Geoff Marcy Sexually Harassed His Students for Decades Because He Had Help

The universities at which the superstar astronomer worked defended his sleazy habits for over three decades just to reap the benefits of his scientific pursuits.

At this point, the Geoff Marcy story needs little introduction. A first-class astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley (referred to at one point as a modern-day Copernicus), Marcy abused his position to have intimate relationships with his students.

The story broke with Buzzfeed News‘s leaking a Berkeley investigation into Marcy’s conduct last week, which found he was guilty of having harassed many of his female students between 2001 and 2010. Since then, some accounts by scientists and former colleagues of Marcy’s have revealed disturbing information that appears to have been an open secret about the man. Although Marcy has since resigned from his position at Berkeley, the most telling accounts deserve delving into to learn how institutions failed as well.

CERN physicist Pauline Gagnon writes on her blog that she first met Marcy at the San Francisco State University in 1985 as a Masters student and lecturer (emphasis added).

In 1987, Marcy’s colleague in the search for exoplanets realized that he had handed her a revised copy of their joint grant proposal. On the copy Marcy had given her, both their names appeared, his as main investigator and hers, as co-investigator. But Marcy’s official copy, the one he had submitted to the funding agency, bore only his name.

She reported this to the department head, who fired her on the spot. Marcy was the rising star of his department. She then filed a formal complaint for professional misconduct against Marcy. But she was unable to recover her position and she left the field of astronomy. Following these events, a few people tried to draw the University’s attention to Geoff Marcy’s inappropriate behaviour with his female students.

Gagnon claims that the colleague was fired by a person she felt she could approach about the incident. By all means, this is a person capable of as well as responsible for handling harassment charges on behalf of the university. If she did what she did, the university’s alleged failure lies in having empowered that person to prioritise Marcy over everyone (and everything) else.

Origins of institutional protection

Gagnon’s account also pushes the existence of institutional protection for Marcy back by 30 years. This is tragic because the onus is on the institution to punish offenders like Marcy and ensure such incidents don’t recur. Yet things went on unimpeded for three decades. Gagnon also writes that SFSU’s response to the complaint was the same as Berkeley’s to the findings on the investigation: to send a note to Marcy saying he had violated some codes of conduct. Berkeley’s case is in fact worse because there are far more students and colleagues now who are speaking up, and Marcy’s resignation didn’t come at the behest of the university.

On October 14, SFSU announced that it was ‘severing’ ties with Marcy. In a statement, members of its Department of Physics and Astronomy wrote,

We strongly support the women affected by such breaches of trust and those who come forward to make it stop. We call on all members of the scientific community and the institutions in which we work to make a renewed, public, serious, and enforceable commitment to preventing sexual harassment and all forms of discrimination in our profession and in our institutions.

At the same time, @astroprofhoff, an astronomer at the University of Denver, quotes a friend at SFSU in saying that there could be a gap in “institutional memory in that department”, as well as that most faculty in SFSU today don’t overlap with those who were present in 1987, meaning they might not be able to personally own up to what went on.

It also appears that Marcy’s ethical misconduct allegedly extended to misrepresenting a student’s work. This is apparently the extent to which he was willing to interfere in the academic advancement of others in order to get what he wanted – and it’s for being able to do things like this that the attention must be on Marcy and not on the students around him. The relationships he had were centred on his power to grant favours and share influence, and more often than not the submissive partners in such relationships are coerced into valuing that favour and influence. That is the source of the problem, and that’s what must be prevented.

Important to speak up

It took a New York Times article to highlight how easy it is to be construed as having taken the wrong side in such issues – and so also to highlight why it matters that everyone who has something to say speaks up (it seems Berkeley is aware of this, with new banners around the campus exhorting everyone that it’s on them to call out sexual harassment). From the NYT:

Dr. Marcy’s wife, Susan Kegley, a pesticide researcher, said she supported him, pointing out that he had cooperated fully with the investigation and apologized.

She defended her husband, writing in an email, “Others may interpret Geoff’s empathy and interest as a come-on. I can’t change their perspectives, but I think it is worth all of us examining how quickly one is judged and condemned without knowing all of the facts.”

“The punishment Geoff is receiving here in the court of hysterical public opinion is far out of proportion to what he did and has taken responsibility for in his apology,” Dr. Kegley wrote.

In a statement issued Friday, the university said, “We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action.”

Dr. Marcy has been told he is not welcome at a big exoplanet meeting in Hawaii in December, timed to coincide with the first discovery of planets around other stars 20 years ago, work that made Dr. Marcy famous. He has stepped down from the convention’s organizing committee.

