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It’s About Time, UC Berkeley: The Aftermath of the Geoff Marcy Sexual Harassment Debacle

It is enormously disappointing to find out that recently released documents show astronomer Geoff Marcy did not respect the boundaries between students and professors.

If that were not bad enough, UC Berkeley turned a nearly blind eye to the issue and used a heavy-handed, slow as molasses approach to deal with the reported harassment. Nothing says lack of motivation to deal with an issue quite like taking years to deal with numerous reports of sexual harassment by the same individual.

For a number of years now many university campuses have been mired in ugly sexual harassment cases, with accusations that the administration would not take student complaints seriously. When the lid finally blew off the debacle and the truth of the matter was outed, it became apparent that sexual harassment was rampant across the nation. It also was glaringly evident that no one in a position of authority did much about it, other than pay lip service to the notion of punishment. Instead, the issue was swept under the rug and the victim was deemed to be the problem.

It is not rocket science to understand that sexual harassment by a person in a position of authority is against the law. The Marcy case is a good example of a harasser (at first) getting off lightly, until the media published the university’s investigative report of the allegations, four in total, which confirmed he had harassed students. The sky did fall and Marcy was forced to resign.

The complaints were fairly explicit and there seemed to be no clear reason why the university would not take them seriously and take action, other than the possibility that losing Marcy may have affected their funding. Apparently Marcy’s behavior was a well-known hidden secret and yet nothing was done until his actions went public. And so now, an advisory committee is to make recommendations on how to handle sexual violence, harassment and assault cases involving faculty members.

The time to do that was when the first sexual harassment complaint was filed. But better late than never.

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Will the Geoff Marcy scandal change educational institutions’ attitude about sexual harassment?

Geoff Marcy was considered to be an icon in the field of astronomy. He is known worldwide for his work discovering planets in far away solar systems. Now, he is known worldwide for this proclivity to sexually harass students.

The scandal that drove Marcy to resign from UC Berkeley was not just about his actions, but about the inaction of the institution itself in refusing to deal with accusations levelled against him.

The scandal revolving around Marcy’s actions raised questions regarding the university administration’s inaction when accusations were levelled against him. Were they too indifferent or too intimidated to put a stop to a famous man who sexually harassed his female students? Was it too inconvenient to properly address the harassment when the harasser was a star of their astronomy department and of the scientific community?

There may never be a clear answer to that question, but the facts do speak clearly for themselves. Marcy broke the rules, students complained, and the university looked the other way. The scandal took on a life of its own, forcing Marcy to resign from his position at the university and his role as a principal investigator for the Breakthrough Listen project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, though he had some kind of agreement hammered out that may have allowed him to remain at both.

For years, UC Berkeley administration studiously avoided the Marcy situation, even though many on campus, including his colleagues, knew about his behavior. However, within just five days, once the full scope of Marcy’s actions was revealed to an international audience, Marcy was gone. Was this indicative of a change in attitude on the part of the university or a profound shift in public opinion condemning such behavior?

While it would be gratifying to think educational institutions are fed up with those who push the boundaries and bend or ignore sexual harassment policies, it does not appear that those places of higher education actually want to deal with such behavior. If they did, Marcy would have been properly punished a number of years ago.

It appears the bottom line for many educational edifices and corporate boardrooms continues to be, “Silence is golden to protect the Golden Goose.”

What happened to the basic right of students to expect a good education and feel safe from harassment and abuse while they are in school or at work? Where is it written that it is okay for a famous person to sexually harass students because he or she brings prestige and money to the university or acclaim to a business?

Each individual is accountable for his or her actions — period. When those illegal, unethical and morally corrupt actions are tacitly condoned, the perpetrator is enabled to continue his or her deplorable actions. But they are not invincible. They do eventually pay the price for their actions; but what is the cost to their victims?

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Sexual harassment allegations led to resignation of astronomer Geoff Marcy

Apparently, world-renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy has more than just a solid track record for finding exo-planets. He has a documented, but deliberately squelched track record for sexual harassment while working at two universities in California: University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University (SFSU).

And while it appears that university officials knew about his sexual offenses, nothing was done about it until recently. The court of public opinion turned the tide against him and he was forced to resign from his post. Marcy had run afoul of Berkeley’s sexual harassment policies multiple times between 2001 and 2010. He posted a mea culpa message on his website suggesting he did not realize his behavior caused women distress.

Three women from SFSU say he sexually harassed students there, too, by making lewd remarks, touching and massaging students. Marcy was employed at SFSU for 15 years prior to leaving for Berkeley in 1999. According to a former sexual harassment officer, several women tried to register complaints about him. She also verified she had seen emails written by him at that time to the women in question.

Marcy’s open letter stated, in part: “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.” According to one complainant, Marcy allegedly thought his actions boosted his female student’s self-esteem, even though he was told to stop.

There was a possibility Marcy would retain his job, while his behavior was to be subjected to rigorous control. When faculty, staff and students discovered there was a possibility he would retain his job despite being found to be in violation of Berkeley’s sexual harassment policies, the uproar demanding his resignation began. Berkeley’s attempt to retain a serial sexual harasser was regarded as hypocritical in that it would strictly go against the reason the university had a sexual harassment policy in place. It was regarded as morally, ethically and legally wrong.

Despite the claims by some, including his wife, who said Marcy’s behavior was merely friendly, his actions were wrong. When he was told to stop, he did not. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, no matter what one chooses to call it.

If you are facing a situation like this at work, make certain to contact an experienced sexual harassment attorney and find out what your options are and how to proceed to file a lawsuit.

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