How Astronomers Sought to Intervene With Geoff Marcy — and What’s at Stake for Women in the Field

October 14, 2015

Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images
Berkeley revealed last week that, after investigating complaints filed by four women, it had found the astronomer Geoffrey W. Marcy responsible for sexual harassment. Women in the field say they confronted Mr. Marcy about inappropriate behavior over the years and he promised to change. But the complaints kept coming.
Women in astronomy worked quietly for a decade to persuade Geoffrey W. Marcy, the acclaimed Berkeley astronomer whose alleged sexual harassment of students has roiled the discipline, to change his behavior before four former students finally filed complaints against him last year.

The women say the case is an important barometer of how the field treats female students and professors ­— whose numbers in the discipline are small — and whether universities are ready to take students’ complaints about harassment seriously.

Ruth Murray-Clay, an assistant professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara who earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics on the system's Berkeley campus in 2008, says it was in 2004 that she first decided to approach Mr. Marcy about what she saw as his inappropriate behavior with young women. Ms. Murray-Clay was the graduate-student representative to Berkeley’s astronomy faculty at the time and was meeting with students about putting together an annual holiday play in which they would poke fun at faculty members.

 "Someone suggested putting in a joke about Geoff chasing undergraduates, and the room got really quiet and uncomfortable," says Ms. Murray-Clay. "I knew that if this was something that couldn’t even be joked about, I needed to go have a conversation with him."

Ms. Murray-Clay had already heard stories from several undergraduate women about what they considered inappropriate touching by Mr. Marcy — including kisses and back rubs. Mr. Marcy had kissed her on the cheek once as she waited for an elevator in Berkeley’s astronomy department, she says, something she quickly told him was not OK.

But when she met Mr. Marcy in his office one day 11 years ago, she says, he gave her a mixed message. While he said the young female students had misinterpreted his behavior, which he said he did not intend as sexual, he also said he would take the complaints to heart.

"He said he was going to change," recalls Ms. Murray-Clay. "He said this was not going to happen again."

And then, she says, it did. Over and over again.

Ms. Murray-Clay went back to talk to Mr. Marcy several times about his behavior before she left Berkeley, in 2008, she says, and so did other students. She also complained to the astronomy-department chairman, in 2005, and to Berkeley’s Title IX office, in 2006. But, she says, nothing happened.

Berkeley would not respond to questions on the issue, beyond its public statements.

High Stakes for Astronomy

Mr. Marcy has worked at Berkeley for 16 years and is one of the nation’s foremost scholars of exoplanets, which are beyond Earth’s solar system. He declined to speak to The Chronicle for this article, but sent email messages reiterating a public statement he issued last week saying he apologizes to people who found his behavior offensive and asserting he had worked hard to change.

Berkeley’s reaction to the recent complaints against Mr. Marcy has created a firestorm. After investigating the four complaints, the university said in a statement last Friday that it had found Mr. Marcy responsible for sexual harassment. On Monday the university issued another statement, saying it had taken strong action against him and pointing out that the university cannot unilaterally discipline tenured professors.

"Sanctions can be imposed only after a lengthy process, including a hearing before a faculty committee, in which outcomes are uncertain," the statement read. That’s why the university said it had decided to put him on notice that any future inappropriate behavior could result in his dismissal.

'We are working so hard to have gender parity in this field, and when the most prominent person is a routine harasser, it threatens a major objective nationally.'
But that didn’t seem strong enough to many scholars in his field. Faculty members in Berkeley’s department issued a statement this week saying Mr. Marcy should be removed. "We believe that Geoff Marcy cannot perform the functions of a faculty member," said the statement, which was signed by 22 of his colleagues.

Graduate and postdoctoral students at Berkeley issued separate statements, criticizing the university for the way it had handled the charges against Mr. Marcy, and condemning the professor’s behavior.

An online petition supporting people who "were targets of Geoff Marcy’s inappropriate behavior" had gathered more than 2,400 signatures by Tuesday night.

A prominent astronomer in Mr. Marcy’s discipline has also asked him not to attend the field’s most important annual meeting, which takes place next month.

"The stakes here couldn’t be higher," David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, told BuzzFeed News, which first wrote about the complaints against Mr. Marcy. "We are working so hard to have gender parity in this field, and when the most prominent person is a routine harasser, it threatens a major objective nationally."

