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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