Geoff Marcy, Exoplanet Leader in Sexual Harassment Case, Resigns

Update October 14: Marcy resigns from Berkeley. Statement from the university.
Geoffrey Marcy

Geoff Marcy at Lick Observatory.

Geoffrey Marcy, a top figure in extrasolar-planet discovery since the field began and one of America's most public astronomers, sexually pressured and harassed students and researchers who were studying and training for careers under him for at least a decade, an investigation by the University of California at Berkeley concluded last June. The university kept the report, and its warning to Marcy to cease or face dismissal, secret.

Last Friday (October 9th) a science reporter for BuzzFeed News broke the story. Within a day it was in the New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes, The Atlantic, and other media, and discussion was blazing on numerous scientific and academic websites. (For instance, for instance.)

"While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women,” Marcy wrote in a public statement. “I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had. For that and to the women affected, I sincerely apologize. 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." He denied that a reported incident took place that would constitute sexual assault, a felony.

The Berkeley Astronomy Department's faculty, its graduate students, and its post-docs have each issued statements calling on Marcy to withdraw from the faculty or otherwise cease contact with students, in a way that would not leave his research team and its current work in ruins.

Marcy has been mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for his career at the forefront of exoplanet discovery and for developing extreme-precision Doppler spectrometers that made much of it possible. In July Marcy co-starred in the public announcement that Russian philanthropist Yuri Milner was committing $100 million to develop Breakthrough Listen, the next generation of SETI search projects — a substantial part of it through a contract with Berkeley. Marcy was the principal investigator for Breakthrough Listen, until he resigned from that position on October 12th. Many in and out of the astronomy community are accusing Berkeley of hiding the investigation's findings to protect a valuable asset at the expense of his subordinates' safety and ability to advance in their field. Wrote the graduate students, "The University’s failure to impose meaningful consequences on Geoff Marcy — offering instead vague threats of future sanctions should the behavior continue — suggests that Berkeley’s administration values prestige and grant money over the well-­being of the young scientists it is charged with training."

Not that the issue was a well-kept secret. Jessica Kirkpatrick, a former Berkeley astrophysics grad student who told investigators of Marcy pressuring a woman at the 2010 American Astronomical Society meeting, told Buzzfeed, "He’s had a long history of behaving inappropriately, especially with undergraduates. 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."

John Asher Johnson, a grad student and then collaborator with Marcy for 13 years, now a professor at Harvard, wrote in a blog post that he had long witnessed the harassment but felt unable to report it without hurting his career. The current sudden crisis "should be surprising to very few researchers in the exoplanets community, particularly those of my generation or younger," he wrote. "Geoff's inappropriate actions toward and around women in astronomy is one of the biggest 'open secrets' at any exoplanets or AAS meeting. 'Underground' networks of women pass information about Geoff to junior scientists in an attempt to keep them safe. Sometimes it works. Other times it hasn't, and cognizant members of the community receive additional emails, phone calls and Facebook messages from new victims."

Marcy has stepped down from the organizing committee of next month's Extreme Solar Systems III conference in Hawaii and has agreed not to attend it.


October 14:

• The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a history of women's complaints: How Astronomers Sought to Intervene With Geoff Marcy — and What’s at Stake for Women in the Field. Excerpts:

Women in astronomy worked quietly for a decade to persuade Geoffrey W. Marcy, the acclaimed Berkeley astronomer whose alleged sexual harassment of students has roiled the discipline, to change his behavior before four former students finally filed complaints against him last year....

Ruth Murray-Clay, an assistant professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara who earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Berkeley in 2008, says it was in 2004 that she first decided to approach Mr. Marcy about what she saw as his inappropriate behavior with young women.... "Someone suggested putting in a joke about Geoff chasing undergraduates, and the room got really quiet and uncomfortable," says Ms. Murray-Clay. "I knew that if this was something that couldn’t even be joked about, I needed to go have a conversation with him....

"He said he was going to change," recalls Ms. Murray-Clay. "He said this was not going to happen again."

And then, she says, it did. Over and over again.

Ms. Murray-Clay went back to talk to Mr. Marcy several times about his behavior before she left Berkeley, in 2008, she says, and so did other students. She also complained to the astronomy-department chairman, in 2005, and to Berkeley’s Title IX office, in 2006. But, she says, nothing happened.

...Joan T. Schmelz, who just completed her second term as chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, characterizes Berkeley’s treatment of Mr. Marcy as a "slap on the wrist."

