Humiliated, World Renown Astronomer Resigns

GMarcy_05July15LickObsAmid allegations of sexual harassment, world renown astronomer and UC Berkley Professor Dr. Geoffrey Marcy announced his intention to resign his post as a member of the faculty and professor of astronomy at the prestigious university.  Having held this position for 16 years, Dr. Marcy made the announcement on Wednesday, October 14th. He is a pioneer in the search for exoplanets, was in line for a possible Nobel Prize as well as an appointment as a Principal Investigator for the newly funded Breakthrough Listen project, a co-investigator with NASA’s Kepler mission and an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at San Francisco State university. His illustrious career, by all intents and purposes, is now over.

Unsolicited or unwanted personal contact is never ok, regardless of the individual’s position or status. Over a ten year period between 2001 and 2010, there were four documented cases that Berkeley’s Office of Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination investigated. The investigation focused on complaints of professional misconduct where Dr. Marcy was alleged to have behaved in a manner unbecoming of his title and standing at the university. The complaints included unsolicited and unwanted groping, a charge Dr. Marcy denies, having been reported 8 years after it supposedly occurred, innuendo, comments, and other overtures. Any actions where uninvited personal contact is made, often referred to as sexual harassment, a violation of US Title IX provisions is possible. Two of the complainants have changed career pursuits, citing certain irreconcilable effects Dr. Marcy’s actions had on them. The other complaints concerned Dr. Marcy behaving in an “overtly friendly” manner towards junior female colleagues and frank discussions about sex with a senior-level undergraduate over coffee in a public setting. It should be noted that this was a meeting that she arranged with Dr. Marcy, a meeting during which she steered the conversation away from astronomy. It should also be noted that this would not be the first of such meetings that she would arrange. To be clear, however, none of these cases involved sexual assault nor were any of the complainants students of Dr. Marcy’s! Sexual assault or assault of any kind is a serious crime, right up there with rape. If Dr. Marcy were guilty of sexual assault, he wouldn’t be preoccupied with recovering from the train wreck that is now his professional life, he would be either under arrest or in prison.

Anyone who decides to change their careers because of such actions was never committed to the profession in the first place since the field transcends any single individual or their actions. This is a red-herring used by those who have taken this affair to another level, who have disregarded the appropriate measures and sanctions already in place, who are obsessed with the personal destruction of Geoff Marcy and simply consumed with vengeance.

His actions were first reported in a Buzzfeed article and not by the department chair. That article was then followed by a piece in the New York Times by Dennis Overbye. While the university conducted its own internal investigation into the allegations, the department chair kept the news close to his chest, an action many have criticized him for. These actions, nonetheless, were wholly appropriate and consistent with a key aspect of our democracy, the presumption of innocence and the right to confront your accuser.

The response to Dr. Marcy’s actions by his detractors were extreme and wholly disproportionate to what he did. After concluding their investigation into the allegations, finding in favor of the complainants, the university’s attempt at a mediated solution didn’t satisfy. The administration provided a measured, reasoned and wholly appropriate response, complete with clearly defined directives and zero-tolerance sanctions if Dr. Marcy were to breach any terms of the new accord or the standing policy of the university with regard to sexual harassment. This solution was insufficient, not for the four complainants who originally came forward but for the cadre of individuals who were now out for blood! What did Dr. Marcy do to them? It was as though Dr. Geoff Marcy was guilty of murdering little old ladies, their grandmothers, their pet canary or torturing puppies or kittens on national television. There were four documented cases over a 10 year period, a period that ended in 2010. That would be an incident every 2.5 years. There were rumors of other incidents but, at this point, those would be considered hearsay in a court of law. Unfortunately, a court of law never got to decide Geoff’s fate and cooler heads did not prevail; he is now the victim of a mob mentality. Hundreds, literally, hundreds of highly educated professionals behaving like a mob; who would have thought? One has to wonder why now, why after 5 years since the date of the last reported incident in 2010, did this come to light? Could it be jealousy? Could it be pure altruism for the good of the profession; could it be that a new found nobility has emerged towards the plight of victims of sexual harassment or sexual violence, women in astronomy or women in general? I don’t think so; for a few, yes, but for the majority, no! The majority pounced on a wounded individual, a vulnerable individual; they did what is done in the jungle and on the open plains of Africa by packs of hyenas and lions, they attacked an individual who is wounded and vulnerable.

Having been the victim of character assassination based on lies, rumors and completely baseless and unfounded allegations at a regional university, I am particularly sensitive to this issue and have a very strong opinion. Granted, the allegations against Geoff are documented, the effects are the same. My situation didn’t have the same outcome as Geoff’s and I have since recovered in part and have moved on but, nonetheless, it is very difficult to rebuild one’s reputation once destroyed. The recipients of Geoff’s indiscretions will survive and recover if they haven’t done so already with some of them having established their own productive careers in a field of their choosing.

