Was UC Berkeley too easy on professor accused of sexual harassment?

Dr. Geoffrey Marcy, astronomy professor at the University of California-Berkeley, has been accused of multiple cases of sexual harassment, shocking school administrators and colleagues.

Frank Kosa
Planet hunter Geoff Marcy controlled the Keck telescope in Hawaii from a remote operations room in Berkeley, California, and gazed at over 100 stars a night in search of another earth, 2008.

A popular astronomy professor at the University of California at Berkeley faces multiple accusations of sexual harassment from female students who say their teacher was sexually inappropriate.

After a six-month investigation into the actions of Geoffrey Marcy, UC Berkeley has found itself defending the decision to keep the respected astronomer on staff from outraged observers who equate the punishment he did recieve to a slap on the wrist.

“The university has imposed real consequences on Professor Geoff Marcy by establishing a zero tolerance policy regarding future behavior and by stripping him of the procedural protections that all other faculty members enjoy,” the university said in a statement.

In other words, Marcy received a warning and was not fired.

“His job as a professor is to mentor and provide guidance to young people; in that role he’s caused devastating harm,” Sarah Ballard, one of four female students who brought complaints against their teacher, told The New York Times. Dr. Ballard is now an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and claims her teacher told her inappropriate stories about his sexual past and once tried to give her a neck massage.

David Charbonneau, an astronomy professor at Harvard University, said Marcy’s case is a serious blow to the entire field of astronomy.

“Geoff Marcy is undeniably the most prominent exoplanet researcher in the US,” Professor Charbonneau told BuzzFeed News who first broke the story on Friday. “The stakes 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.”

And Christina Richey, an astrophysicist at NASA and chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy says a trend of sexual harassment by senior scientists needs to be addressed.

Young female professionals in the field are put at a disadvantage, Dr. Richey says.

“The larger issue he is that everyone in our field should be treated as a scientist, with equal respect and dignity,” said Richey. Women "aren’t signing up to work in your lab because they want to be sexualized or objectified. They are there to become a successful scientist.” 

Marcy has apologized and said his actions were unintentional.

“While I don’t agree with each complaint that has been made, it’s clear my actions made some women uncomfortable and, for that, I sincerely apologize,” Marcy told the Associated Press in an email Monday. “I have worked hard to change and will continue to focus my efforts on promoting a supportive and respectful environment both in the astronomy community and more broadly.”

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the astronomer has since resigned.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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