Famous Berkeley Astronomer Violated Sexual Harassment Policies Over Many Years

A university investigation into astronomer Geoff Marcy, exclusively obtained by BuzzFeed News, has determined that he violated sexual harassment policies at UC Berkeley. Marcy has written a public apology, though he denies some of the investigation’s findings.

Geoffrey Marcy in 2002. Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

One of the world’s leading astronomers has become embroiled in an increasingly public controversy over sexual harassment.

After a six-month investigation, Geoff Marcy — a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate — was found to have violated campus sexual harassment policies between 2001 and 2010. Four women alleged that Marcy repeatedly engaged in inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.

As a result of the findings, the women were informed, Marcy has been given “clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students,” which he must follow or risk “sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal.”

As word has spread that Marcy was not more severely disciplined, some fellow astronomers have begun speaking out about his behavior, asking for stronger sanctions and even telling him that he is not welcome at his field’s biggest annual gathering. On Wednesday evening, Marcy posted an apology letter on his faculty page.

“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women,” Marcy 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.”

The letter was a rare public spillover from an investigative and disciplinary process that is usually conducted in secret. The proceedings of the investigation, which have not been made public, were obtained by BuzzFeed News. Marcy did not respond to requests for comment, instead forwarding them to his lawyer.

“We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action,” the university said in a statement.

David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, said the matter has broad implications.

“Geoff Marcy is undeniably the most prominent exoplanet researcher in the U.S.,” he said, referring to the study of planets beyond our solar system. “The stakes here couldn’t be higher. We are working so hard to have gender parity in this field, and when the most prominent person is a routine harasser, it threatens a major objective nationally.”

With the biggest exoplanet conference of the year coming up at the end of next month, Charbonneau told BuzzFeed News, he called Marcy on Wednesday. Charbonneau says he told Marcy that, given the concerns that some attendees would have following the investigation, Marcy shouldn’t go. Charbonneau said Marcy agreed not to attend and also stepped down from the meeting’s scientific organizing committee.

“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.”

BuzzFeed News spoke to three of the four complainants in the investigation. One of the women, known as Complainant 3, studied astronomy as a graduate student. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she did not want her involvement in the matter to affect her current job.

According to her account to Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, she was at a post-colloquium dinner with her graduate department at the University of Hawaii when Marcy placed his hand on her leg, slid his hand up her thigh, and grabbed her crotch.

She didn’t register an official complaint until eight years later, by which time she’d left astronomy — in part, she said, because of the sexual harassment she and other female astronomers experienced. “When you’re a student and you see every complaint being ignored, and every male professor who has violated that have zero consequences, it really makes you not want to step forward,” she said.

In the investigation documents, Marcy stated that Complainant 3’s accusation was “totally absurd” and “plainly false,” and that he “would never touch the knee of someone I didn’t know.”

In the documents, the investigator wrote: “Based on the preponderance of evidence, I find it more likely than not that [Marcy] acted as reported by Complainant 3.”

Harvard astronomy professor John Asher Johnson was a graduate student in Marcy’s lab from 2000 to 2007. During his first few years in the lab, Johnson told BuzzFeed News, he directly witnessed Marcy giving an undergraduate a back massage, with his hand underneath her shirt, alone and after hours in the lab.

Marcy, through his lawyer, denied this incident.

“What’s really infuriating about this is that anybody of my generation in the field of exoplanets knows that Geoff does this,” Johnson said. “Everybody is so afraid of doing anything about it that they are afraid of speaking out, but everybody knows it.”

Jessica Kirkpatrick, Complainant 4 in the investigation, was not herself harassed by Marcy, but told BuzzFeed News that she saw him get “inappropriately touchy” with an undergraduate one evening during the American Astronomical Society’s 2010 meeting in Washington, D.C. As the evening wore on, according to investigation documents, several people saw Marcy become more persistent.

“It’s plausible,” Marcy told the investigator regarding the allegations of inappropriate touching. “It would have been a friendly touch if I did it at all,” the investigation documents quote him as explaining. “But I would never do it again.”

Several people told BuzzFeed News that the incident is well-known among astronomers and that it was largely responsible for spurring the ensuing campus complaint.

