Geoff Marcy incident indicative of larger problem

Jenny Wu/Staff

As a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, it is with horrified fascination that I have watched the Geoff Marcy affair unfold. Sexual harassment and professorial abuse of power is an issue that has stalked my entire academic career, from my undergraduate days onward. The chorus of responses to revelations about the Geoff Marcy investigation shows that my experience is not rare.

Of course, it’s “difficult” and “complex,” but for goodness’ sake, how many generations of women students, postdoctoral researchers and junior colleagues must suffer before we solve this problem? Although Marcy’s resignation has now provided a satisfactory resolution to this case, I’m still very concerned about the process by which we have arrived at this point and the broader attitude that it reveals about sexual harassment in the academy.

Colleagues whom I follow on Twitter and I were furious with the university’s initial solution to the problem. When we cried out in that way, we released a small bit of the anger that has built up over the months, years, decades and, indeed, entire careers during which we have watched inappropriate behavior by people with power — professors and graduate school instructors among them — toward those who depend on that power for their self-esteem, their training and education, their careers and their future livelihoods — such as undergraduate and graduate students.

We’ve seen this tragedy played out on many stages, often with minor differences in detail, and we have rarely, if ever, been able to respond effectively. We feel powerless. So, upon the rare occasion that one of these alleged serial predators is actually brought to task for the enormous damage they’ve done, we open the box, sort through the emotional objects, uncover and examine the incidents with which we’ve been coping for years and then put them away, because none of those cases will ever see the light of day. There is no truth and reconciliation commission, no workable mechanism to undo the past damage.

We remain angry about those forever unpunished transgressions; we’re furious and sad for those who lost their way when they were tossed aside by the great professors or when, too late, they realized the inequity of their situation and had to leave their chosen field and drop out of school, abandoning their life’s dreams. We’re angry at how the papering over of these transgressions belittles us and our importance in the enterprises to which we have dedicated our lives.

Today, students are tasked with the responsibility of preventing sexual harassment and encouraged to report relationships that take advantage of power disparities between students and instructors. Banners around campus admonish, “It’s on me” to take action and not observe passively. But, what happens when a student complains? Concerns are belittled: “Oh, it was just a joke.” Student behavior is criticized: “Wear less revealing clothing.” Occasionally, though, students are taken seriously. But then they must file a formal complaint and testify — confront the majesty of the professor, the department and the institution standing behind them. And, what happens?

During my career, not one student who complained to me about an incident of sexual harassment has ever been willing to file a formal complaint. I cannot blame them. I know the costs of publicly calling out faculty for abusing their power in relationships with students. I have carried forward such complaints in the name of others, either my fellow students or students of my own. Each time, my career was severely and negatively affected.

Today, I must stop students from telling me the details of their experiences by warning them that if they continue, I will be compelled to report what they tell me. I assure them that if they choose to file a formal complaint, I will do my best to support them, but warn them that if they don’t want an investigation, they must not talk to me about it. How can we fight abusive behavior if students don’t feel safe enough to report it?

The greatest fury regarding the Geoff Marcy case has been directed against the university for protecting the predator at the expense of student safety and well-being. Despite a finding of sexual harassment, the university completely suppressed the outcome of the investigation. No effort was made to warn the students and postdocs in the astronomy department. They were left to be the canaries in the coal mine. Only if one of them complained would Marcy have experienced any repercussions for his decade or more of abuse. And, why would those women complain? Some had already complained and, seemingly, nothing had come of it. The only reason that this path was not followed is that someone leaked the report to BuzzFeed. It was from there that I, other Berkeley faculty and even the students involved in the investigation, learned of its outcome.

On Monday evening, most graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members of UC Berkeley’s astronomy department publicly condemned Marcy’s behavior and the administration’s handling of the case. Yet it seems clear that some faculty members had knowingly tolerated Marcy’s behavior for years. This episode clarifies that such cases cannot be investigated internally. The conflicts of interest are too great.

What is hopeful about this case, though, is the global response of the community of astronomers and, indeed, scholars from all fields. We are a raging chorus against this alleged predator and against the protection he has been afforded by the administration of this university. We have united in our gratitude to and support for the women who came forward and filed the formal complaint. Now, we are united in our demand that there be a better way to prevent these abuses and, if they do occur, respond to them in a timely and effective manner.

Ellen L. Simms is a professor of integrative biology who does research and teaches about evolutionary ecology at UC Berkeley.

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  • babspmalone

    As an undergrad in the 70s who was harassed by a prof, I’m shocked but not surprised that nothing has changed at Berkeley in 40 years. I’d love it if all, the women (and men) in this position could tell their stories on the same day and thereby blunt the onus and amplify the impact. Long ago I resolved that Berkeley will never get a dime of my money. Thanks for reminding me why.

  • Anonymous

    And Kate Upton.

  • Anonymous

    Jennifer Lopez can “feel me up” anytime.

  • Nell Webbish

    Oh thank goodness, I would hate to think that a conversation could be had about a specific individual who egregiously violated his position of authority without someone stopping by to victim-blame by imply it’s the fault of girls who sleep around.

    • s randall

      Consider this article:

      John Asher Johnson, a former graduate student in Marcy’s research group, said that in 2002, he witnessed Marcy inappropriately touching a woman late at night in a laboratory on the roof of Campbell Hall.

      “In my naive mind, I just thought, ‘Oh well, jeez, that’s just the way it happens,’ ” said Johnson, now a Harvard University astronomy professor. “I didn’t know what to think.”

      What happened to the woman that John Asher Johnson saw getting groped by Marcy? If you were at all intellectually honest, you would consider all possible explanations.

  • Kevin Gorman

    Thank you, Ellen, for coming out with this excellent piece.

  • Kevin Gorman

    He’s had similar complaints pressed against him for more than 20 years. SFSU declined to investigate in the 90s, saying he was too important to their astro program.

    • s randall

      Read what I wrote. It has nothing to do with this guy specifically. If you want a comprehensive fix, you do need to realize that prostitution happens everywhere.

      • zack

        No one needs to read what you wrote. Your words represent the ramblings of a clueless fool.

        • s randall

          Me clueless? Zack, do you realize you gave my post below an up vote?

      • Kevin Gorman

        Yes, because a professor who has been formally documented as non-consensually and forcibly assaulting his students where – for many of them given his prominence, couldn’t speak out – is exactly the same as the article you linked. I’m going to go ahead and agree with Zack here: no one needs to read what you wrote, your words represent the ramblings of a clueless fool. Accusing the columnist you linked to of engaging in an act of prostitution is offensive enough, accusing the substantiated evidence of Marcy as just a demonstration that his surivors were prostitutes just goes from bad to worse.

  • Robert Ajolotl

    Faculty abuse of power extends beyond male-female interactions and even sexual abuse in general. I’m thinking of the dozens of foreign grad students in engineering fields that I knew who were treated almost like slaves, male-male sexual advances (which are even less common to discuss), and general disregard for stewardship of an almost infinite power imbalance. I’m sure it is worse with women but this is in fact part of a larger problem. How to fix it without creating new equally bad problems is less obvious (lack of due process e.g.), but we should try much harder.

  • still trying

    UC Berkeley appears to be failing in many areas concerning conduct and they are now teaching our future leaders how to behave, cover-up and ignore, further encouraging and establishing bad behavior as the normal and accepted actions by those in charge..

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