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Charges of Harassment by Famous Astronomer Prompt Soul-Searching About Sexism in the Sciences

The University of California at Berkeley is facing fierce criticism over its handling of an internal investigation that found that a prominent astronomy professor had repeatedly violated the institution’s policies against sexual harassment.

The subject of the inquiry, Geoffrey W. Marcy, is widely considered one of the world’s foremost researchers of “exoplanets” — planets orbiting stars outside the solar system. Mr. Marcy has been mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In a report on the Berkeley investigation’s findings, which was obtained by BuzzFeed, Mr. Marcy is presented as a harasser of female students. Four women cited in the report accuse Mr. Marcy of repeatedly engaging in “inappropriate physical behavior with students,” BuzzFeed reports, “including unwanted massages, kissing, and groping.” The allegations describe incidents that took place between 2001 and 2010.

In the report, Mr. Marcy disputes some of the charges of inappropriate contact. One complainant, a former graduate student at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, told investigators that the professor had “placed his hand on her leg, slid his hand up her thigh, and grabbed her crotch,” according to BuzzFeed. Mr. Marcy described the allegation as “totally absurd” and “plainly false,” but the investigation concluded that the student’s account was “more likely than not” true.

On Wednesday, Mr. Marcy posted a public apology on his faculty web page, though he stopped short of admitting to any specific infractions. “While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women,” he wrote. “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.”

Mr. Marcy’s fame would have made the sexual-harassment investigation a cause célèbre under any circumstances. But responses from the professor’s department and university only fueled deep concerns about rampant sexism in the field of astronomy, and in the world of scientific research more broadly.

After finding that Mr. Marcy had violated sexual-harassment policy, the university told complainants that the professor had been issued “clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students,” according to Science magazine. Failing to meet those expectations, the university said, could result in “sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal.”

“We consider this to be a very serious matter, and the university has taken strong action,” Berkeley said in a statement.

Many of Mr. Marcy’s peers have viewed the institution’s response as ineffectual at best. Michael Eisen, a professor of genetics, genomics, and development at Berkeley, condemned the university’s actions:

“This doesn’t seem to do a lot to protect current and future students from the same kind of harm from the same professor,” wrote Janet D. Stemwedel, a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University, in Forbes.

Another message, identified as a note from the chair of astronomy to professors in the department, drew further opprobrium. Referring to the revelations about Mr. Marcy as “very strong and emotional stuff,” the note continued: “Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer.” Again, many scientists condemned the remarks:

Astronomy, like many other scientific disciplines, has a well-documented gender-equity problem: As Ross Anderson, a senior editor at The Atlantic pointed out, women made up only 15 percent of full professors in the field in 2010. So the revelations about Mr. Marcy have prompted soul-searching.

The current case recalls one from nearly two years ago, when it came to light that Bora Zivkovic, a blog editor at Scientific American, had made unwanted sexual advances on several women. The scientist Karen James created the hashtag #ripplesofdoubt to allow scientists to discuss the effects of harassment in their fields.

On Thursday, as news of the investigation spread, a group of astronomers created an online petition. “I support the people who were targets of Geoff Marcy’s inappropriate behavior and those who have spoken publicly about it,” it reads. “I agree that sexual harassment has no place in our community.” As of Saturday afternoon, over 1,100 professors and researchers had signed.

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