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It’s on me to say that what Geoffrey Marcy did was abominable, but what Berkeley didn’t do is worse

Michael Eisen, Professor of molecular and cell biology | October 11, 2015

I am so disappointed and revolted with Berkeley.

On Friday,  posted a story about Geoffrey Marcy, a high-profile professor in UC Berkeley’s astronomy department. It reported on a complaint, filed by four women to Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), which alleged that Marcy “repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.”

Unusually for this type of investigation, the results of which are usually kept secret, Ghorayshi’s reporting revealed that OPHD found Marcy guilty of these charges, leading to his issuing a public apology in which he, in all too typical PR-driven apology speak, acknowledges doing things that “unintentionally” was “a source of distress for any of my women colleagues.”

There’s not much to say about his actions except to say that they are despicable, predatory, destructive and all too typical. It defies even the most extreme sense of credulity to believe that he thought what he was doing was appropriate.

But, unlike so many other cases of alleged harassment that go unreported, or end in a haze of accusations and denials, the system worked in this case. An investigation was carried out, the charges were substantiated, the bravery of the women who came forward was vindicated, and Marcy was removed from the position of authority he had been abusing.

WAIT WHAT? He got a firm talking to and promised never to do it again????? THAT’S IT???

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.”

As I was absorbing this, I was reflecting on having just completed the state-mandated two-hour online course on sexual harassment. First of all, Marcy is required to have taken this course. If he had paid any attention (and didn’t have someone else take it for him), he would have no excuse for not being aware of how inappropriate and awful his actions were.

But I also realized something more fundamental: at no point during all the course’s scenarios –with goofily named participants, flowcharts of reporting procedures and discussions of legal requirements — was there anything about sanctions.

When you study to get a driver’s license, you learn not just about the laws of the road, but about what happens if you violate them. And while most of us want to drive safely, it is the threat of sanctions that prevents us from speeding, running red lights and the such. Why no discussion of sanctions regarding actions that are not just violations of university policy, but are, in many cases, crimes?

I am all in favor of education about sexual harassment. But isn’t the fact that this kind of shit keeps happening over and over evidence that education is not enough? There HAVE to be consequences — serious consequences — for abusing positions of power. Do we honestly think that someone who likes to stick his hand up the shirts of his students and give them back rubs is going to be dissuaded from doing so because he (yes, it’s pretty much always he) is going to go back over the “Determining whether conduct is welcome” checklist in his mind? Do we think someone who wants to inappropriately touch students at dinner is going to stop because of some scenario he clicked through?

I’m not trying to argue against this kind of eduction. It is vital. But it is mostly aimed at helping people recognize harassment as a third party. It seems aimed more at supervisors to teach them how to respond to harassment in their midst, and it seems more interested in parsing marginal cases than in saying “DON’T TOUCH YOUR STUDENTS’ and ‘DON’T ABUSE YOUR POSITION OF POWER’.

Here is a perfect example:

Dr. Risktaker

I’m sure male faculty all imagine themselves as the debonair professor who poor female students can’t help having the hots for. But it’s bullshit. The case we have to worry about is exactly the opposite — the one we know happens all the time — where “Randy Risktaker” has the hots for “Suzie Scholar” and uses his position of power over her to impose himself on her.

[And can we talk about names here for a second? Randy Risktaker and Suzie Scholar seem straight out of porn. Is that really the message we want to be sending here? Don’t you think the Geoffrey Marcys of the world read that and go — ooh, I AM a randy risk taker…]

And how does the university respond to this scenario?

Dumb Answers

First, they want to remind us that students CAN harass professors, creating a bizarre false equivalence and ignoring the obvious difference in position and power. Second, and far more importantly, they don’t say what they should say which is HEY DR. RISKTAKER, KEEP IT IN YOUR PANTS AND GO BACK TO TEACHING.

