This is a follow-up article to my original piece chronicling and discussing the case of Dr. Geoffrey Marcy.
On May 1st of last year, the US Dept. of Education released a list of 55 Institutions of Higher learning that are under federal investigation for possible US Title IX violations. USC Title IX provides that institutions who receive federal education subsides meet zero tolerance standards regarding offenses of a sexual nature. Simple and reasonable enough, right? So anyone would have thought. The fly in the ointment is what defines “offenses of a sexual nature”. Sexual harassment is not sexual assault; sexual assault includes rape and it should be noted for the record that Dr. Geoff Marcy was never charged with sexual assault. You might also be surprised to learn what institutions are under investigation; they would include Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, among others.
Yale and Harvard
Although Yale and Harvard are both gripped in cases involving alleged sexual harassment or misconduct, Yale is not on the list of institutions under federal investigation, most probably because the cases were resolved decisively. At Yale, there were two high profile cases, both at their medical school, one involving a cardiologist and the other a professor of Nephrology. At Harvard, the cases are more low-key but, nonetheless, are in the public spotlight. Although Yale isn’t on US Ed’s list of institutions, it is quite concerned with its image and standing. Regarding the subject of this article, let’s take a look at Harvard. On October 14, 2014, exactly one year prior to the date Dr. Geoffrey Marcy would announce his resignation as a tenured faculty member from UCal, Berkeley amid charges of sexual harassment, a piece appeared in the Boston Globe describing how Harvard University would lower the legal standard regarding this issue.
In a dramatic alteration of policy, Harvard University’s administration had decided that they, and they alone, will be the sole arbiters, the locus and nexus of all issues regarding the administration of this policy; previously, each member college of the university would be responsible for governance and the administration of the university’s various policies. Unilaterally, the administration had decided that this single policy would be administered directly by them, and by them alone. All colleges of Harvard University would then, necessarily, be subject to their decisions regarding administration of this one policy. In a case of twisted irony that would necessarily include Harvard Law School, the same school from which our current president graduated from at the top of his class, the faculty of Harvard Law, almost without exception, both current and retired, have decried this decision by the university’s administration as a direct violation of the duly ratified policies regarding autonomy, governance and academic freedom. In addition and equally egregious was the university’s flagrant disregard for a bedrock principle of our democracy, the presumption of innocence and the right to confront your accuser. The faculty were sharply critical of the lowering of the legal standard, asserting that the new regulations violate the due process rights of the accused. Echoing their position in an opinion piece published in the Boston Globe for 3 November 2014, Patrick Witt, a first-year law student at Harvard Law, previously at the center of another controversy at Yale, had this to say:
I am a first-year student at Harvard Law School, and I join the 28 members of our faculty who recently protested the university’s adoption of a new and expansive sexual harassment policy. While I agree wholeheartedly that universities have a moral as well as a legal obligation to provide their students with learning environments free of sexual harassment, I echo the faculty’s concern that this particular policy “will do more harm than good,” and I urge the university to reconsider its approach to addressing the problem.
In his piece, Witt decried Harvard’s new policy as deplorable, that it resembles Yale’s in its “informal complaint” option: At both institutions, students can file unofficial, secret accusations with a group of university staff. In this piece from 2012, the story of Witt, a once aspiring Rhodes Scholar candidate, now a law student at Harvard Law, is quite similar in many aspects to what happened to Geoff Marcy at Berkeley, aspects that include retractions, unverified accusations, vagueness, conflicting accounts, outright lies and fabrications.
Witt goes on to describe what amounts to a policy of appeasement at all cost in an effort to maintain their reputation and standing in the public eye, sacrificing tenured faculty on the alter of Title IX funding:
In the hopes that my painful and humiliating experience might yet produce some good, I offer my own story as a real-life example of how this well-intended policy can produce disastrous consequences.
specific accusations are not disclosed to the accused, no fact-finding takes place, and no record is taken of the alleged misconduct.
In a another twist of irony related to Harvard, John Asher Johnson, Ph.D is an astrophysicist and professor of astronomy at Harvard and former graduate student of Dr. Geoffrey Marcy whose case I have discussed and chronicled here. Dr. Johnson, if not directly involved in the case, at least had intimate knowledge of it, its background and the series of events that led up to Dr. Marcy’s controversial departure from Berkeley.
