Consequences for astronomy professor not enough

CAMPUS ISSUES: Campus professor should face serious sanctions for his actions that are dangerous to the community

UC Berkeley’s failure to place real sanctions on prominent astronomer and campus professor Geoffrey Marcy after repeated complaints of sexual harassment indicates where the institution’s priorities concerningly and disconcertingly lie: research over experience, talent over trauma, reputation over action.

The revelation last week from BuzzFeed News that Marcy was officially accused of unwanted physical conduct — including “massages, kisses and groping” — by four women over the course of almost a decade, shocked many members of the UC Berkeley community. What’s more shocking, however, is UC Berkeley’s handling of the complaints, even after an investigation found that the accusations were credible and that Marcy had violated campus sexual harassment policy.

The response — or lack thereof — to allegations of Marcy’s sexual harassment was not a suspension. It was barely a slap on the wrist: a zero-tolerance policy and the loss of procedural protections going forward.

Marcy’s public apology, in which he states that he “(does) not agree with each complaint that was made” but that he still has difficulty expressing how painful it is to realize he has “unintentionally” distressed women, does not sufficiently acknowledge that he takes responsibility for his reprehensible behavior. In fact, it reeks of the sexism behind the action itself — harassment that he couldn’t have just realized was wrong after so many years of complaints against him. But UC Berkeley, which led an investigation that supported these claims, is also failing to properly hold Marcy accountable for his behavior.

The absence of significant repercussions in any case like this makes us lose confidence in the campus’s adjudication process. We are also concerned that victims will now be less likely to report sexual assault and harassment. With all the progress that the campus has made, incidents such as this undermine the campus’ self-professed commitment to addressing sexual assault and harassment problems that prevail here.

Most campus discourse around sexual assault prevention has dealt with the student-on-student level rather than the faculty level. But just because the attention usually focuses on sexual assault as it pertains to the student experience does not mean that sexual violence and harassment can’t be found at every level of an institution and society as a whole, especially in an institution with a fundamentally unbalanced power structure.

In particular, science, technology, engineering and math fields within academia give rise to unequal power dynamics. According to a study by the American Institute of Physics, as referenced in the Atlantic, only 15 percent of full astronomy professors as of 2010 were female.

Additionally, according to BuzzFeed News, Marcy’s sexual harassment was well known within the tight-knit astronomy community, yet no public criticism was leveled against him until last week.

When positions of power are held mostly by males and a prominent male is known for using his position to harass younger women, women are effectively discouraged from entering STEM fields, in which they are already underrepresented. For all the work being done to bring women and minorities into STEM, behavior such as Marcy’s and the faulty adjudication process that followed set the field back significantly.

UC Berkeley should have taken a stand to show that this type of behavior and leveraging of power is intolerable — it should have suspended Marcy upon the conclusion of the investigation. Failure to do so perpetuates exclusion and sexism in the workplace, in academia and throughout society.

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

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  • Robert H

    Janet Broughton
    200 California Hall
    MC 1500
    Berkeley, CA 94720

    Dr. Broughton,

    This issue reinforces a double standard that is rooted in elitism and snobbery: it is such a stark reminder that what prizes you’ve won, what school you attended, what “research” you have accomplished and where your “status” is within a hierarchy are more important than how you treat people. “Zero tolerance” or not, this is how the issue is perceived far and wide.

    What is worse, I’m sure that if any member of the staff had engaged in the egregious behaviors that are being affirmed at this time, they would have been fired by the University without hesitation, assuming that an investigation was completed with findings.

    Having experienced many of these hierarchical issues first-hand on the campus, in meetings, writing emails with faculty members, and in a variety of settings across the campus, I felt compelled to say something. The whole issue simply does not sit well.
    No one is perfect, but this whole issue wreaks of corruption and favoritism toward the special treatment of a special, elite few on the campus – and it is wrong!

    It’s a shame that you, Claude and Nick won’t take action where it is warranted. You’d do it in a heartbeat it if was “Staff” and this double standard is why UC Berkeley is a horrible place to work.


  • daqu

    Sexual harassment could hardly be more detestable.

    But I am still waiting to read anything at all that indicates that the complaining women told Marcy to stop what he was doing while he was doing it, or prior to his actually repeating it. I have read BuzzFeed and every other piece of original reporting I can find, but so far, I have seen not one statement to this effect.

    Precisely because sexual harassment is so detestable, accurate rumors of any kind of touching that is considered excessive are subject to magnification until they become rumors of universally unacceptable, abominable behavior. At that point the rumors may still be accurate.

    But is also possible that they are not. I am taking a wait and see attitude.

    • Tim S

      Oh totally, why would it be difficult to just tell a person to stop who has full power and control over your academic and professional career? Sure, things like body language, verbal cues and basic human decency and ethics should be enough to tell him this was wrong. But I think we can all agree Astrophysicists aren’t intelligent enough to understand those things. As you state Daqu, it’s really the victims who are to blame for leading that poor, poor professor on.

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