Instead they all but give him permission to pursue the relationship, and give him a step-by-step guide of how to do it: call the sexual harassment officer to discuss the matter (right, like anyone’s going to do that) and then tell her you can no longer be her dissertation advisor anymore because you’d rather sleep with her than advise her academically. I’m sure Geoff Marcy Randy Risktaker is grateful for the guidance.

This isn’t education. This is repulsive.

I get it; university policy does not preclude relationships between faculty and students, it just defines the conditions under which they can happen. But the purpose of training should be to PREVENT HARASSMENT, not to tell people how to comply with university policies.

Which gets to the heart of the matter. The university does not  care about preventing harassment; it cares about covering its ass when harassment occurs. This training — the only real communication faculty get about the matter — is ALL about that. And this has to change. NOW.

All over Berkeley campus there are banners with various people – students, teachers, administrators – saying “It’s on me” to prevent sexual violence on campus and the rape culture that plagues universities everywhere.

Well, the behavior Marcy engaged in is sexual violence. And, as a senior university faculty, it’s on me to demand that the university fix this problem immediately.

I am calling on Chancellor Dirks to completely revamp the training faculty and other supervisors receive on sexual harassment to focus primarily on the rampant unacceptable behavior that happens all the time, and to make it unambiguously clear that if faculty engage in this behavior they will receive serious sanctions, including the loss of their position. This is what we owe to the brave women who confronted Marcy, and to all the people who we can protect from abuse if we act now.

Comments to “It’s on me to say that what Geoffrey Marcy did was abominable, but what Berkeley didn’t do is worse

  1. Thank you for pointing out the hypocrisy of the UC “training” system on sexual harassment. It has always struck me as a farce, and this sad case proves that it is even worse than that. As you rightly point out, UC clearly demonstrates that it is not concerned with the welfare of the people in the environment it is responsible for – it is merely concerned with avoiding lawsuits and maintaining its reputation.

    I was somewhat heartened by the strong stance the Astro faculty took on this issue. But you are absolutely right – the core of the issue is that the policy needs to be unambiguous and backed up by action.

  2. I came to a private university in California from a large, public university in Colorado. I was harassed by my department chair for 1.5 years after I was hired — I kept my private life very private and during this time my chair frequently urged me to “try being a lesbian” with her, shared many details about her sexual activity with her new partner, and often invited me to social gatherings at her home.

    I thought, at first, it was just “friendliness,” since I had moved to a new state and new community, where I knew no one. Because of this, although I often felt uncomfortable, I just would laugh-off my discomfort in many situations (on and off campus).

    When an age-harassment charge was filed against my chair (after witnessing her try to very publicly and viciously try to stop a colleague from getting tenure), I was interviewed by the harassment office on campus and shared my experiences. For a year I was pressured by this office to file charges against my chair — but I had become afraid of her ego and narcissistic behavior (she tried to stop my reappointment the next year — in the same viscous and public way). And I didn’t want to get labeled as homophobic.

    The university couldn’t even guarantee me a fair evaluation (I had to hire an attorney and meet regularly with the university grievance committee). The Provost finally reappointed me. When I met with her following that (and b/c I was leaving that university) and I told her about the history of harassment from my chair, she actually got made at me — one woman getting angry at another for disclosing harassment from someone in a position of power. She was mad b/c she is a mandated reporter and said “now I have to do something about this.”

    Even after my departure, the office of harassment has checked in with me, told me that harassment charges have no statue of limitations, etc. I’m not sure that I would ever file charges b/c of my own lack of protection in the process. Women who do are very brave. I have too much fear, even though I no longer work there.

    • The Provost may have gotten angry at you, not because you were creating more work, but because a formal report by you as the actual victim would have had far more credibility than the Provost’s second-hand report of the harassment.

      Predators pollute the environment they work in. When victims leave that environment and haven’t reported egregious harassment properly, they’ve enabled the predator and the polluted environment to persist.

      Life presents us with very tough decisions and often we want to take the comfortable peaceful road rather than the right but tough road. And sometimes the right road is not clear because zero tolerance can be too extreme.

