Last week, the internet briefly paid attention to the issue of sexual harassment in academia when Buzzfeed published a story about Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who had been accused of “inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.”
Despite having been found guilty by Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), Marcy received what amounted to a stern talking to. Marcy gave a non-apology apology in the form of an open letter, and he was put on some sort of double-secret probation, amounting to zero tolerance for future infractions, a set of “consequences” that the university described this way: “We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action.”
And that probably would have been the end of it, had the OPHD’s findings not made their way into the hands of Buzzfeed reporter Azeen Ghorayshi, and subsequently been picked up by others, including Berkeley Professor Michael Eisen and Jezebel.
But the story went viral, 22 of the 30 non-Geoff-Marcy faculty in the Berkeley astronomy department signed a letter calling for Marcy’s resignation, and an online petition started among the broader academic community. Shortly thereafter, Marcy resigned.
Marcy’s resignation was greeted with enthusiasm from most quarters, including Berkeley’s Chancellor and Provost. It is tempting, then, to think of this as a victory, and it absolutely was. But the saga exposes just how pathological and corrupt the system is.
There are a few things to keep in mind here.
- The system did NOT work. Some small piece of justice was meted out because a reporter got hold of the results of the OPHD investigation, which were not intended to be made public. If the system had worked as intended, the world at large would never have known about Marcy’s behavior.
- This went beyond sexual harassment. The fact that the media is referring to this as “sexual harassment”, rather than “sexual assault”, is disturbing, and seems to misrepresent the details of the allegations (of which Marcy was found guilty).
- UC Berkeley never did the right thing. Unless you count accepting Marcy’s resignation letter, or the person who leaked the investigation documents to Buzzfeed.
- This went on, and was covered up, for years. There are reports of harassment on the part of Geoff Marcy dating back at least to 1995, and clear evidence that Marcy’s behavior was brought to the attention of both the department and the university at least ten years ago. And, as is so often the case, Marcy’s behavior seems to have been an open secret in the astronomy community.
- The astronomy department stepped up, sort of. Although the current chair of the astronomy department signed the letter calling for Marcy’s resignation, his initial response (in an e-mail sent out to the faculty) was to urge the other faculty members to support Marcy in this difficult time. Plus, note that there are eight faculty members in the department who did not sign the letter. Some are adjuncts, and some are dual appointments with other departments, and they may simply not have had the opportunity to sign. But if I were considering becoming a student in that department, I would certainly want to ask some questions before committing to work for or with any of those eight.
- Berkeley’s hands were tied, and that’s not a good thing. Even as the UC Berkeley top brass were celebrating Marcy’s resignation, they were defending their initial inaction, citing the lengthy and expensive process required to actually punish a tenured professor. First of all, “We could have done more, but it was too much work” is a terrible excuse. Second, UC Berkeley, the institution, is responsible for the policies that made actually dealing with Marcy difficult or undesirable.
All of this brings be back to the original question. Exactly how many professors are there at Berkeley (and every other university, for that matter) are being protected by the system? How many engaged, and continue to engage, in abusive, predatory behaviors and were given a light slap on the wrist behind closed doors? How many were not even given that, because the victims were discouraged, implicitly or overtly, from filing a formal complaint?
This one goes in the win column for justice, but not because the system worked. Geoff Marcy is leaving Berkeley because the system was circumvented. And that’s not a solution. The internet can not be responsible for shaming universities into doing the right thing.
And while this Geoff Marcy may be gone (although he may well land on his feet elsewhere), it is important to remember that he represents just the tip of a huge back-rubbing, kissing, groping iceberg of Geoff Marcys — and that if the system had worked as intended, we might never even have known about him.