Female faculty members and students have complained for decades of discrimination and harassment in male-dominated scientific fields. In astronomy a 2013 survey found that 29 percent of assistant professors, 21 percent of associates, and just 15 percent of full professors were female.

Gender complaints are not limited to science. Female philosophers have also cited a hostile climate for women, and universities have recently removed or forced out several male philosophers following complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

An ‘Open Secret’

Gender issues in astronomy are just as much of a concern as in any science discipline.

Joan T. Schmelz, who just completed her second term as chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, characterizes Berkeley’s treatment of Mr. Marcy as a "slap on the wrist."

 In 2010, after learning of complaints about Mr. Marcy at a party following that year’s astronomical-society meeting, Ms. Schmelz quietly began working with women who felt he had harassed them. At that party, in Washington, D.C., several people saw Mr. Marcy hanging out with one of his female undergraduates, buying her drinks, touching her, and then leaving the party with her and another student in a taxi.

"A small group of people decided this was really important, and we contacted the people who had been harassed," says Ms. Schmelz, a professor in the department of physics and materials science at the University of Memphis. "We got more and more names, and finally four decided to file complaints after they had left Berkeley."

Ms. Schmelz says she became involved because she herself had been a victim of sexual harassment during graduate school, in the 1990s, and because her position on the astronomical society’s committee made her feel responsible.

As she talked to more and more women, Ms. Schmelz says, she realized that Mr. Marcy had a "play book."

"I heard this so many times," she says, "that I realized it was standard practice for him."

Mr. Marcy, she says, would isolate a female student in his lab or find a way to talk to her privately on the campus, away from others. During the talk, he would make a slightly inappropriate comment, touch or kiss the student, and then apologize, according to what women told her. Depending on the reaction he got, she says, he would either back off or take another step forward. Students, she says, complained that he had given them rides home, taken them out to coffee, and told them he and his wife had an open relationship. The four women who complained, she says, are "just the tip of the iceberg."

"This has been an open secret in the field for a long time," she says. "The reason he’s been able to get away with it is that people don’t trust the system to protect them."

Letter of Apology

In an open letter of apology he issued last week, Mr. Marcy said it was painful for him to "realize that I was a source of distress for any of my women colleagues, however unintentional." But, he added, "through hard work I have changed in major ways for the better."

Mr. Marcy is not a stranger to women’s issues in astronomy. In fact, says Ms. Murray-Clay, he is a charismatic professor who presented himself as sympathetic to the difficulties female students face.

Mr. Marcy even served on the astronomical society’s Committee on the Status of Women, from 1988 to 1996. In 1994 he and a female colleague at Berkeley completed a survey of women astronomers there about their experiences with sexual harassment, and asked for their suggestions on ways to improve the climate. The results aren’t publicly available.

A "sexual-climate survey" that the Berkeley department completed this year found that only 29 percent of the women who responded agreed that "the departmental climate is healthy with respect to gender/gendered issues."

This summer, after Berkeley had concluded its investigation of the complaints against Mr. Marcy and found him responsible for violating its policy on sexual harassment, Ms. Murray-Clay says Mr. Marcy asked if he could meet with her. He drove five hours, she says, from Berkeley to Santa Barbara, where he asked her to contact Ms. Schmelz and other members of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy to say that his behavior toward women in the field had changed. But Ms. Murray-Clay doesn’t find him convincing anymore. She said no.

Update (10/21/2015, 12:20 p.m.): This article has been updated to reflect new information received after it was published from the student who had been seen at a party with Mr. Marcy. She was accompanied by another student when she left the party in a taxi with Mr. Marcy.

Correction (10/22/2015, 12:32 p.m.): The American Astronomical Society meeting in 2010 was in Washington, D.C., not Seattle. This article has been corrected.

Correction (10/23/2015, 5:45 p.m.): This article mistakenly reported that more than half of the 45 women who responded to a sexual-climate survey at Berkeley said they had experienced "unwanted sexual attention or harassment." However, that number was inaccurate and has been removed. The article also said that only 44 percent agreed that "the departmental climate is healthy with respect to gender/gendered issues." The correct percentage who agreed that the climate is healthy was 29 percent. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections.

Robin Wilson writes about campus culture, including sexual assault and sexual harassment. Contact her at robin.wilson@chronicle.com.