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Light shed on a dark matter

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OCTOBER 15, 2015

On spring afternoons in 2005, Sarah Ballard could be found contemplating the cosmos in Etcheverry Hall during Geoffrey Marcy’s introductory astronomy course. Ballard was a 20-year-old UC Berkeley junior pursuing a degree in astrophysics. Marcy, an eminent pursuer of exoplanets, was a faculty member in the campus astronomy department who would eventually be mentioned as a potential honoree of the Nobel Prize.

That semester, Ballard helped organize an anti-sexual violence rally on campus. Marcy attended the event and when Ballard learned that he had come, she thanked him in an email for his support. The professor wrote back almost immediately, she said, encouraging Ballard to call his home phone so that the two “could discuss the issue in more detail.”

Ballard said the correspondence spurred a few months of interactions in which Marcy praised her capability and promise as a scientist. Throughout the semester, Marcy invited her to go to cafes with him outside office hours — just the two of them, ostensibly to discuss her career in astronomy. But over time, she said, their interactions changed in tenor.

“There was a transition from talking only about science and life on other planets to explicitly sexual things,” Ballard said. “It became very clear that what was happening wasn’t purely a friendly, mentoring relationship.”


After one such meeting at Caffe Strada in August 2005, Ballard said, Marcy offered to drive her home. But she remembers feeling uncomfortable in the car, like something was deeply wrong.

“(After arriving at my apartment building), I opened the car door and put my legs outside,” Ballard said. “I remember thinking, ‘I can get out of the car if I need to. I can run if I need to.’ ”

Ballard said that though she sought to naturally extricate herself from the situation, she also did not want to offend the esteemed faculty member. At some point, while the two sat conversing in his vehicle, she said, Marcy reached his arm over to the passenger seat and began to rub the bare nape of Ballard’s neck with his hand.

On June 22, after a six-month investigation by UC Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, Marcy was formally implicated in a breach of campus sexual harassment policies after allegations arose that he had groped students, kissed them and touched or massaged them. Consequently, the campus imposed “clear behavioral standards governing (Marcy’s) interactions with students” and stripped him of the procedural protections conferred on tenured professors should any further allegations arise. On Wednesday, in light of vehement public criticism of the campus’s response to the allegations, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele accepted Marcy’s resignation.

Eugene Chiang, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy and earth and planetary science, said that on June 23, 2014, he and other astronomy department faculty members initially put two women, who brought forth allegations of Marcy’s inappropriate conduct, into contact with the UC Berkeley Title IX office. According to UC sexual harassment and sexual violence policy, any person responsible for “reporting or responding to sexual harassment or sexual violence who knew about the incident and … failed to report the prohibited act may be subject to disciplinary action.” Chiang said he contacted the women about one month later to confirm that the office had received their complaints. In total, four women would testify during the process of the investigation, including Ballard, who shared the story of her experience in the car with Marcy.

Investigations of this nature, however, are confidential — and as such, Marcy’s colleagues at UC Berkeley were not informed of the allegations against Marcy until late last week, when BuzzFeed News broke the story. Marcy acknowledged allegations of his misconduct in an apology letter that he posted to his faculty page Oct. 7.

“I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had,” Marcy said in the letter. “For that and to the women affected, I sincerely apologize.”

Members of the department convened Monday to discuss the results of the investigation — a meeting at which Marcy was not present, according to Chiang. The department released a letter that night in which more than 20 current and emeritus members of the faculty implored “UC Berkeley administration to re-evaluate its response to Marcy” and wrote:

We are committed to developing and maintaining a supportive, open climate in which all members of the Department can thrive, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or religious faith. This goal has been compromised by policies that led to a lack of communication in UC Berkeley’s handling of Geoff Marcy’s sexual harassment case. … We believe that Geoff Marcy cannot perform the functions of a faculty member.

Astronomy department undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students all released statements condemning Marcy’s actions.

On Wednesday, UC Berkeley interim astronomy department chair Gibor Basri notified the department in an email that Marcy would resign as a faculty member at UC Berkeley. Marcy will also step down from his position as the principal investigator with the Breakthrough Listen project, a $100 million effort to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

We believe this outcome is entirely appropriate and have immediately accepted (Marcy’s) resignation,” Dirks and Steele said in a statement released the same day. “We want to state unequivocally that Professor Marcy’s conduct, as determined by the investigation, was contemptible and inexcusable.”

“In my naive mind, I just thought, ‘Oh well, jeez, that’s just the way it happens.’ “

— John Asher Johnson

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.”

Ruth Murray-Clay — an assistant professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara and a former UC Berkeley graduate student said she was cognizant of allegations of Marcy’s suggestible conduct toward female undergraduate students in 2004. At the time, Murray-Clay said, she approached Marcy about his behavior. She said Marcy told her that he had no idea his behavior could be interpreted in an inappropriate way — that he was just trying to be friendly.