My question to those who now delight in Geoff’s demise, to those who have expected to feel vindicated, are you happy? How does it feel? Has it been worth ruining an individual’s life and career over? Has it been good for astronomy? Did you get your pound of flesh or do you still want more? I can tell you how you feel; you probably feel vaguely empty and somewhat ambivalent, right? Was it worth it? Ask yourself, would Carl Sagan have signed on with you? I address these questions to, among others, Dr. John Johnson of Harvard University. As stated in your strongly worded and vitriolic blog post, Dr. Marcy was your graduate adviser, one would expect a certain modicum of loyalty to the one who mentored and taught you. You now find it perfectly fine to see your adviser, colleague, mentor and teacher burn. I also pose the same question to the faculty at UC Berkeley’s Department of Astronomy, Geoff’s colleagues many of whom signed a letter calling for his dismissal and the hundreds of signers calling for Geoff’s ouster, most of whom probably never met him and to whom he did no harm.

That the university responds now to complaints made between 5 and 15 years ago on the heels of receiving a $100 million grant from Yuri Milner to fund the Breakthrough Listen project with Dr. Marcy as a principal investigator, is dubious. That with his resignation from Berkeley’s Astronomy Department, goes his appointment as a PI on the project; that one of the women often cited in the articles and one who has intimate knowledge of the allegations made against Dr. Marcy, Dr. Joan Schmelz, is a program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Interim Director at Arecibo Radio Observatory; that she is in a position of authority at both NSF and Arecibo and decides who receives telescope time and funding; that this smacks of a breathtaking conflict of interest goes without saying; that Arecibo is not yet a key node for the project when, by all accounts, it should be; that the project is still open to partnering with the giant radio telescope if a certain legal poison pill related to cash woes at NSF can be worked out, something that Schmelz would have intimate knowledge of given her role at NSF; that Dr. Geoff Marcy was to take a leading role in the Breakthrough Listen project, a career enhancement anyone would covet, at a time when these “allegations” surfaced is quite dubious. The deeper you dig, the clearer it becomes that this whole affair has very little to do with Geoff’s minor indiscretions and more to do with something much darker and more odious.

Famous people attract detractors and they anger others on their way up the ladder. Some become jealous of others success with sexual harassment being a real issue. However, the disproportionate response to admittedly inappropriate behavior of touching junior colleagues on the shoulder or giving them a hug goodbye is far out of bounds; mob mentality prevails.

I would suggest that the matter concerning Dr. Geoff Marcy could have been handled quite differently, more in accordance with the sage words of the late, great Car Sagan who exhorted all of us to treat each other more with kindness, mercy and forgiveness, rather than with the alternative: “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”. In my view, these words are quite fitting in light of what has happened. Geoff has more than paid the price for his actions, transgressions made impulsively perhaps and without forethought; generally these kinds of actions are made without much forethought. The university’s mediated solution could have achieved more traction if it included provisions for mandatory therapy to address Geoff’s unprofessional behavior. Out of professional charity and respect for a fellow colleague, the Astronomy Department should have sought better for Geoff. In light of all that he has contributed to astronomy, is this to be his legacy? Is this how history will remember him? That many who had called him “colleague” signed the letter calling for his dismissal and suggesting that he is unfit to teach is shameful.

Is loyalty one of those virtues from a bygone era? Geoff’s career is over along with whatever fruits the rest of it would have yielded for us and for posterity. As we are all students of the universe and the natural world, as that is what we do, we continuously study and learn. It is disappointing that you haven’t learned one of the most essential lessons that an authentic study of science and the universe has to offer, humility, as said so well by Carl Sagan. It is as much ironic as it is disappointing, given that Geoff would have played a key role in the Breakthrough Listen project, a project Carl Sagan would have wholeheartedly endorsed and supported. In your grand quest to obtain some sense of justice, projected vicariously through the four individuals whose cases this entire affair is based on, you have missed the most basic lesson. I ask you again, was it worth it? Where is your humility?

Update: Amid Sexual Harassment Probe, Prestigious University Lowers Legal Standard
Update: Update to High Profile Astro Cases of SH
Update: Clarification on Position regarding SH and Dr. Geoff Marcy
Update: When Will It End?

Update: In act of blatant censorship, an Independent Petition opposing the public shaming of Professional Scientists has been disabled by the petition site administrator.

Imagination is more important than knowledge585px-Albert_Einstein_signature_1934(invert)
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.


9 thoughts on “Humiliated, World Renown Astronomer Resigns

  1. Pingback: the real astronomy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s