rumors if they ever surface about a colleague you like, but there are far too many survivors who have been ignored for years. Believe the survivors, and listen to the stories. Be aware of your own actions and those around you. Don’t let another person be victimized on your watch. I believe there are many, many men and women out there who care about how the younger, more vulnerable members of their fields are treated, but just don’t think it is happening. I’m sad to say that it probably is.

As I said before, I won’t just stick to the science, as much as I’d like to some days. I care about the people in my field doing that science. I care about the students just starting out, and I remember how scary it is to be just starting out even without having to deal with sexual harassment.

So I pledge, and I encourage others to pledge, inspired by @drmagoo, that I will not put up with this shit. I will not let a student be harmed by a harasser and stay quiet. It won’t happen with me in the room, not without me saying something about it. I will call a colleague to task if I see inappropriate behavior. I will not let students or colleagues be harmed on my watch anymore. I will do what I can, as Sarah Horst said, tenure be damned. Maybe most importantly of all, I will be an ally to the survivors and try and do what is best for them. This is the first time in my career where I feel like I have some, even if a little, power and stability, and I’m going to try and use it to make things better.

For the serial harassers out there, a growing number of your colleagues won’t put up with your predatory behavior anymore. Don’t be surprised if you get called out next. It’s really not that hard to navigate life and work without being a total douchebag to your fellow human beings. You have plenty of great role models, men who aren’t skeevy predators, to learn from, if for some reason respecting personal autonomy is really so damn hard for you.

I love teaching and I love astronomy, and I will fight for what I love. Rape culture has no place in it.

UPDATE (10/12/15 23:45): The UCB faculty, postdocs, and graduate students in the department of astronomy have each written letters condemning Marcy and his actions. UCB administration, however, seems to think they’ve done enough. They have NOT, and now we need YOUR help to put pressure on the administration to take real punitive action.

UPDATE 2 (10/14/2015 18:30): As of this morning, Geoffrey Marcy has resigned his position from the University of California Berkeley and as principle investigator of the Breakthrough Listen project. Please keep this in mind if you’d still like to contact any of the parties below to express your dissatisfaction with the process. Be aware, we still have a LOT of work to do in order to make astronomy and academia at large safe from all forms of harassment. Original update continues below…

If you are a UCB alum, or in some other way connected to the University, LET THEM KNOW that you are not satisfied with the course of action that they have taken and demand real punitive measures. If you are a professional astronomer, or even any academic, you may decide to stop collaborating with or otherwise boycott the institution until they get their house in order. Let them know if you are doing so and why. If you are a resident of the state of California, your tax dollars help fund the University, so let your voices be heard as well.

Potential people to contact (and I’m happy to take suggestions on others to add):

– Janet Broughton, Vice Chancellor for Faculty – (510) 642-6474 – [email protected] –

– Denise Oldham, Director and Title IX Coordinator – [email protected] –

– Cal Alumni Association – 510.900.8225 – [email protected] –

– Janet Napolitano, University of California President – [email protected] –

– Find your California representative:

– UC Board of Regents –[email protected] –

– UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks – (510) 642-7464 –[email protected] –

Featured image CC BY-ND 2.0 by Chase Carter

Thank you to everyone in the astronomical and higher education communities who have been sharing information and showing support for the women who have suffered throughout this ordeal.

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  1. OK so Tim Hunt gets fired for making sexist comments that went viral on Twitter but a sex-pest who was actually groping women gets let off with a nonpology? WTF?

    This might be seen as a US/UK thing only firing people is a lot harder in the UK than the US even when tenured profs are concerned. The distinguishing factor seems to be the embarrassment level.

    My friend Louise Mench (nee Basgshaw) has been bending my ear over Hunt’s treatment for the past couple of months and it appears that at minimum there was a failure of due process and it seems that an academic rival may well have Breitbarted him with a malicious quote.

    But this case shows the problem of waiting for due process. People let the process take its course and the establishment closed ranks to protect its own.

    • There are obvious differences in the transgressions as you point out, but also Tim Hunt resigned from an honorary position, and Geoff Marcy is in an active teaching and research role in his department. Where he is still in direct contact with students! Berkeley seemed to think that a weak slap on the wrist was okay as long as it was kept quiet. Now that it’s public… we’ll have to see.

  2. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think it was a “non-pology.” It was worse, this was his M.O. Apologize, thank the person confronting him for bringing this to his attention, and promise to change. Indicate that he true feels bad. This made problems go away. This also sent the message to victims/would-be victims that he was untouchable. Sadly, the only reason this didn’t work is that a)he appealed to the general community/public instead of someone with a vested interest in protecting him and b)this lead to his 14+ year track record of doing this becoming public. This “apology” shows him to be a true predator.

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