What Geoffrey Marcy did was abominable; What Berkeley didn’t do was worse

I am so disappointed and revolted with my university.

On Friday,  posted a story about Geoffrey Marcy, a high-profile professor in UC Berkeley’s astronomy department. It reported on a a complaint filed by four women to Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD) that alleged that Marcy “repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.”

Unusually for this type of investigation, the results of which are usually kept secret, Ghorayshi’s reporting revealed that OPHD found Marcy guilty of these charges, leading to his issuing a public apology in which he, in all too typical PR driven apology speak, acknowledges doing things that “unintentionally” was “a source of distress for any of my women colleagues”.

There’s not much to say about his actions except to say that they are despicable, predatory, destructive and all too typical. It defies even the most extreme sense of credulity to believe that he thought what he was doing was appropriate.

But, unlike so many other cases of alleged harassment that go unreported, or end in a haze of accusations and denials, the system worked in this case. An investigation was carried out, the charges were substantiated, the bravery of the women who came forward was vindicated, and Marcy was removed from the position of authority he had been abusing.

WAIT WHAT? He got a firm talking to and promised never to do it again????? THAT’S IT???

It is simply incomprehensible that Marcy was not sanctioned in any way and that, were it not for Ghorayshi’s work we wouldn’t even know anything about this. How on Earth can this be true? Does the university not realize they are giving other people in a position of power a license to engage in harassment and abusive behavior? Do they think that the threat of having to say “oops, I won’t do that again” is going to stop anyone? Do they think anyone is going to file complaints about sexual harassment or abuse and go through what everyone described as an awful, awful process, so that their abuser will get a faint slap on the wrist? Do they care at all?

Sadly, I think the answer to the last question is “No”.

As I was absorbing this, I was reflecting on having just completed the state mandated two hour online course on sexual harassment. First of all, Marcy is required to have taken this course. If he had paid any attention (and didn’t have someone else take it for him), he would have no excuse for not being aware of how inappropriate and awful his actions were.

But I also realized something more fundamental –  at no point during all the scenarios with goofily named participants, flowcharts of reporting procedures and discussions of legal requirements was there anything about sanctions.

When you study to get a drivers license, the learn not just about the laws of the road, but about what happens if you violate them. And while most of us want to drive safely, it is the threat of sanctions that prevents us from speeding, running red lights and the such. Why no discussion of sanctions regarding actions that are not just violations of university policy, but are, in many cases, crimes?

I am all in favor of education about sexual harassment. But isn’t the fact that this kind of shit keeps happening over and over evidence that education is not enough? There HAVE to be consequences – serious consequences – for abusing positions of power. Do we honestly think that someone who likes to stick his hand up the shirts of his students and give them back rubs is going to be dissuaded from doing so because he (yes, it’s pretty much always he) is going to go back over the “Determining whether conduct is welcome” checklist in his mind? Do we think someone who wants to inappropriately touch students at dinner is going to stop because of some scenario he clicked through?

I’m not trying to argue against this kind of eduction. It is vital. But it is mostly aimed at helping people recognize harassment as a third party. It seems aimed more at supervisors to teach them how to respond to harassment in their midst, and it seems more interested in parsing marginal cases than in saying “DON’T TOUCH YOUR STUDENTS’ and ‘DON’T ABUSE YOUR POSITION OF POWER’.

Here is a perfect example:

Dr. Risktaker

I’m sure male faculty all imagine themselves as the debonair professor who poor female students can’t help having the hots for. But it’s bullshit. The case we have to worry about is exactly the opposite – the one we know happens all the time – where “Randy Risktaker” has the hots for “Suzie Scholar” and uses his position of power over her to impose himself on her.

[And can we talk about names here for a second? Randy Risktaker and Suzie Scholar seem straight out of porn. Is that really the message we want to be sending here? Don’t you think the Geoffrey Marcys of the world read that and go — ooh, I AM a randy risktaker…]

And how does the university respond to this scenario?

Dumb Answers

First, they want to remind us that students CAN harass professors, creating a bizarre false equivalence and ignoring the obvious difference in position and power. Second, and far more importantly, they don’t say what they should say which is HEY DR. RISKTAKER, KEEP IT IN YOUR PANTS AND GO BACK TO TEACHING.

