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After Star Prof Resigns, UC President Calls for Rethinking Sexual Harassment Policies

October 16, 2015
Photo of Geoff Marcy

In the wake of astronomy professor Geoff Marcy’s resignation—after a campus finding that he had been sexually harassing female students for years—University of California President Janet Napolitano says there’s an “urgent need to review University policies that may have inadvertently made the investigation and resolution of this case more difficult.”

In a letter to UC Regents and chancellors of all UC campuses, Napolitano says she is creating a committee of administrators, faculty and student representatives to examine the investigation, adjudication and sanctions in faculty cases. She wants recommendations no later than the end of February, 2016. Among the questions she wants addressed: Whether the current statute of limitations needs to be revised, “given that complaints often involve misconduct that occurred several years ago, as was the case in the Berkeley situation.”

The Marcy case, which had drawn national press coverage in recent days, is being seen as a possible turning point in the way universities will treat future complaints of sexually harassing professors.

News of the incidents broke late last week on Buzzfeed in a story reported by Cal alum Azeen Ghorayshi. From it, readers discovered that four women had accused Marcy—such a premier researcher in the discovery of exoplanets that he was widely considered to be a Nobel Prize contender—of repeatedly touching, kissing and groping female students.

Although UC Berkeley officials had not until then publicly acknowledged its investigation into Marcy, the university had substantiated that harassment had occurred. Its response was to put Marcy on notice that if he were accused of engaging in any similar behavior in the future, he would be deprived of a faculty member’s “usual due process rights,” and would risk sanctions including suspension or dismissal. The university initially characterized this as “strong action.”

But it fell a chasm short of what many of his fellow academics at Berkeley and across the country felt was justified. Many expressed disbelief that Berkeley had opted to keep a known sexual harasser on the faculty. And this week, they went public with their objections, and in several cases, with their outrage. A growing list of professors signed a petition of support for the women who accused Marcy, including prominent Cal astronomers such as Alex Filippenko.

“The Marcy situation highlights a larger problem we have within the structures of academia: a culture of silence.”

Other academics went even further. Berkeley biologist and Public Library of Science (PLOS) co-founder Michael Eisen wrote on his web site, “I am so disappointed and revolted with my university.” The lashing blog post was entitled “What Geoffrey Marcy did was abominable; what Berkeley didn’t do was worse.” Eisen called on Berkeley to refocus its mandatory sexual harassment training “to focus primarily on the rampant unacceptable behavior that happens all the time, and to make it unambiguously clear that if faculty engage in this behavior they will receive serious sanctions, including the loss of their position. This is what we owe to the brave women who confronted Marcy, and to (all) the people who we can protect from abuse if we act now.”

Marcy had posted a public letter of apology, in which he said he did not agree with each complaint but acknowledged “it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women. I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had….I hope this letter conveys my apologies and my sincere effort to change.”

His wife, pesticide researcher Susan Kegley, suggested in an email to The New York Times that his accusers may have misinterpreted his “empathy and interest as a come-on,” but concluded: “The punishment Geoff is receiving here in the court of hysterical public opinion is far out of proportion to what he did and has taken responsibility for in his apology.”

But by Wednesday—when it was apparent that not only were few critics assuaged but demands for Marcy’s ouster were swelling—UC Berkeley announced that the professor had resigned.

Hours later, in a letter addressed to the campus community, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sought to explain the administration’s handling of the case.

“We did not have the authority, as per University of California policy, to unilaterally impose any disciplinary sanctions, including termination.”

“UC Berkeley’s reaction to the finding that Professor Geoff Marcy violated the University’s sexual harassment policies has been the subject of understandable criticism and anger,” he wrote. “Before describing the disciplinary options that were available to us, we want to state unequivocally that Professor Marcy’s conduct, as determined by the investigation, was contemptible and inexcusable. We also want to express our sympathy to the women who were victimized, and we deeply regret the pain they have suffered.”

Dirks went on to say: “We did not have the authority, as per University of California policy, to unilaterally impose any disciplinary sanctions, including termination. Discipline of a faculty member is a lengthy and uncertain process. It would include a full hearing where the standards of evidence that would be used are higher….The process would also be subject to a three-year statute of limitations.” He also pledged to work with Napolitano and the Academic Senate to reform policies “so that in the future we have different and better options for discipline of faculty.”

UC’s new committee will be headed by Sheryl Vacca, head of the existing President’s Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault, and Dan Hare, a UC Irvine entomology professor who also chairs the systemwide Academic Senate.

By Friday morning, some of those who had rallied around the women in the Marcy case were cautiously optimistic that this would make a long-term difference in academia. On the “Women in Astronomy” blog, Jessica Kirkpatrick—an astrophysicist-turned-data scientist who earned her Ph.D. from Berkeley—wrote: “Marcy’s habit of making women uncomfortable was an “open secret” in the Astronomy community. Yet many people are reacting with frustration, saying: ‘If everyone knew, why didn’t we do something sooner?’ or ‘I am a woman in astronomy, how come no one told me?’ The Marcy situation highlights a larger problem we have within the structures of academia: a culture of silence.”

But she goes on to add that during her career, the majority of her mentors, advisors and bosses have been male, and have never made her uncomfortable. “Let’s not let a few bad apples spoil our beautiful community,” she writes. “We need to break this culture of silence. We need to make systemic changes to our university’s reporting structure and policies so that this doesn’t happen again. I encourage everyone to try and learn from what happened here.”

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