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UC Berkeley astronomer accused of sexually harassing students resigns

An internationally prominent astronomer resigned his UC Berkeley professorship Wednesday amid controversy over whether the university had been too lenient in the face of sexual harassment allegations against him.

Faculty members had called for Geoffrey Marcy’s firing after Buzzfeed reported last week that a campus investigation had upheld complaints that he’d groped, kissed, touched and massaged female undergraduate and graduate students.

After the confidential Title IX probe concluded in June, Berkeley quietly imposed guidelines on Marcy's behavior and warned him of possible suspension or dismissal if he violated them. Many faculty and students were outraged to learn that the professor faced no other disciplinary action.

Marcy, 61, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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In a statement, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks and Provost Claude Steele described the resignation as “entirely appropriate” and said that Marcy’s conduct with female students, as determined by the investigation, was “contemptible and inexcusable.”

However, they said, they did not have the authority to fire him without going through a lengthy process. The standards of evidence in such cases are very high, they noted, and any review would have included only allegations that fell within a three-year statute of limitations. The harassment reportedly occurred over nine years.

In imposing the behavioral rules, Dirks and Steele wrote that “our objective was to protect our students by immediately preventing any reoccurrence of the behavior described in the investigative report.”

Last week, Marcy issued an online apology and pledged to change his behavior.

“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,” he wrote. “It is difficult to express how painful it is for me to realize that I was a source of distress for any of my women colleagues, however unintentional.”

Marcy’s pioneering work in searching for and finding exoplanets, which are bodies that orbit stars other than our sun, was recognized 10 years ago with the $1-million Shaw Prize in astronomy, which he split with Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva. The prize announcement said their work was “revolutionizing our understanding of the processes that form planets and planetary systems.”

At Berkeley, Marcy also led experiments in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, looking for radio and light signals from possible distant civilizations. He reportedly will leave that job too.

Paul Kalas, an adjunct astronomy professor who was among 24 faculty who had publicly called on UC to remove Marcy, said Wednesday that he welcomed the resignation. But, Kalas said, it was “too late since female students have been harmed.”

In their statement, Dirks and Steele said they would work “to reform the university’s disciplinary processes, criteria and standards so that in the future we have different and better options for discipline of faculty.”

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

7:48 p.m.: This article has been updated with a comment from Berkeley faculty member Paul Kalas.

1:40 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from UC Berkeley's chancellor.

11:45 a.m., Oct. 14: This story has been updated with professor Geoffrey Marcy's resignation.

This story was originally published Oct. 13 at 11:20 p.m.

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