A Series of Open Letters

First, an introduction to the Situation at Hand

Goni Halevi
Oct 11, 2015 · 8 min read

Last Friday, Buzzfeed News broke the story of a professor in my department, Geoff Marcy, harassing multiple women between 2001 and 2010. As reported by Buzzfeed, and later by the New York Times, The Atlantic, Gizmodo, and more outlets, Geoff had been under investigation by the University of California Title IX Office, which is currently under investigation itself, for six months. Three months ago, the investigation was concluded and Geoff was found to have violated sexual harassment policies. His sanctions? Nonexistent. The Vice Provost of the Faculty, Janet Broughton, wrote of the agreement they had made with Geoff:

The agreement states that he will abide by clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students. Were he to fail to meet those expectations, the terms of the agreement provide that he would be immediately subject to sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal; such sanctions would be imposed summarily by the Vice Provost for the Faculty. (credit: Professor John Johnson’s blog post)

And my department? It has yet to release any official statement, or come to a conclusion about whether Geoff will face any sanction at all, let alone be fired completely. However, at the end of the day on Friday, the Interim Department Chair and previous University Vice Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion sent out an e-mail to the faculty, post-docs, and graduate students of the department. This was the first instance of direct communication from the chair to the department since the Buzzfeed article was published, yet it made no mention of the survivors of Geoff’s harassment, nor of consequences for Geoff. Instead, it included as its closing paragraph:

Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn't include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire. (full text of the e-mail)

This made a lot of people in the department and in the astronomy community at large upset. It suggests that we should sympathize with the serial harasser rather than with the innocent women he harassed. It literally puts the former above the latter by suggesting not just that this is hard for Geoff, which is certainly true though I couldn’t care less, but that this is hardest for Geoff. I am one of the many who feels disgusted, disappointed, and betrayed by Geoff, the University, and the UC Berkeley Astronomy Department, respectively.

An Open Letter to Geoff Marcy

The first time I heard your name, it was in the context of being told to avoid you. Like many female undergraduates in the department, I was warned that you were “creepy”. I also heard that you were famous, that you brought in significant grant money, and that you were a leader in your subfield of exoplanet detection and study.

This past week, I heard my own research advisor tell his 800 students how much of a pioneer you were. He lectured about exoplanets and mentioned you a half dozen times. He mentioned that you detected 70 of the first 100 exoplanets. He commended your work with SETI.

This week, I wait to see whether my students will ask about you. I wonder what it felt like for them to see a Buzzfeed article about you, the brilliant exoplanet researcher who their professor spoke so highly of, and read about your prolonged, inexcusable harassment of undergraduate and graduate women. I wonder if they felt as disgusted as I did. I wonder if they felt as surprised that this had gone on for so long, with so many people in the know about your “creepiness”, yet so little was done to protect their peers.

Your “apology” letter made me cringe. If you had stopped after the first paragraph, maybe that would have been okay. Not great, but at least not cringeworthy. Instead, you delivered this weak, self-centered continuation:

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. Through deep and lengthy consultations, I have reflected carefully on my actions as well as issues of gender inequality, power, and privilege in our society. I was unaware of how these factors created unforeseen contexts and how my actions and position have affected others in ways that were far from what I intended. Through hard work, I have changed in major ways for the better.

It is painful for YOU to realize that you “unintentionally” harassed people? Have you read the basics of how to apologize, which includes “Don’t focus on intentions”? You do not get to claim ignorance of how gender, power, and privilege create “unforeseen contexts”. You are an adult with a responsibility to educate yourself. Even more-so, you are a public figure, a respected scientist, and a leader in your field, and you have a duty to act in a way that shows you deserve the titles you hold. You changed in major ways for the better? Do not claim it, prove it. Resign from your faculty position. Use some of your fame and fortune to promote women in astronomy. Do something. And don’t say that it requires “hard work” to stop being a serial sexual harasser. It takes basic human dignity.