Much of this is not-so-oddly familiar to what happened in Dr. Marcy’s case. Clearly, any case found to be authentic needs to be dealt with swiftly, decisively, and appropriately and, in all cases, in accordance with the highest standards of our democracy, maintaining the integrity of all involved, the institution, the accusers and the accused. Never should it devolve into a “crusade” as was the case with Dr. Marcy. Much has come to light in Geoff’s case since I published my original piece, much of it exonerating him; sadly however, the damage has already been done. Those details can be found in his recently launched public website: http://geoffreymarcy.com.
Federal Involvement and Additional Cases
With the publicity surrounding the recent, high-profile cases, the federal government is taking a more active, more heavily involved role. On Tuesday, January 12th, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA 14th District), took to the House floor and spoke passionately, introducing House Bill H.R.2680, new legislation that would compel institutions who receive Title IX funding to make other institutions aware of the results of any investigations into violations of federal sexual harassment standards. Her action was prompted by a new case, that of Dr. Timothy Slater of the University of Arizona. Citing a decade-old, sealed report from the U of A, Rep. Speier described, in what she characterized as “lurid”, the actions of Dr. Slater. In that the report is a decade old, this case is similar in that same aspect as Dr. Marcy’s. Why was it retained, sealed for over a decade by the U of A?
Rep. Speier, in her opening remarks, further impugned the already destroyed reputation of Dr. Marcy in not mentioning some of the exonerating developments in his case. Further, she impugned the reputation and integrity of the U of A by comparing their decision to keep the report sealed for a decade to the many cases of priests who have either been accused of or convicted of pedophilia being protected by the Catholic Church for “decades”. As well, in her remarks, she described the women (at the time the reports were compiled the subjects were students) who have now came forth as “brave”. Exactly how they were brave is anyone’s question, that they waited that long with full knowledge that the report exists actually makes them complicit in any subsequent cases involving Dr. Slater. The university may have retained that report –sealed for ten years– to protect the identity and integrity of the victims and all individuals involved.
In that astronomy was the only academic discipline mentioned, her remarks were somewhat suggestive of astronomers being lurid, lecherous perverts. The overwhelming majority of astronomers, both men and women, are noble professionals of the highest caliber whose character is above reproach; they are teachers whose passion and love for the universe, its beauty and splendor, is as inspiring as it is palpable. Clearly, with the cases involving Harvard and Yale, the scope and breadth of this problem is not restricted to astronomy or any single discipline; it is almost pandemic, symptomatic of a larger, dark aspect of society as a whole, a problem, ironically, rooted in a deficient, dysfunctional educational system. In a blatant attempt to garner traction and use the public hype and sensitivity to this issue to her advantage, Rep. Speier neglected to mention that, in new developments since the story broke in October of 2015, many aspects of Dr. Marcy’s case were fabrications, exaggerations or outright lies, developments that went a long way in exonerating him.
In another recent case, Christian Ott, professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at CalTech, has been sanctioned but has not been dismissed from his position. In the article, the sanctions were briefly described
The faculty member was banned from campus for a year ‘for the protection of students,’ Harrison says. His courses have been reassigned, she adds. At the same time, Harrison says ‘there are no restrictions on continuing with his research.’
Dangers and Pitfalls
An aspect of this that is quite troubling involves the new sense of empowerment all this may instill in an already emboldened and independently-minded student population. It may lead to in an increase in false accusations or “crusades”. In a hypothetical scenario, a student whose grades are marginal or who is in danger of failing a certain course or being placed on academic probation may contrive a scenario or situation where their instructor has behaved in ways unbecoming or in contravention of the standing policies of a given university in matters relating to sexual harassment and student contact. Scenarios where professors are bullied or blackmailed into untenable positions are not that far fetched.
What is not needed now are additional regulations imposed on already over-burdened faculty and administrations. It’s hard enough now for students to learn and faculty to teach without additional impositions by the federal government. What is needed, in addition to training and the already-existing, university-level standing policies on sexual harassment and contact with students, with the existing, in-place federal guidelines regarding Title IX funding, is a policy of pro-active, self-policing adopted and deployed across academia. Any such policy must be wholly consistent with the bedrock principles of our democracy: due process, the presumption of innocence and the right to confront your accuser.
Update to High Profile Astro SH cases here
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 knowledge”
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.