Justice for a sex-harassing Berkeley astronomy professor

I’m sure Geoffrey Marcy and Tim Hunt would have so much to talk about if they were locked in a room together, or better yet, shot into space.

Both are renowned scientists – Hunt is a Nobel laureate, Marcy a potential Nobel laureate – whose careers foundered on their own bad behavior toward women at a time when the Internet knows all, sees all … and forgives nothing.

In June, Hunt, who earned the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2002 for groundbreaking work on cell division, torpedoed his reputation, and his job, during a lunch for women scientists at an international conference in South Korea.

“It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists,” said Hunt, 72. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?”

He later said he was joking, merely trying to point out his own shortcomings, but the backlash — ignited by scientists who tweeted his comments -- was fierce. Within days, Hunt had quit an honorary professorship at University College London and resigned from posts with the Royal Society and European Research Council. Also, his self-inflicted misfortune spawned an entertaining Twitter meme, #distractinglysexy, featuring female scientists at work in head-to-toe labsuits, covered with dirt outdoors, in surgical masks.

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Many of Hunt’s colleagues, both male and female, were aghast that he had been made to pay such a steep price for what they believed to be a humorous statement.

And sure, what he did wasn’t anywhere near on par with the events that led to the resignation last week of renowned UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, who is considered the best planet finder in the world.

Marcy, who describes his wife as a “goddess” on his website, was found to have sexually harassed graduate students over nearly a decade. And no one, apart from his wife, has defended him.

Four women alleged that he engaged in unwanted behavior, ranging from kisses and massages to groping.

In March 2014, the former students, one of whom is now an astronomer at MIT,  filed written complaints with Cal’s Office of Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, alleging they were either harassed or knew of harassment that occurred between 2001 and 2010.

The confidential investigation lasted six months and concluded in June. University officials did not announce their results but found that Marcy had engaged in unwanted and inappropriate behavior.

“I witnessed him harass someone at a meeting,” said Jessica Kirkpatrick, 35, an astrophysicist who works in the Bay Area and was a complainant. “I did my best to intervene in the moment, and then talk to her afterwards.”

On Oct. 9, BuzzFeed’s science reporter, Azeen Ghorayshi, broke the story of the Title IX investigation and results.

In a detailed piece, Ghorayshi chronicled what one of Marcy’s former graduate students called “one of the biggest ‘open’ secrets” among astronomy professionals: the man regarded as one of astronomy’s brightest lights was a serial harasser. (One detail from BuzzFeed: A student said Marcy put his hand on her leg, slid his hand up her thigh and grabbed her crotch at a post-colloquium dinner at the University of Hawaii. She later left astronomy, Ghorayshi wrote, because of the harassment she and other female astronomers were forced to endure. Marcy disputed the account, but the Title IX investigator concluded it was “more likely than not” that the student was telling the truth.)

Two days before the BuzzFeed story appeared -- and certainly knowing it was coming -- Marcy, 61, posted a letter of apology to the astronomy community.

“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made,” he wrote, “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.”

The apology did nothing to mollify the astronomy community. Days later, 24 Cal astronomy professors signed a statement essentially calling for Marcy to quit the faculty or be fired. Two other similar letters were penned by Berkeley astronomy post-doctoral scholars and graduate students. All three letters condemned the secrecy surrounding the investigation and the university’s light treatment of the offender, and offered unqualified support to the women who had been harassed.

Marcy was told by the university to basically knock it off or face sanctions “that could include suspension or dismissal.” This struck some as less than even a slap on the wrist.

Berkeley officials said they were hamstrung by a three-year statute of limitations and procedural protections for tenured employees. “The university has imposed real consequences on professor Geoff Marcy by establishing a zero tolerance policy regarding future behavior and by stripping him of the procedural protections that all other faculty members enjoy,” said Berkeley Vice Provost for Faculty Janet Broughton.

(That’s hardly something to be proud of. If Marcy were a dog -- and the evidence certainly points in that direction -- he gets four free bites.)

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks defended the university’s decision: Discipline of a faculty member is a “lengthy and uncertain process,” he wrote in a statement disseminated online. “Our objective was to protect students by immediately preventing any re-occurrence of the behavior described in the investigative report.” 

In any case, the stars — and the Internet -- were lined up against Marcy. He resigned five days after the BuzzFeed report.

This was hardly a cause for joy among scientists.

“It’s a sad and traumatic week for women in astronomy,” said Kirkpatrick, who edits the Women in Astronomy blog for the American Astronomical Society. “So many people knew about it and didn’t intervene. To have our field talked about at such a level is such a horrible thing. It would have been a great week to talk about Geoff Marcy getting a Nobel Prize, if he had gotten help. No one wants a great scientist not to be able to do science. What we want is to protect our vulnerable young women.”

There is something tragic about the fall of a man like Marcy. He reached for the stars, but couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

As for Tim Hunt, maybe the guy really was joking, but the joke was based on a profoundly sexist, outmoded understanding of how things works. 

These days, you don’t need a telescope, or a microscope, to see how much the world has changed.

Email: robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

 

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UPDATE

Oct. 20, 6:18 a.m.: This post was updated.

This post was originally published Oct. 19 at 4:17 p.m.

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