Amid Sexual Harassment Probe, Prestigious University Lowers Legal Standard

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 WeThePeopleHigher 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.

He continues:

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:

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.

Candle in the darkIn 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 knowledge585px-Albert_Einstein_signature_1934(invert)
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.


7 thoughts on “Amid Sexual Harassment Probe, Prestigious University Lowers Legal Standard

  1. Conversations, not crusades, are what is needed now. The field of astronomy is bleeding. Let’s put it back together with thoughtful conversations and respect for each other. That means respect from the men and respect from the women. It means no lies or retaliations, from either side. It means making sure to communicate your feelings clearly from the get-go, to avoid confusion. Come on people–we can do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very well said and I completely agree. However, it’s not just astronomy that’s bleeding, its everywhere and not just the sciences; Harvard, Yale Medical school, among others. The root cause of the problem runs much deeper than just a dysfunctional sexual predilection in some. We’ve lost our way as a culture; our educational system is in ruins. For astronomers, we need to reconnect with what inspired us in the first place so we can, in turn, inspire the next generation of young minds (those who are the future), inspired so they maintain and transmit that proper balance in all aspects of life, that they don’t develop these destructive, dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviors: , , and this


  2. It looks like Cal Tech handled the Ott case much better than Berkeley handled Marcy’s, by sticking by their policy and defending their decisions. Berkeley got buzzed by BuzzFeed and fell off the rails, not even bothering to defend their original response to the situation. I wonder how the next one will be handled.

    We know there is a “list,” according to the CSWA. The social media approach is starting to look formulaic. Due process has been replaced by a hunting party. Who’s next?

    As a woman scientist, I am disheartened by my female colleagues who can’t seem to solve a problem except by using a hand grenade. And in the process, they also insult women by assuming they are so weak and vulnerable that they need a hunting party to protect them. Not necessary, my friends. Not necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great analysis! Yes, CalTech did do it right and since the story broke it has perplexed me why Berkeley never bothered to defend their original position. In my view, the chair acted with nobility at the outset, keeping the matter close to home. And there may have been 100 million reasons why they didn’t (defend their position and Geoff) and that (decision) may have come from someone else whose pay grade is above the chair’s. Buzzfeed isn’t the NY Times and Berkeley is used high profile stories, so their response to the story should have been swift and decisive with the administration and the department, as a whole, having Geoff’s back. That Geoff could have been the next Nobel Laureate would have been the one, singular motivation that would trump the Breakthrough Listen grant. As the old idiom says: “When you want to find the rat, follow the money trail”. I have since learned that there was some division in the department, that there was some confusion and that another prominent member of the department was pushing for unanimous ratification of a much stronger-worded letter and that some members did not want to sign. And yet, a third prominent member of the department agreed to sign by phone without fully understanding all the details and regretted it afterwards.

      Yes, the CSWA did propose a “Blacklist” which is quite troubling and I want to believe the AAS rejected the idea out of hand. I was prepared to renounce my membership in protest if they did adopt the idea.

      Agree with your assessment too that it (the activities of the CSWA and their army of “crusaders”) diminishes the role of women in astronomy. Sadly, when the expansion of the universe is often discussed, it’s always within an Edwin Hubble context. What is rarely discussed is, that without the contribution of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Hubble may not have been so successful. I always include her contribution in any lesson I teach about Hubble or the expanding universe. And we can’t forget Annie Jump Cannon. The AAS awards a prize in her honor; if anyone knows anything about “Blacklists”, their use and history, it is a grotesque insult to Annie Jump Cannon, her legacy, astronomy, women in general, women in astronomy, the AAS and it’s members that the CSWA would embark on such an enterprise!


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