The Geoffrey Marcy Case, Part III

Geoffrey Marcy is resigning from the Berkeley faculty. Mark Kleiman has noted that more people are fired by their subordinates than by their superiors, and I would add …”and by their peers.” The Astronomy faculty’s public statement, copied at the end of my previous post, along with similar sentiments from the students and post-docs, obviously made it impossible for him to stay, even though the university authorities had no way to make this happen.

I take no satisfaction from this worst possible outcome.  Cal has lost an important, productive scientist, careers of other scientists (especially the women Marcy abused) were damaged or ended before they began, Berkeley is enduring pessimal PR, and everyone feels just wretched about the whole thing.

What went so wrong here, and who are the authors of this episode? Simple: there were many moments at least a decade ago when some members of the astronomy faculty, perhaps clued in by students, were aware that they were harboring a ticking bomb. That was when a chair or dean, or maybe just a peer pal, should have taken Marcy aside and drawn a diagram:

Everyone knows what you are doing. You have to stop, now, forever, because you are damaging not just these young women but all of us and yourself as well. If you don’t, here are a series of things that will happen to you, in sequence of increasing severity, and to show how serious this is, I expect you to ask for an unpaid leave from teaching next semester.  That’s half your pay. Next step will be to inform the department of the reasons, and so on.

Instead, one after another of his friends and colleagues decided that it was more important to avoid an awkward moment than to (i) try to save their friend from a suicidal path (ii) protect their young colleagues. Marcy was thus given a ten-year lesson that he could get away with it, and that his peers and superiors would not only not protect the junior people, but would cover up for him and assure his continued access to prey and personal comfort. Indeed (see my last post), that club of powerful friends continued to operate in that way until it became impossible.

A systematic contributor to this outcome is cultural: because there is so much of this (sexual and other harassment) going on, and we know it, students and others are increasingly enraged and act out by expecting atom-bomb sanctions for the few violations that come to light, initiating a positive-feedback cycle that suppresses appropriate and humane guidance out of fear of a disproportionate result. One colleague just told me that if he saw a faculty member pat a student’s rear end he would not take it up with the violator but go immediately to a formal report. The more common response in fact is of course to do and say nothing. That’s not how healthy societies enforce and implement norms of behavior; that’s how organizations are managed for the short-term comfort of their managers, usually with bad outcomes on many dimensions.

The chancellor and provost are working on “different and better options for discipline of faculty.” OK, but if they aren’t also working in different and better ways to acculturate, teach, and guide faculty (yes, and randy frat boys), they will leave a lot of value on the table and set us up for the next humiliating and tragic episode.

[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.