  3. This is not sexual harassment; it’s sexual battery and these are crimes – committed for over a decade.

    To every single person to whom this has happened and to whom this will ever happen: Go straight to local law enforcement. Ignore the Uni completely. Whether it’s UCB or any other Uni, campus officials are not there to protect you; they are there to protect the school. No Uni has a good record of dealing with crimes against women. Let law enforcement handle it.

    And if a tenured professor is convicted, then that tenure will be gone with the wind.

  4. What the hell? What is wrong with giving more than a one dimensional view of sexual harassment? What does that online education thing have anything to do with the professor? I agree that they should teach the reverse case as well, but you’re just making a straw man argument here.

  5. I wish I could publish this response under my own name, but such is the nature of power.

    Individual corruption is commonplace to the point of banality and, while the pain of its victims is real, it can be contained with vigilance and discipline. Institutional corruption, condoning abuse of power by individuals, is much more invidious, casting a pall of fear and demoralization across all who want to belong and contribute to a great collective enterprise.

    The failure of this professor is inexcusable (“I’m so sorry I abused my power and privilege. Please don’t take it away.” – what a joke), but the failure of UC leadership to protect our community is unforgivable.

  6. Thank you for this. I was hoping after the reaction to VC Fleming that UCB would understand that students and staff want a true zero-tolerance policy for this type of behavior. I am disappointed in this decision and it embarrasses me as a staff member and HR professional.

  7. The aftermath of this scandal also leaves me disappointed in Berkeley, but not in the administration’s decision not to fire Marcy. I am disappointed in the apoplectic response the community has had to this issue, and the lack of empathy toward a greatly distinguished scientist who has made some terrible decisions. People were shocked at the email that said “Please remember that this is hardest on Geoffrey”, but they forget that this IS hardest on Geoffrey.

    None of this is to condone his behavior. If he can’t behave in a professional way, then he can’t be a professional. But honestly, all he did was give some sexy massages and touch someone’s crotch. I WISH someone would give me sexy massages and touch my crotch! (I fear that if I use my name, then nobody ever will, hence the anonymity.)

    At this point, the damage is done and he should resign. Unfortunately, female astronomy students might choose not to come to Berkeley if he is a professor, in light of this debacle. I can’t imagine him coming back to campus to teach a class again.

    • You post clearly demonstrate that all the training in the world is helpless if you don’t have a basic sense of respecting other people. Do you even understand the difference between consensual and non-consensual touching? (And if you don’t, you’re not mature enough to engage in the former.)

    • You call yourself Radical Empathy, but you have no empathy at all with the powerlessness, shame, and fear that women would feel being touched sexually, uninvited, by someone in a position of immense authority over them.

      (Do you really believe that if you were Geoff Marcy’s student and he had grabbed your crotch at dinner, you’d feel sexy instead of violated? I’m asking you to imagine, not a porn fantasy in your head, but a real situation. Is your Radical Empathy up to that?)

      • Eliza, history keeps proving, and we refuse to learn from it, that as long as we enable men to dominate women you shall never have Equal Rights. We still haven’t ratified the 1972 ERA in America because of this fact of life.

        So there is no American institution that dedicates itself to equal rights for women to protect themselves from men.

        Our civilization shall most certainly fail in this century because of this.

        I agree with Michael: “I am so disappointed and revolted with Berkeley.”

  8. I have to say that I totally agree with Professor Eisen’s strong statement about the University’s incoherent way of dealing with sexual harrassment, in particular the absurd “training” that we professors have to spend up to an hour completing every two years, when someone who has manifestly abused the system for years is given a slap on the wrist. Unless the Administration is going to back up it’s “educational” efforts with action, this all turns out to be wasted time on everyone’s part.

  9. as a female student in physics graduate school i appreciate your writing this and hope that what you urge from Berkley does have results. thanks for being brave and standing up for student safety and an environment of respectful learning.

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