Geoffrey Marcy has been told he is not welcome at an upcoming exoplanet meeting in Hawaii timed to coincide with the discovery of planets around other stars 20 years ago, work that made him famous.
Geoffrey Marcy, an acclaimed astronomer and leader in the hunt for planets around other stars, has been found guilty of violating the sexual-harassment policies of the University of California, Berkeley, where he holds the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
The university concluded in June that Marcy had engaged in inappropriate behavior with students, including groping them, kissing them and touching or massaging them. He was told subsequent violations would leave him subject to sanctions, as the vice provost, Janet Broughton, said in a letter, “that could include suspension or dismissal.”
Because of the confidential nature of such investigations, Marcy’s colleagues at Berkeley and elsewhere did not know of the investigation until last week, when BuzzFeed broke the story and Marcy posted a letter of apology on his University of California Web page.
“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women. I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had. For that and to the women affected, I sincerely apologize,” he wrote.
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In an email exchange Saturday, Marcy wrote: “I have worked hard to change and will continue to focus my efforts on promoting a supportive and respectful environment both in the Astronomy community and more broadly.”
He took exception to one complaint: that he had run his hand up a woman’s dress. That complaint, he said, “is totally false.”
His wife, Susan Kegley, a pesticide researcher, said she supported him, pointing out that he had cooperated fully with the investigation and apologized.
She defended her husband, writing in an email: “Others may interpret Geoff’s empathy and interest as a come-on. I can’t change their perspectives, but I think it is worth all of us examining how quickly one is judged and condemned without knowing all of the facts.
“The punishment Geoff is receiving here in the court of hysterical public opinion is far out of proportion to what he did and has taken responsibility for in his apology.”
In a statement issued Friday, the university said: “We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action.”
Marcy has been told he is not welcome at an exoplanet meeting in Hawaii in December, timed to coincide with the discovery of planets around other stars 20 years ago, work that made Marcy famous. He has stepped down from the convention’s organizing committee.
Marcy has retained his job, which disappoints Sarah Ballard, who was one of the four women who brought the complaints.
“He violated the Civil Rights Act,” said Ballard, who is now an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “His job as a professor is to mentor and provide guidance to young people; in that role he’s caused devastating harm.”
Joan Schmelz, who was a longtime leader of the American Astronomical Association’s committee on the status of female astronomers, said: “I’ve seen sexual harassers get slaps on the wrist before. This isn’t even a slap on the wrist.”
Marcy’s troubles come at a time sexism and sexual harassment are gaining prominence in science. Two years ago, MIT cut ties with Walter Lewin, a popular lecturer, and deleted his physics course materials from its website after finding that he sexually harassed at least one student.
Marcy’s behavior had been an open secret in the exoplanet community for years, John Johnson, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a former graduate student of Marcy, said in an interview Saturday and in a letter that was circulated to the Harvard astronomy department Friday.
Johnson said he had refrained from speaking out while he was still a junior astronomer without tenure and vulnerable to being under Marcy’s thumb: “Something I’m not proud of.”
A tipping point seems to have occurred at a meeting in Washington of the American Astronomical Society in 2010, when several astronomers reportedly observed Marcy’s behaving in an overly intimate manner.
In March 2014, four of Marcy’s former students filed a written complaint with Berkeley’s Office of Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.
One of the complaints was from Ballard, who was an undergraduate in one of Marcy’s classes when he befriended her in 2005 after she organized a rally about sexual violence on campus. Over time, their conversations turned personal. She said Marcy described his early sexual exploits and offered advice about her boyfriend. In her complaint to university officials, Ballard also told of one episode in which she was leaving Marcy’s car when he started giving her a neck massage.
She said she was afraid to confront him because, she said, she knew she would need letters of recommendation for graduate school.
For a long time, Ballard said, “I grappled with ‘Should I forgive?’” Those doubts vanished when she learned other women said they had been harassed. She said she hoped speaking publicly would give others the courage to speak up.
“The university has failed to protect other students from suffering what I suffered,” Ballard said. “Harassment is a deep problem, not just in Berkeley but in the academy and in our culture.”