Geoff Marcy is a superstar astronomer, by any measure. He is a major figure in the exoplanet revolution, which has transformed our view of the universe so profoundly, that some have compared it to the revolution kicked off by Copernicus. Many of the first thousand planets observed circling other stars were detected by teams Marcy led. When history books about early-21st-century science are written, Marcy's name will be in them. Indeed, many wondered whether his name might be called earlier this week, when the Nobel prizes were announced.
Instead, Marcy found his way into the news for a different reason. On Friday, BuzzFeed published details from an investigation conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, into repeated complaints that Marcy sexually harassed students:
After a six-month investigation, Geoff Marcy ... was found to have violated campus sexual harassment policies between 2001 and 2010. Four women alleged that Marcy repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.
As a result of the findings, the women were informed, Marcy has been given “clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students,” which he must follow or risk “sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal.”
The Harvard astronomy professor John Asher Johnson, a former graduate student of Marcy’s, followed up with a blog post explaining that Marcy’s penchant for these sorts of behaviors was well known in the field of astronomy. “Geoff's inappropriate actions toward and around women in astronomy is one of the biggest open secrets at any exoplanets or AAS meeting,” he wrote. “Underground networks of women pass information about Geoff to junior scientists in an attempt to keep them safe.”
Berkeley's decision to allow Marcy to continue his teaching and research, apparently without much more than a warning and a promise to do better, is disappointing. As is Marcy’s apology letter, which he posted to his website on Wednesday.
“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women,” Marcy’s letter reads. “I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had.”
Marcy should have left it there. Instead, he continues:
It is difficult to express how painful it is for me to realize that I was a source of distress for any of my women colleagues, however unintentional. Through deep and lengthy consultations, I have reflected carefully on my actions as well as issues of gender inequality, power, and privilege in our society. I was unaware of how these factors created unforeseen contexts and how my actions and position have affected others in ways that were far from what I intended.
Marcy writes as though this realization has only recently dawned on him. And yet, as reported by BuzzFeed, Ruth Murray-Clay, a student representative at Berkeley, brought student complaints to his attention several times, in 2004. We have reached out to Marcy to ask him about this inconsistency, and will update this story with any response.
Even worse, in his letter, Marcy begins by pledging to take responsibility for his actions, but ends by focusing his readers on his intentions. “It is difficult to express how painful it is for me to realize that I was a source of distress
for any of my women colleagues, however unintentional,” he writes. “I was unaware of how these factors created unforeseen contexts and how my actions and position have affected others in ways that were far from what I intended.”
In Marcy’s account, he was just moving through the world, giving unsolicited massages to undergraduates, according to the complaints, without the slightest inkling that his actions were causing pain and distress. But in practice, Marcy had leveraged his considerable fame and power in the world of astronomy to build a nearly consequence-free bubble around himself, so that he could avail himself of pleasures that rightfully require the consent of others.
Given that reality, Marcy’s intentions aren’t that important. The important intentions here belong to the women he victimized, and by all accounts those women intended to go about the demanding work of astronomy without being touched inappropriately by someone who was supposed to be mentoring them.
Marcy closes his letter with an expression of hope that, “going forward,” there can be “constructive conversations” about “these issues” with the “shared goal of promoting the supportive and respectful environment we all want.”
But without genuine atonement, there is no going forward.
Only recently have women been able to fight their way into astronomy departments, but they are still a minority. According to a study by the American Institute of Physics, as of 2010, only 15 percent of full professors in astronomy departments were women.
Marcy has been handed the lightest possible punishment, considering the weight of the accusations against him, and Berkeley’s stated finding that those accusations were credible. He is fortunate, and now he has a rare opportunity to pursue genuine change in a field that badly needs it.
He is off to a bad start.