Dennis Overbye, the article’s author, did well to include Kegley’s voice in the conversation, but this chunk of the article comes early on and in fact represents its overall tone: to find a way to retrieve Marcy from his mess (even the pithy headline suggests it). Three days later, astronomers from around the US wrote a letter to the NYT asking for Overbye’s article to be retracted. One of their contentions was that Overbye has a “longterm collegial relationship with Marcy” and so a conflict of interest. An excerpt:

Moreover, Overbye omits several relevant details of the case. Specifically, the investigation found Marcy violated sexual harassment policies over a decade (2001-2010), a fact never mentioned in this article. Overbye also failed to capture the gravity of the crimes. For example, one complainant said, “Marcy placed his hand on her leg, slid his hand up her thigh, and grabbed her crotch”. In another instance, Marcy was observed “giving an undergraduate a back massage, with his hand underneath her shirt, alone and after hours in the lab.” In omitting this information and focusing on Marcy and his wife’s feelings, Overbye fosters sympathy for a sexual predator and exacerbates the culture which allowed him to prey on unsuspecting students.

Marcy’s story deserves national coverage because it demonstrates an extreme yet persistent problem that occurs on many college campuses and in many fields. For example, Marcy’s case parallels that of MIT physics professor, Walter Lewin. Mr. Overbye mentions the Lewin case, saying “Two years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology… cut ties with Walter Lewin… after finding that he had sexually harassed at least one student.” There are two factual errors in that sentence: MIT cut ties with Lewin less than one year ago, and the complainant brought evidence that Lewin harassed at least ten students, not one.

Willingness to punish perpetrators

NYT hasn’t retracted the article but did include a correction about Walter Lewin. But Overbye’s apologetic piece wasn’t the strangest of the lot – that distinction goes to a letter published by the head of Marcy’s department at Berkeley a few days before Marcy’s resignation. One aspect of the letter is worth noting:

I have called a faculty meeting for next Monday at 1pm, and am willing to work to have some representatives of students and postdocs present for part of it (I know that some of you are talking to them). There is a need for our community to process this in a number of ways and forums over time. Clearly folks are organizing some of these already and I’ll try to help when such help is welcome. Mostly, everyone will need support from others and should offer support to others.

During the course of the unsettling revelations, Berkeley has been more forthcoming about rehabilitative measures than punitive ones. Rehabilitation is important but nothing builds trust more than an institution willing to take wholesome reparative actions – which includes punitive measures against the perpetrator. When Marcy resigned, the university put out a statement that it was accepting the resignation but then also stressing that its faculty did not have the authority to dismiss him. The need for just that authority is emphasised by the fact that Marcy’s greasy track record stretches back to the 1980s.

On October 15, Meg Urry, the president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS; to whose premier event in January 2016 Marcy has been denied entry), issued a letter declaring the assignment of a new task force to revise the code of conduct to, amongst other things, include sanctions to make evident the ‘clear and present danger’ of harassing a colleague or student.

But based on the tone of the following paragraph from the letter from the chair of the Berkeley astronomy department, we could be getting ahead of ourselves:

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. (emphasis added)

Perhaps the letter’s writer had the noble intention of wanting to forestall a witch-hunt but it would be disingenuous to claim “Of course, this is hardest for Geoff” now that he’s finally been toughed out. No doubt Marcy is neck-deep in it but it’s not the sort of situation that warrants empathy and support – his ‘apology’ letter that preceded his resignation shows us why:

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. (emphasis added)

It seems Marcy thinks some of the complaints lodged against him were baseless, but more importantly, to suggest it wasn’t clear to him that his actions were having tragic consequences is asking too much of the women whose careers he wrecked. Even the last line (of the excerpt; the letter is longer) attempts to hone his stance: that he didn’t know what he was doing while a university-wide investigation found him responsible for multiple cases for harassment over almost a decade. And beyond everything else, this is Marcy using the sort of unspecific language typical of large corporations intent on evading outright indictment, language that Michael Eisen all too appropriately calls ‘PR-driven apology speak’.

Such institutional complicity as Marcy enjoyed – in sexual harassment specifically and gender attitudes generally – is prevalent in India as well, and in two particular forms: of the directed kind exemplified by UC Berkeley and of the kind where institutions decide what women can or can’t do. Two telling examples most recently were of R.K. Pachauri being able to reclaim his position at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi, and the Chennai-based Sai Ram Engineering College’s startling dress codes for its students.

In Pachauri’s case, TERI’s administrators saw fit to have him in their ranks again despite an unresolved but insidious sexual harassment charge against him and despite a court order preventing him from coming to the institution’s premises. In Sai Ram’s case, the college remained stubborn and refused to engage in empathetic dialogue. No matter what offences were committed on both sides, status-quoism on an institution’s part is a big part of the problem, and in the long-term becomes entirely responsible for allowing the perpetuation of harm.

Note: This article was updated on October 18, 2015, to include Marcy’s apology letter and to clarify that the extract from the letter with the phrase “this is hardest for Geoff in this moment” is from the email sent by the chair of UC Berkeley’s astronomy department.