As she talked to more and more women, Schmelz realized that Mr. Marcy had a "play book."... "I heard this so many times," she says, "that I realized it was standard practice for him.... The reason he’s been able to get away with it is that people don’t trust the system to protect them."

Nature article: Berkeley sexual harassment case sparks outrage.

Marcy resigns. Statement from the university.

October 15:

And now, sorting the wreckage. And hearing the wake-up call.

• In The Daily Californian, Berkeley's independent campus newspaper: Light Shed on a Dark Matter.

Nelson noted that when something like this happens in academia — in which interpersonal relationships are integral to career advancement — it is not clear how individuals can stop those incidents of harassment from recurring without jeopardizing their occupational position. Alienating prominent people such as Marcy, she said, could be “career death.”

Scientific American: How to End Sexual Harassment in Astronomy, by Meg Urry, president of the American Astronomical Society, the association of U.S. professional astronomers. Read the comic.

As a professional astronomer, I have seen this behavior push women out of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). I am angry that so many bright, ambitious, eager young scientists have had their dreams crushed, and I am sad that the world will not benefit from the discoveries and innovations those women (and it is most often women who are targeted) would have given us.

• Slate: Did UC–Berkeley Turn a Blind Eye to Harassment?.

“The pressure from the public, and especially from fellow colleagues and peers, was enormous and I think illustrates the way in which the culture of science is changing. Scientists, especially U.S. astronomers who seem to be very proactive as a field, are realizing that there is no get-out-of-jail-free card simply because someone is a genius. I think that even if institutions don’t respond, fellow scientists will.”

• BuzzFeed News talks to exoplanet researchers and other astronomers: Astronomy Field Reeling After Sexual Harassment Scandal.

“There are several men in very comfortable senior positions in the field who might be quaking in their boots seeing this,” exoplanet researcher Margaret Turnbull told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t think Geoff’s departure will cause the field to stagnate — whatever his crimes were, it’s undeniable he laid the groundwork [for exoplanet research] so well, it’ll be OK.”

October 16:

A long history of sexual harassment going back to the 1980s, by Pauline Gagnon, a senior research scientist at CERN:

His inappropriate behaviour goes back a good thirty years, when he was teaching at San Francisco State University. This is where I met him in 1985 when we both worked in the Physics and Astronomy Department while I was a Master’s student and a lecturer. It was well known that he had intimate relationships with several of his female students. But it is not the only aspect where I felt Marcy’s ethics were questionable.

In 1987, Marcy's colleague in the search for exoplanets realized that he had handed her a revised copy of their joint grant proposal. On the copy Marcy had given her, both their names appeared, his as main investigator and hers, as co-investigator. But Marcy's official copy, the one he had submitted to the funding agency, bore only his name.

She reported this to the department head, who fired her on the spot. Marcy was the rising star of his department. She then filed a formal complaint for professional misconduct against Marcy. But she was unable to recover her position and she left the field of astronomy.

Following these events, a few people tried to draw the University’s attention to Geoff Marcy’s inappropriate behaviour with his female students. The Code of Conduct at the time strictly forbade professors to engage in intimate relationships with their students. We were unfortunately unable to convince some of the women to lodge a complaint against him.

October 19:

• Bill Cosby-like, it keeps expanding. More in the news from his time at San Francisco State:

Preet Dalziel, who now lives in Walnut Creek and teaches at a Bay Area high school, said she worked for Marcy as a graduate student; he was also her master's thesis adviser. At first, Dalziel said, she tried to ignore off-color comments and back rubs he would give to other students. But one day, as they were looking at code on his office computer, she said, he touched her breast.

Dalziel said she went to report what happened to the campus sexual-harassment officer, but was discouraged from filing a formal complaint. Her classmate Lynda Williams told the newspaper she also reported behavior from Marcy that made her and other students uncomfortable, but that she, too, was talked out of pursuing the matter further.

Dalziel had aspired to work at NASA but left the astrophysics field, disillusioned -- and convinced she could not get a good reference from the mentor she tried to accuse of harassment....

[Marcy's former student Lynda] Williams, a physics professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, said she is dubious how quickly things will change.

"That is the real story here. Not just Marcy," Williams wrote in an email. "The whole system of complaint and grievance in academia is corrupt because women have to go to administrators whose job it is to make it go away."

February 2, 2016: Now that two similar hidden university findings have come to light elsewhere — one involving astrophysicist Christian Ott of Caltech, the other involving Timothy Slater, an astronomy educator at the University of Arizona and Steward Observatory who later moved to the University of Wyoming — Nature has published a long editorial: Harassment victims deserve better (Jan. 20, 2016).

