geoff marcy

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What all the harassment stories in astronomy really mean

“The real story — the one you’re only seeing the beginning of — is that for the first time, these actions are getting the attention they deserve for what they truly are: unacceptable. A senior scientist’s right to control the fate, behavior, personal space and even the bodies of junior scientists is no longer going to fly. Creating a work environment that’s comfortable for some and less accessible to others based on gender, race, sexual orientation or identity has been the norm for a very long time, but all of that is changing.”

Geoff Marcy. Tim Slater. Christian Ott. And a great many more who are just waiting to be publicly exposed for what they’ve done (and in many cases, are still doing). Does it mean that astronomy has a harassment problem? Of course it does, but that’s not the real story. The real story is that, for the first time, an entire academic field is recognizing a widespread problem, taking steps to change its policies, and is beginning to support the victims, rather than the senior, more famous, more prestigious perpetrators. Astronomy is the just start; hopefully physics, computer science, engineering, philosophy and economics are next.

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How Did Geoff Marcy Happen?

“Like it or not, representation matters. And that means strong, smart, successful people of diverse races, genders, countries-of-origin, religions and all sort of other ways one can measure one’s background matters. It matters for all the junior people who come through; it matters for making it not okay to treat the “different” ones like they don’t belong there.

Because the harassment, the sexism, the racism, the assault… it hurts us all.”

Last week, news broke that UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy — perhaps the most famous single person in the field of exoplanet discoveries and study — was found guilty by a University panel of sexually harassing at least four students over a period of 2001-2010, with allegations and further accusations extending far beyond that. I wish I could tell you it’s a one-off, a rarity, or a thing that will end with the dismissal of Geoff Marcy from his position.

But it’s none of those things. It’s a symptom — a single person’s record — of a system that does nothing to stop this kind of behavior under most circumstances.

a quick and dirty breakdown of the events leading up to the resignation of Geoff Marcy from UC Berkeley faculty

In short, Marcy has accrued a long history of unwanted advances involving female undergraduate students in his department. His actions over ten years gained him something of a well-known but undiscussed reputation… until finally four of the women he approached filed a case for sexual harassment with the university. The investigative committee found him in violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy, but the university was powerless to dismiss a tenured professor without a three month process, giving Berkeley the appearance of ‘doing nothing’ to rectify the harms. (at least that’s what our chancellor’s email indicated). Yesterday, 22 of his colleagues in the Astro dept released a letter stating that they did not find him fit to be a faculty member (forever severing a professional tie with someone who’s huge in astronomy). After a petition from professors/students around the world disapproving of Marcy reached over 2400 signatures in two days, and extensive media backlash, Marcy resigned today.
I might also note that he still does not find his actions amiss, but rather misinterpreted.