Buzzfeed (by Azeen Ghorayshi) reported on the internal investigation carried out by UC Berkeley into Geoff Marcy and his at least 9-year history of sexually harassing female students (as it turns out, it goes back almost 30 years). The repercussions for Marcy handed down by UC Berkeley were minimal (apparently constrained by UC policies). Marcy has guidelines to follow for interactions with students that have not been made public that if violated could result in penalties including dismissal from his faculty position. Apparently it was an open secret (that some tried to deal with) that he was a harasser and many have said that Berkeley should dismiss Marcy from his position. He has been asked not to attend an upcoming conference and all of this has generated a lot of discussion (see also #AstroSH on Twitter and this news item in Nature).
An academic culture in need of change.
This seems like a case of an institution wanting to keep an intellectual powerhouse that brings prestige and funding to the university even in light of his harassing activities. A case of someone in a position of privilege getting away with things because of professional success. Part of the story of science in the 20th century is one of increasingly ethical standards. Institutional review boards exist now. The missions of botanical gardens is not colonial anymore, but involves conservation and the people where plants are native (at least more so). These are good developments. They have not extended as much to ensuring that doing science is respectful of scientists themselves– especially in making sure science is inclusive and that early career researchers are protected from those that might abuse their power.
The Marcy case may be the extreme of this. The idea that the Knowledge and experiments matter more than the people doing it or how they behave, no matter how abhorrent. This has become a lot more untenable in recent years. Science is hard enough without the need for the still too few women that pursue degrees in astronomy/physics (and STEM) to avoid a well known harasser while men have safe access to a top person in their field.
What can be done?
The ideal solution may be cultural change that has no tolerance for abusive behavior– that is not our current culture, however. The Marcy case is an example of the old thinking: knowledge, prestige, and funding counts, behavior towards others doesn’t. This is exacerbated by the fact that being a good teacher or mentor is not really incentivized in much of academia, especially at top tier research universities, like UC Berkeley (another open secret in academia). Though it shouldn’t have to be spelled out that being a good mentor/supervisor does not include harassment, a lax culture of how to be a good mentor may exacerbate the problem.
This week in Diversity Journal Club, we’ll discuss the Marcy case. In particular, we’d like to find examples of good anti-harassment policies (from institutions or professional societies like the AAS) to share with others. And second, talk about just what a good reporting harassment/abuse structure might look like and how it should be dealt with by institutions or conference organizers. I know many conferences have a simple statement saying harassment/abuse will not be tolerated, but that seems insufficient, lacking specificity. And what is a decent outcome for the targets of harassment? What are some good systems of support you know of?
And last, we’ll discuss how institutions and academia are often slow. Marcy has resigned his position and UC Berkeley has immediately accepted his resignation. Transitioning out of his job could take time though (likely meaning he’d be around the department still winding things down; unless another institution hires him). Getting out of academia means offloading projects to collaborators, making sure any students or postdocs have labs and new supervisors, etc. Shutting down a research program isn’t as trivial as dismissing someone and replacing them with someone else quickly. In general, academia does not move quickly.
Astronomy will go on and make new discoveries. Hopefully science gets better at taking care of the people that do it as much as the science we do.
Here are the discussion questions for Diversity JC. Take a look through any of the links above about the Marcy story and on Monday at 2pm ET, we’ll discuss these questions:
- What are some good practices to support targets of sexual harassment/assault?
- What are good reporting structures to report harassment? For conferences and Institutions.
- What are some best practices or policies for investigating and dealing with harassers like Marcy?
- Does the Marcy resignation suggest that culture in STEM is getting better?
- After dismissal from a faculty-person, what rules need to be in place while they wind their research program down?
We look forward to seeing you all on Monday at 2pm.
Emily S Klein