The Marcy Case, Continued

One of W. Edward Deming’s 14 points for quality assurance is “drive out fear,” and Deming is one of my moral and intellectual heroes.  It runs like a river through all the reporting on the Marcy affair (see the links in my previous post), and also on reporting sexual abuse on campus generally, that we have not driven out fear at Cal: victims of abuse, by men who can damage their lives and careers, are broadly afraid to stand up for their rights; witnesses are afraid to step up and drop a dime.  Fewer than one in twenty rape victims in college report or complain formally.  We’re in court now defending ourselves against the justice department for mishandling sexual assault cases. Students in astronomy are not OK with things as they are.

This whole vile episode did not begin in a drunken frat party, but with a peer group of senior faculty protecting one of their number–whether because of his charming wit and lively presence, or his management of a Niagara of research money we do not know–from the discomfort of a serious talk with the chair or dean, and documents in a file, when he started his campaign of abuse.  All of them are obligatory reporters under UC rules, by the way; but there’s no talk of going after them for ducking that duty.  Anyway, there’s always another student sending in an application (docility in a labor force is surely a virtue, which fear usefully furthers), and seriously, Geoff is One of Us! Think how awkward this will be (for us) if it gets out (of our senior common room), not to mention if Marcy decides the hunting is better at MIT.  We’re serious scientists here, not social workers, and everyone needs a hobby. 

Now a very senior colleague, not in astronomy, has sent me the following: “…(a) I know both Gibor Basri and Janet Broughton very well, (b) I certainly don’t know the details of the case, and (c) I trust their judgments.  I can’t imagine them being anything but VERY tough regarding this kind of issue.” No need for imagination, actually, as the details of the case and the non-toughness are quite well-known, but the instinct of the comfortable and powerful to circle the wagons and leave the victims outside seems unabated. It is the same instinct that led twenty faculty members to look the other way over a decade, that led Broughton to let Marcy off with no real consequences at all, and that led Basri to immediately treat him as the victim. After all, one is friends with one’s peers and their feelings are important: what kind of person would let facts roil those waters?

Let’s write a joint public statement Basri and Broughton could put out to properly characterize what they have actually done:

We (tenured faculty and administrators) have long been aware that a beloved colleague and distinguished scientist has been sexually abusing students, systematically and habitually for more than a decade. Until now, even though this behavior is widely known in his community, we have been able to protect him and ourselves from discomfort attendant to this little hobby, but now a terrible misfortune/injustice has befallen him: four of these students have had the bad manners to exercise their rights under Title IX and formally accuse him, so we are forced to take some sort of official action.  The official action is (i) to determine, through an investigation we could not drag out for more than six months, that they are correct, and (ii) to tell him not to do it any more. We could have told him to do it less often, so it’s important to recognize that we did not do the least we could do.

The department chair has taken pains through informal means to minimize any social awkwardness Prof. Marcy might encounter, and as far as possible, to suppress attention to his victims that might encourage others to manifest the kind of rude insensitivity exhibited by the complainants.  [Thought balloon: “Please please please God don’t let this become a class-action lawsuit that could cost us millions and cause further shame through discovery and testimony. And don’t let any rocks turn over exposing other faculty behaving like this!”]

To other students and members of the junior labor force (adjuncts, post-docs, ass’t profs, GSR’s) across the campus, especially but not limited to women (and super-especially to women in astronomy with whom Prof. Marcy might backslide against our admonition): the minimally disagreeable consequences Prof. Marcy has encountered are a signal to you, should you think about making trouble for a senior person who has pawed, threatened, or otherwise abused you. Your abuser’s comfort will be protected to the limits of the law, you will have a completely miserable experience and possibly an outcome fatal to your career, and no important consequence will follow.  Deal with it.

To review: a fifteen year history of sexual harassment of junior astronomers despite biennial two-hour required training about what it is and isn’t.  Behavior so flagrant that the astronomy community was passing notes around warning people (at Cal and elsewhere) about him, and the students .  An old boys’ [sic] group of faculty who stood by and watched for more than ten years [sick] (but note: the students say some faculty are righteous. Good: now they need to stand up and be counted.) A chair who either knew about it and let it go on, or by not knowing, failed in his most basic oversight function.  The damage to the field and society is enormous; at the least, three full careers of astronomical discovery erased. And at the end of it all, instructions not to do it any more, and a public notice from his chair that he is as much to be pitied as censured. Not a word about or to his victims, who include not only the abused junior people but also senior colleagues whose reputation has besmirched. [I’ve posted the letter Basri is said to have sent, apparently to his whole department, at the end of this post. I have written to him inviting him to disavow it or provide any deleted content and he has not done so; if he does, I will post accordingly.]

It’s way past the time wheels should have turned, but how should the Vice Provost have handled this now? Well, let me examine some alternative outcomes. The first is that no-one in the field or out of it, at least in academia, should have so much as a cup of coffee, much less collaborate, with Marcy, and they should tell him why.  He should be denied the privilege of supervising PhDs and students, and forbidden to be alone with a student or subordinate.  Everyone in astronomy should receive a formal warning about association with him.

He could reasonably be fined, that is, allowed to make a really big contribution to an appropriate charity active in women’s rights, as an alternative to other sanctions. He should not be principal investigator on sponsored research. (If any of his colleagues want to hire him on their own projects, and are willing to thus put their own students at risk with appropriate warnings, I guess that might be OK.)

As he has tenure, simply firing him (what would have happened in almost any private-sector organization, and much earlier) is quite complicated. But why don’t his colleagues simply tell him, and publicly, “we don’t want you here any more; you’re a destructive presence”? The whole exoplanet community did that, disinviting him from their big meeting this winter.  If community and fellowship matter, why not just exercise it?

[update 12/X:  Wow that was quick; this is huge in more ways than one:

October 12, 2015

We, the undersigned UC Berkeley Astronomy faculty, write to make clear that sexual harassment has no place in our Department, and that we fully support the survivors of harassment. We regret the harm caused by our faculty, and reject any suggestion that our sympathies should be with the perpetrators of sexual harassment. We are committed to developing and maintaining a supportive, open climate in which all members of the Department can thrive, regardless of
gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or religious faith. This goal has been compromised by policies that led to a lack of communication in UC Berkeley’s handling of Geoff Marcy’s sexual harassment case. We urge the UC Berkeley administration to re-evaluate its response to Marcy, who has been found in violation of UC sexual harassment policy. We believe that Geoff Marcy cannot perform the functions of a faculty member.[emphasis added]

Sincerely,

Jonathan Arons
Gibor Basri
Steven Beckwith
Joshua Bloom
Eugene Chiang
Marc Davis
Imke de Pater
Alex Filippenko
James Graham
Carl Heiles
Paul Kalas
Dan Kasen
Richard Klein
Mariska Kriek
Chung-Pei Ma
Burkhard Militzer
Peter Nugent
Aaron Parsons
Eliot Quataert
Uros Seljak
Daniel Weisz
Martin White]

As I pointed out in my previous post and in the second paragraph of my fake statement, the injury here is diffused far beyond the borders of the little astronomy club. That department, Broughton, and Basri owe us, men and women both; they need to fix this, and Nicholas Dirks (and the rest of the community) need to make them do it. Want to help him navigate this? chancellor@berkeley.edu . Come to think of it, Janet Napolitano knows something about being a woman in a men’s professional world: president@ucop.edu .

Basri letter:

Basri letter

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.