In the same issue, Nature publishes the account of another woman who, Nature says, "was persistently harassed by a senior male colleague. His university investigated and upheld her complaint. But it told her to keep the matter confidential, and although it promised action against him, allowed the offender to stay in his post": Sexual Harassment Must Not Be Kept Under Wraps (Jan. 20, 2016).

February 3, 2016: Now there's a Twitter hashtag: #astroSH. A story about it: With One Hashtag, Female Astronomers Share Their Heartbreaking Stories of Harassment. And in biology (see yesterday's New York Times story about molecular biologist Jason Lieb resigning from the University of Chicago), #bioSH.


5 thoughts on “Geoff Marcy, Exoplanet Leader in Sexual Harassment Case, Resigns

  1. NipplechopsNipplechops

    This is the worst secret in the science community. Marcy has affected the lives and careers of countless women who did nothing to deserve the his vile and repugnant behavior. The school and all institutions need to do the right thing and show everyone that there are more important things than research and grants. Frankly, I think what Needs to happen is Marcy needs to be made an example of and run out of town. We as community of supposedly decent and intelligent people should demand that this behavior will not be tolerated and women should have all the comforts and freedoms to learn and work that men do. I hope these women take Marcy and the institutions to court and laugh all the way to the bank because that’s unfortunately the only thing that makes anyone wake up and the institutions begin to take all this seriously and that is an indictment of us all. I can tell you this, if it was my sister, friend, wife, or significant other, I’d be down there kicking Marcy’s ass and I’d let him see what it’s like to be on the other side of fear and intimidation.

  2. Robert-CaseyRobert-Casey

    Back in the mid 70’s I had a semiconductor materials collage prof who decorated his office with Playboy centerfolds and similar items. I doubt any prof could get away with that today. I don’t know if he harassed anyone, his classes were 98% male students and also I wasn’t that clued in to any rumors. Engineering back then was somewhat similar to a bunch of frat boys…

  3. MI2015

    If the accusations are true (IF), Marcy definitely deserves some sanctions from his department head. However, to force him to quit his position is a ludicrous overreaction. This sort of excessive sensitivity will not attract support for female scientists — indeed, just the opposite.

  4. KevinKevin

    This is such a load of feminist crap! There was a time 30 or 40 years ago when actively pursuing a woman, hoping she would go out with you, was considered admirable and a compliment to the woman and it was called “flirting.”

    Now if you look at any woman twice it’s labeled as “sexual harassment.” The men in these situations are always guilty until proven even more guilty and stand no chance of clearing their name. If he comes up behind you and grabs your breasts, that’s one thing (which apparently doesn’t require any proof, only the woman’s word that he did it.) But if he tries to get you to go out with him, that’s called “being a man” so get over it.

    We have become such a reactionary and litigious society that you get scared to even leave your house, and if you do, for god’s sake don’t talk to any women!… unless you’re wearing a digital recorder and have an objective attorney within earshot as a character reference. There are probably a lot of women who don’t agree with me so I guess you could label me as a “sexual harasser.”


    Kevin, NO, this is not a “load of feminist crap”. Your description of this behavior of as “flirting” or “being a man” is wrong in every way.

    Geoff Marcy has been censured by his institution. After more than a dozen members of his own astronomy department wrote a letter withdrawing their support for him, Marcy resigned. Let’s be clear: the academic authorities who have jurisdiction over his professional behavior, and who interviewed his multiple accusers, assessed the evidence and found that it met their standard for sexual harassment (a finding which, to their shame, they kept secret for months). His colleagues do not defend him. He resigned of his own free will. Marcy has severely damaged his career, his reputation, his scientific legacy, and he may have ruined his life. Poor behavior has consequences.

    There is a remote possibility that Marcy is a naive man, too childish to understand that hitting on women in a professional setting is a power play, a form of harassment, and frequenly a violation. But I highly doubt it. He’s a 60-year-old man with considerable experience in the world. He certainly should have known (and probably knew all too well) that he was treating young women in astronomy in a demeaning way for his own sexual satisfaction.

    Astronomy is generally a “guilt-free” subject. That is part of its attraction for many people… celestial matters, unsullied by the mundane world. As a scholarly discipline, it has built no weapons, mutated no organisms, created no poisons. Unfortunately, this leaves astronomers, both professional and private, frequently lacking in moral and ethical insight. They don’t think about such things… But when they cross the line into unethical behavior, the field cannot wash its hands. Sometimes great scientists are pigs… even in the ethereal world of astronomy.

    Frank Reed
    Clockwork Mapping /
    Conanicut Island USA

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