A Brief Note on Geoff Marcy

We live in the future, a strange place full of contradictions, like the fact that the ridiculous clickbait factory BuzzFeed is also the venue that finally blew open the longstanding open secret that famed astronomer Geoff Marcy is a serial sexual harasser. For the most part I don’t have anything special to add to the discussion surrounding this story and it seems better to leave space for other folks with more direct connections to speak for themselves. But I did have one thought that was marginally too long to fit into a tweet.

It seems that the report coming out of Berkeley’s recent Title IX investigation is pretty clear-cut regarding Geoff’s actions. I think — and it seems many others would agree — that UC Berkeley’s response to this report has been appalling. As far as I can tell there have been no real consequences, either negatively for Geoff or positively for his targets. This would be bad in its own right, but my understanding is that he’s been around this merry-go- round multiple times already, each time promising to do better but receiving no real punishment. I’m sure there are many things we on the outside don’t know about the case and its handling, but the core is this: while it is extraordinarily difficult to discipline tenured faculty, the people in positions of authority here owe it to everyone to find a way to do so.

Here’s my thought: while the people in positions of authority have let us down here, we shouldn’t fantasize that we’d necessarily have done any better. I know some of the people involved in this case and believe that some of them are in at least the 90th percentile of righteousness in our community. For those of us who are not serial sexual harassers or their buddies, I think this case should remind us that living ethically is a matter of hard work as much as it is of righteousness. How often do I really stop and effortfully interrogate myself about the implications my actions and failures to act? I like to think of myself as a decent person, but the answer is surely “not often enough”.

It’s not fully rational, but news stories like this one generally inspire people to take actions in a way that everyday injustices don’t. Some of us — sexual harassers and their enablers — have their work cut out for them. But all of us should be inspired to question ourselves, raise our personal standards, and bust our asses, every single day, to keep them high.

OK, one other thought: the habit of silence that surrounds these things is truly strange. When it comes to institutions that don’t want to air dirty laundry, it’s not a surprise. But I’ve also had conversations about definite harassers, in completely private, trusted groups, in which we’ve still been intensely reluctant to name names.  I don’t fully understand why, but empirically it’s true. My thanks to reporter Azeen Ghorayshi for writing her piece. And of course it’s impossible to be too vocal in expressing thanks and admiration for those of Geoff’s targets who went on the record, including the very courageous Jessica Kirkpatrick and Sarah Ballard who attached their names to their stories.