Prominent Astronomy Professor Accused Of Repeatedly Sexually Harassing Students

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Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the first exoplanet discovery. Over the course of the past two decades more than 1,000 exoplanets have been discovered with just as many potentials waiting to be confirmed. These discoveries have changed the way we view the universe and our place in it. Heading up many of the teams responsible for these discoveries is a planetary “rock star” of sorts named Dr Geoff Marcy. Marcy is an astronomy professor at UC Berkeley and many expected to see his name in headlines last week when the Nobel Prizes were awarded. He definitely made headlines, but for very different reasons. On Friday October 9, Buzzfeed published details of a six-month investigation into claims that Marcy sexually harassed several of his students.

From 2001-2010 Marcy allegedly harassed former students, repeatedly engaging in lewd behavior such as groping, kissing and inappropriate massaging. It took UC Berkeley six months to investigate the claims and conclude that the allegations of sexual harassment against Marcy were founded. His repulsive actions may have spanned nearly a decade but there were whispered warnings not to be alone with him before and long after that period.

Jessica Kirkpatrick – a contributor to the blog Women in Astronomy and a complainant in the allegations against Marcy – spoke with Buzzfeed, stating: “He’s had a long history of behaving inappropriately, especially with undergraduates. Women discouraged other women from working with him as a research advisor. It was just something that was talked about pretty frankly among the women in the department.”

Despite the investigation finding him guilty of violating Berkeley’s sexual harassment policy, Marcy’s only real consequence seems to be that he should “behave himself” and that he was asked not to attend one of the year’s largest exoplanet conferences next month. So, basically less than a slap on the wrist. While he still denies most of the allegations, on Wednesday he posted an apology on his website which is really more like a non-apology apology.

This prominent researcher could and should have been an excellent mentor and role model for his students, but instead he is responsible for creating a hostile environment and discouraging many women from pursuing careers and degrees in astronomy. Due to Marcy’s status and his involvement in many projects, all of the complainants waited to report the harassment for fear it would jeopardize their work and their future; some of them even left the field entirely.

Sexual harassment is not limited to the sciences and no one should have to fear the repercussions of reporting such acts. Unfortunately time and time again we see women having to choose between protecting their livelihood and speaking up to warn other would-be victims. It’s not only unfortunate to see people in a position of power take advantage of those who report to them, but also absurd to see people who could have helped look the other way. Victims, if they have the courage to step forward, have to be ready to face heavy scrutiny in addition to any potential personal and even professional consequences. Even when they do step forward it can be disheartening to see results like these, where the harasser gets nothing more than a slap on the wrist. This type of response sends a clear message that the institution doesn’t take harassment seriously.

In her talks with Buzzfeed, one of the complainants – a former student of Marcy’s who wished to remain anonymous – echoes this sentiment. “When you’re a student and you see every complaint being ignored, and every male professor who has violated that have zero consequences, it really makes you not want to step forward,” she said.

UC Berkeley joins a growing list of universities across the country that are under investigation for how they handle cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Speaking out against a prominent professor is risky and firing a tenured professor is not an easy task; it is a lengthy process and usually involves lawyers. This is why university responses to such cases are typically disappointing for the victims, as Janet Stemwedel explains in a recent Forbes article. It’s also been pointed out that universities have something to gain from sweeping these types of incidents under the rug, and that needs to stop. Right now. We cannot continue to allow the cycle of harassment to persist. And we cannot turn a blind eye and give someone a free pass simply because they are a good scientist.

Please remember, if you are a victim of sexual harassment, you are not alone. You can report it and there are people who will listen. You can also find support through various social media channels (like the hashtag #AstroSH). And if you are a professor or mentor your duty should be to protect your students, not turn the other cheek. They are the future of your field, and they are human beings who deserve to feel safe.

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