“He’s had a long history of behaving inappropriately, especially with undergraduates,” said Kirkpatrick, who at the time was a graduate student at Berkeley studying astrophysics. “Women discouraged other women from working with him as a research advisor. It was just something that was talked about pretty frankly among the women in the department.”

Kirkpatrick, who has since left academia, continues to run the Women in Astronomy blog, through which she says three other women have approached her with accounts of their experiences with Marcy.

Sarah Ballard decided to talk about her experience with Marcy after hearing that many other women had been through something similar, she told BuzzFeed News. Ballard, known in the Berkeley investigation as Complainant 2, participated anonymously in the proceedings.

She was an undergraduate in Berkeley’s astronomy department when her roommate organized a rally against sexual assault and sexual violence, according to investigation documents. Marcy went to the rally, and Ballard, who was a student in his class, later emailed him to thank him for attending. Marcy responded saying Ballard should call him at his home, but she declined.

At a coffee shop during her junior year, Marcy told Ballard about having sex outdoors with a woman he once dated, the documents say. In another instance, during the summer of 2005, Marcy gave Ballard a ride home from a cafe. Parked outside her home, she opened the car door and stuck her legs out to leave. Then he began to rub the back of her neck. “I felt fearful and uncomfortable,” she told BuzzFeed News.

Marcy, through his lawyer, declined to comment to BuzzFeed News on Ballard’s accusations, and Marcy’s response in the report is redacted.

Ballard says she carried the confusion and shame of the event with her for years, until she heard about other women’s experiences and “realized it was a pattern — it wasn’t just me.”

Marcy studies planets orbiting stars outside our own solar system, or exoplanets. Thousands have been discovered in recent years, and a few have Earth-like properties, suggesting that they could sustain life. Marcy’s is the rare ilk of scientific research that is capable of both reaching the peak of his field and capturing the public imagination.

He’s won all sorts of awards and has risen beyond the confines of academia to become a kind of intellectual celebrity. In person, he’s described as charismatic, approachable, and “aggressively empathetic.” He’s been dubbed a “finder of new worlds” by the New York Times, a “brave thinker” by The Atlantic, and a “natural showman” by Wired. He has even appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman.

“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.

Murray-Clay was not harassed by Marcy. But in her capacity as student representative to the Berkeley astronomy faculty, she says, she spoke with him several times in December 2004, directly confronting him with complaints from undergrads and graduate students.

After speaking to her in person, he wrote her an email. “Thanks for all those thoughts and hopes,” he wrote. “I feel lucky that you’re helping me see myself better from the outside, and from the inside too.”

But over the next year, Murray-Clay says, more women came forward with complaints. So in September 2005, she went to the department chair, Don Backer. She says Backer, who died five years ago, defended Marcy and told her he could not respond to anonymous accusations.

After another undergraduate came forward with a complaint a year later, Murray-Clay, along with three other female graduate students and postdocs, tried to register an official complaint at the university level. But there, too, they were told they could not do so on someone else’s behalf.

“There was nothing that we could do short of trying to convince an undergraduate to subject herself to what was likely to be a humiliating and professionally damaging experience,” Murray-Clay told BuzzFeed News by email. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.”

The issues around how universities treat sexual harassment and sexual assault cases in the face of a constantly matriculating student body are already being hotly investigated at the federal level. UC Berkeley is currently under federal investigation for its handling of dozens of sexual violence complaints on campus.

“Problems shouldn’t need to get this bad for the commonalities among victims’ stories to be recognized,” Murray-Clay said. “He’s caused a lot of harm to a lot of people, and in doing so he’s caused a lot of harm to our field.”

Late on Thursday night, Johnson, Murray-Clay, and other astronomers started an online petition to “support the people who were targets of Geoff Marcy’s inappropriate behavior.”

Marcy has submitted his apology letter to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy newsletter, a weekly email that goes out on Fridays to many astronomers. The statement is still under review by the editors.

UPDATE

On Friday afternoon, UC Berkeley sent Sarah Ballard the documents pertaining to her portion of the investigation. This post has been updated with information from those documents, including two separate incidents of alleged harassment.

UPDATE

This post has been updated to include a response from the University of California, Berkeley.






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