I first met you during a night of observation, before I had heard about you. I was in the basement of Evans Hall doing a routine run on the 1-m Nickel telescope. You were there for your own observing run, and when I walked in you shook my hand and introduced yourself as Geoff. When I found out more about you, I felt honored to have met you and spent some hours in the same room as you. I thought it was cool how much public outreach you did, and how many exoplanets you’d detected. I knew you had a reputation of being “creepy”, but that seemed to be a mild word and didn’t cancel out your fame and scientific productivity. Now, I think of shaking your hand and shudder.

An Open Letter to the University of California — Berkeley

I am not just a student at UC Berkeley, but an employee. I teach, grade, and do research for this University. I spend the vast majority of my time on its campus. I bear its name on my transcript, my curriculum vitae, and eventually, on my diploma. Right now, I am embarrassed to have any association with it.

What is the purpose of spending six months investigating a faculty member if you have no intention to reprimand him in any way when the complaints against him are confirmed? Why spend the time looking into whether someone has violated University policy if the response when you find that he has is “try not to do it again”?

What are your priorities? What do you stand for? Do you care about your students and employees?

You are a public institution. You should be serving the people who serve you. I understand that you are also a research institution, and that as such you have a dedication to hiring good researchers, bringing in grant money, and gaining reputation in the academic world. I want to go into academia. Or at least, I wanted to. I’m not so sure anymore, and your response to this Title IX investigation is a big reason for that. By not doing anything to sanction Geoff, you are sending the message that science takes priority over morality, that the fame of your faculty takes priority over the safety of your students. You are sending the kind of message that pushes women (and men) out of academia and discourages them from pursuing it.

When I chose to attend UC Berkeley, I never would have imagined to be let down by my University in such a huge way. I know Berkeley is a large school. I did not expect to be babied here. But I also did not expect to watch the University choose its money, reputation, and fame over the well-being and basic necessities of its student body. Geoff Marcy teaches an ~500 person class once a year. He has interacted with thousands of your students. He is a known serial sexual harasser. Do something about it.

An Open Letter to the UC Berkeley Astronomy Department

I love this department. It is a home to me. Our staff are warm and personable. The faculty I have interacted with are not just incredibly intelligent, brilliant researchers, but are kind and care about their students. The post-docs and graduate students have amazed me with their social awareness by organizing a AstroJustice discussion group.

I commend the group of faculty members who filed the Title IX claim and confronted Geoff about his behavior last year. I commend those of you who have reached out to undergraduates to hold a meeting, and who have made your commitment to the students clear. Most of the people in this department have been wonderful throughout this all.

However, this incident has shown that we have a clear problem when it comes to dissemination of information in the department. The fact that the vast majority of people in the department, including not just undergraduates and graduate students, but post-docs and even faculty, first heard about the Title IX investigation through a Buzzfeed article — the same way the rest of the world heard — is outrageous. I don’t know whose fault it was that this happened in that way (I’m not sure anybody knows), but it is somebody’s fault.

I understand that while the investigation was in progress, there were confidentiality rules in place, but the report came out three months ago and nobody heard about it. It is frankly embarrassing that we were all kept in the dark for so long. It is embarrassing that Geoff was allowed to give public lectures and interact with students during the period between when the investigation found him accountable for harassment and the Buzzfeed article was released.

There are obvious conflicts of interest that have been ignored. Professor Gibor Basri’s e-mail to the department encouraging support of Geoff without so much as encouraging support of the women he harassed was inexcusable. Having the Interim Chair, a close friend of Geoff’s for decades, send out this e-mail was a bad decision at best, a destructive and offensive one at worst. Basri’s recent title as Vice Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion adds a sad irony and amplifies the inappropriateness of his words.

Think about your students and their safety. Think about the members of your community who have been disappointed and angered by the way you handled this. Sanction Geoff appropriately. As far as I’m concerned, go ahead and fire him. Protect the people who depend on you to protect them.

Goni Halevi

Written by

I like dying stars. http://ugastro.berkeley.edu/~ghalevi/

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