“He wrote me an email and said, ‘Thanks for … helping me see myself better,’ ” she said. “This sort of ‘I’ve changed, and I’ll be better.’ ”

Over the next few years, Murray-Clay said, she approached him, then Basri and then, with other students, the campus Title IX office about what she perceived as inappropriate behavior with female students. She said that Marcy “always acted like he understood the problems that she was presenting,” that Basri assured her he “knew very well” that there was a problem and that he was “on top of it,” and that the Title IX office said it couldn’t do anything unless the person directly affected lodged a complaint.

Neither Basri nor Marcy responded to email requests for comment.

Throughout the series of confrontations, Murray-Clay still considered Marcy a friend. She called him friendly and said he seemed like he cared about women and his students.

“This is a person who lived in the Berkeley hills with his wife, chickens and pet bees,” said Christopher Wieland, a UC Berkeley alumnus who took a class with Marcy in 2013. When people think of chronic sexual harassers … they tend to either think of the oily, unwashed creeper or the hyper-masculine, Sterling Archer-esque lothario. Marcy was neither, and that is what makes his actions so surprising.”

It was only recentlyafter several years of hearing Marcy’s excuses in response to allegations of his inappropriate conduct toward women — that Murray-Clay said she has been able to see him in a different light.

“This was a very open secret,” she said. “He has been confronted many times. If he could change, he would have already changed.”

In their Wednesday statement, Dirks and Steele enumerated that the objective of the campus’s response to allegations of Marcy’s inappropriate conduct was “to protect our students by immediately preventing any re-occurrence of the behavior described in the investigative report.”

We thus chose to establish, in writing, a strict set of behavioral standards that went beyond what is specifically proscribed by the University’s rules and regulations,” Dirks and Steele wrote.

“He has been confronted many times. If he could change, he would have already changed.”

— Ruth Murray-Clay

UC faculty policy explicitly prohibitsentering into a romantic or sexual relationship with any student for whom a faculty member has, or should reasonably expect to have in the future, academic responsibility” as well as sexual harassment of a student — such as that which Marcy was accused of.

According to university policy, however, UC Berkeley’s leadership does not have the jurisdiction to unilaterally impose any disciplinary sanctions, including termination after a breach of conduct by a tenured professor. Only the UC Board of Regents can fire a tenured professor after review by a campus faculty committee, the campus chancellor and the UC system president. Alternatively, the accused can seek early resolution with the chancellor or chancellor’s designee.

The traditional purpose of tenure is to afford senior faculty academic freedom for creative, innovative and provocative pursuits, said Robin Nelson, an assistant professor of anthropology at Skidmore College. But because universities have established tenure as a privilege with a certain amount of freedom, she said, they have not always been good about imposing sanctions against faculty who violate university policy.

In 2014, Nelson and others conducted a survey, published in the journal PLOS ONE, of field scientists’ experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault in the scientific fieldwork setting, finding that 64 percent of all survey respondents working in field sciencesincluding astronomystated they had personally experienced sexual harassment. Those most affected by harassment and assault at field sites were undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, according to the study.

In astronomy, senior, top-level positions are often filled by men, said Rosanne Di Stefano, an astronomy lecturer at Harvard University, citing that only 15 percent of full faculty in astronomy were women as of 2010. She added in an email that sexual harassment is the most extreme form of treatment that pushes women from the field or makes it difficult for them to stay in it.

According to a sexual climate survey conducted within the campus astronomy department this year, 53 percent of female respondents reported that they had experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment more than once while a part of the department. Among survey respondents, the majority of the most severe incidents of sexual or gendered discomfort were reported to be instigated by faculty.

“(Marcy) materially harmed me and caused me trauma,” Ballard said. “But he also helped my career. Every interaction — though there was so much discomfort to it — he would temper that with emphatic compliments about how capable I was as a young scientist.”

Nelson noted that when something like this happens in academia — in which interpersonal relationships are integral to career advancement — it is not clear how individuals can stop those incidents of harassment from recurring without jeopardizing their occupational position. Alienating prominent people such as Marcy, she said, could be “career death.”

In 2012, Ballard received her doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics from Harvard University. But during the seven years after her August encounter with Marcy in his car — and especially in graduate school — Ballard said she felt deeply alone, guilty and ashamed. Now, Ballard said, she seeks to make the academic path more tolerable for women entering the discipline.

“I see sexual harassment as only one facet of a very broken academic system — and a system that’s not going to change anytime soon,” Ballard said. “I don’t feel despair. I just try to make the changes that I can at any given point. In the future I hope to help more, commensurate with my position in the field.”

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zoekleinfeld.

OCTOBER 15, 2015