Instead they all but give him permission to pursue the relationship, and give him a step-by-step guide of how to do it: call the sexual harassment officer to discuss the matter (right, like anyone’s going to do that) and then tell her you can no longer be her dissertation advisor anymore because you’d rather sleep with her than advise her academically. I’m sure Geoff Marcy Randy Risktaker is grateful for the guidance.

This isn’t education. This is repulsive.

I get it, university policy does not preclude relationships between faculty and students, it just defines the conditions under which they can happen. But the purpose of training should be to PREVENT HARASSMENT, not to tell people how to comply with university policies.

Which gets to the heart of the matter. The university does not  care about preventing harassment – it cares about covering its ass when harassment occurs. This training – the only real communication faculty get about the matter – is ALL about that. And this has to change. NOW.

All over Berkeley campus there are banners with various people – students, teachers, administrators – saying “It’s on me” to prevent sexual violence on campus and the rape culture that plagues universities everywhere.

Well the behavior Marcy engaged in is sexual violence. And, as a senior university faculty, it’s on me to demand that the university fix this problem immediately.

I am calling on Chancellor Dirks to completely revamp the training faculty and other supervisors receive on sexual harassment 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 tall the people who we can protect from abuse if we act now.

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  1. Anjela Darien
    Posted October 18, 2015 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    are we raising children to stay silent in exchange for careers and money? that’s what it comes down to- power and money- oh yes way after the fact-the colleagues are signing petitions to get rid of Marcy- dissuaded a student from making a complaint & every student who lacked the moral fiber to speak out even if it cost you a grade or what ever­, is as compliant as if you had all joined hands with Geoffrey Marcy and his hapless wife­ …could one person not have notified the press-

  2. Woman Engineer
    Posted October 19, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Regarding the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope on the Summit of Mauna Kea, here is an excellent article describing how the wishes of Native Hawaiians have been ignored by astronomers:


    The Thirty Meter Telescope will cost $1.5 billion dollars.

    Working at the summit of Mauna Kea requires, due to its very high elevation, days of high altitude acclimatization. This means that astronomers who work at the telescopes on Mauna Kea are isolated from their families for weeks at a time.

    When I asked about this recently, and whether there was accommodation for childcare for astronomers, I was told that there are so few women working at the current Mauna Kea telescopes that there is no need for childcare.

    So building the TMT, rather than, for instance, a follow on to the Hubble telescope, will only exacerbate the exclusion of women from astronomy, due to the difficulty of accommodating families.

    And I was also told by this particular well funded and established astronomer that the sole reason for the lack of women in STEM (science and engineering) was because of the pipeline problem: women opting out of science and engineering in high school.

    What’s with astronomers? Have their heads in a cloud?

  3. No PolCorrectness
    Posted October 20, 2015 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Two thoughts:

    1. Why are you making such a big deal about the Dr Risktaker study? It’s obvious to everyone that the vast majority of real life cases involve a male on female, boss/professor on subordinate, and older on younger harrassment. This case study is accomplishing three things a usual case won’t: a) avoid being a complete stereotype, b) show that everyone is being treated equally, and c) (maybe), putting the older male professor in a victims position may finally work on some people who otherwise wouldn’t understand how bad it is. I raised three kids and I know that repeating the same message (Don’t do drugs!) a hundred times doesn’t work nearly as well as having a slightly different talk. And it works just as well on adults.

    2. What the university did was really, really wrong. Not only it allowed the wrong things to continue happening, but also it did disservice to Marcy himself. Had they followed up after the first complaints and given Marcy a no-nonsense talk and warning, Marcy most likely would have stopped or at least kept his advances under a check, at a civil level that won’t make people uncomfortable. Instead, a number of talented women quit, and a brilliant scientist is going to waste.

    Oh and by the way, where were those 23 faculty members that woke up today to vote Marcy off, when the harassment was happening for years?

  4. Robert OLIVER
    Posted October 22, 2015 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Lets change history, attribute his good work to others, write him out of history, let’s just remember the bad stuff about him. BUT remember no one one is perfect not even the sanctimonious ones being judgmental. I for one will never write off another human being. How about YOU?