Sexual harassment at Berkeley rocks astronomy community

4 minute read

An important story is emerging in the astronomy community about the history of sexual harassment by a prominent astronomer, Geoff Marcy, and lack of adequate response from his institution, the University of California, Berkeley. The story was reported yesterday by Azeen Ghorayshi at Buzzfeed: “Famous Berkeley Astronomer Violated Sexual Harassment Policies Over Many Years, University Investigation Finds”.

“After all of this effort and trying to go through the proper channels, Berkeley has ultimately come up with no response,” said Joan Schmelz, who until recently led the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. (Schmelz was not a complainant in Berkeley’s investigation.) “I’ve seen sexual harassers get slaps on the wrist before. This isn’t even a slap on the wrist.”

I want to bring attention to this aspect of the case:

“Not only is it the case that he is very senior and very well-respected, it’s also the case that he’s a collaborator on a lot of large projects,” said Ruth Murray-Clay, a former UC Berkeley graduate student who is now an assistant professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara. As a theorist, she does not rely on his data. But many others do. “You don’t want to make an enemy with someone who has access to data you might need,” she said.

People who exert power over data will abuse that power. It is a scientific travesty for others to be afraid to comment on an individual’s reputation as an advisor and teacher, because they fear losing access to data for their work.

I recommend Janet Stemwedel’s article responding to the Berkeley situation, on the Forbes website, “Astronomy Community Mounts Stronger Response In Sexual Harassment Case Than UC Berkeley”. As she emphasizes, Marcy’s department was aware of improper behavior in 2004 and no effective action was taken to protect students or other members of the Berkeley community.

It is noteworthy that those who speak out about a bad actor in a scientific community often feel like they cannot stay in that community. Given the typical experience of other whistleblowers, they’re probably not wrong. Even those who are committed to staying within the community may be labeled anti-social by colleagues unhappy that they have upset seemingly peaceful social and professional relations.

I have no first-hand knowledge of the situation for astronomers, but I note many similarities between this situation and those documented in anthropological fieldwork by Kate Clancy and colleagues. You can read more in my 2013 post, “AAPA hears about ongoing abuse of students at field sites”, and in the 2014 open access paper by Clancy, Nelson, Rutherford and Hinde, “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault”.

UPDATE (2015-10-11): More reactions to this story from UC-Berkeley faculty.

Michael Eisen (Professor of Genetics): “What Geoffrey Marcy did was abominable; What Berkeley didn’t do was worse”.

It is simply incomprehensible that Marcy was not sanctioned in any way and that, were it not for Ghorayshi’s work we wouldn’t even know anything about this. How on Earth can this be true? Does the university not realize they are giving other people in a position of power a license to engage in harassment and abusive behavior? Do they think that the threat of having to say “oops, I won’t do that again” is going to stop anyone? Do they think anyone is going to file complaints about sexual harassment or abuse and go through what everyone described as an awful, awful process, so that their abuser will get a faint slap on the wrist? Do they care at all?
Sadly, I think the answer to the last question is “No”.

Michael O’Hare (Professor of Public Policy, UC-Berkeley): “Maybe John Yoo will have lunch with him?

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is a big deal in big science, apparently on the Nobel Prize short list. A Sirius-level magnitude star in Berkeley’s constellation. For a decade, at least, he’s also been a serial harasser of women and on notice about it, in a field that has a big problem treating women as colleagues. Not a careless act or slipup: a long-time hobby. Everyone knew about it; women had a whole network to warn each other about him. You will, however, be pleased to know that Cal deeply deplores this behavior, and after six months of finding out what, apparently, any one in the exoplanet trades could tell them, he has been given a sharply worded admonition and told to not do it any more! His department chair, who presides over a faculty of 21 men and 3 women, counsels them that the episode is “hardest for Geoff in this moment”. No, really; this guy thinks this is something that happened to Marcy! and in case you think the god of irony is on travel today, that chair is also our Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.

To me the most ludicrous fact to emerge is that the department chair who is now asking people to give their sympathy to Marcy is at the same time the University’s Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion. Seriously?!?


Clancy KBH, Nelson RG, Rutherford JN, Hinde K (2014) Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102172. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172