Investigative report uncovers star professor's sexual harassment, criticizes school's response

Berkeley says it imposed a 'zero tolerance policy'

An investigation by Buzzfeed News found that Geoffrey Marcy, a leading exoplanet researcher, was determined in June to have behaved inappropriately with students at the University of California-Berkeley.

Marcy is well-known for his work hunting for planets that orbit around stars other than our sun. He was rumored to be in the running for the Nobel Prize in physics.

Azeen Ghorayshi of Buzzfeed News published an article Friday detailing the complaints against Marcy and Berkeley's response. Marcy had already published a letter of apology to his faculty page the previous Wednesday evening.

What happened in June

According to Buzzfeed, an investigation by Berkeley into Marcy's behavior found that four women accused him of "inappropriate physical behavior with students," including "unwanted massages, kisses, and groping." The incidents described take place over nearly a decade, between 2001 and 2010.

In June, Berkeley finished its six-month investigation of Marcy's behavior and determined that he had violated sexual harassment policies on multiple occasions. In a statement Friday, the university said it gave him "clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students" and warned him that breaking those rules could result in "sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal."

The statement added, "We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action."

Investigations into sexual harassment are confidential, so none of this was publicly known until Buzzfeed's article and Marcy's apology letter were posted last week.

The court of public opinion

Some have suggested that Marcy's intentions were misinterpreted. His wife, Susan Kegley, principal and chief executive at the Pesticide Research Institute, wrote "Others may interpret Geoff's empathy and interest as a come-on … The punishment Geoff is receiving here in the court of hysterical public opinion is far out of proportion to what he did and has taken responsibility for in his apology" in an email to the New York Times.

But others say Marcy's behavior was an open secret in the astronomy community. Harvard University professor John Johnson wrote about his experience working in Marcy's lab, where he says he saw harassment but felt intervening would hurt his professional opportunities.

The university is facing backlash for its handling of Marcy's case in June, with critics saying officials should have punished him more harshly.

"This doesn't seem to do a lot to protect current and future students from the same kind of harm from the same professor," Janet Stemwedel, philosophy professor at San Jose State University, wrote in Forbes.

A group of astronomers also created an online petition Thursday reading "I support the people who were targets of Geoff Marcy's inappropriate behavior and those who have spoken publicly about it. I agree that sexual harassment has no place in our community." As of Tuesday morning, it had more than 2,100 signatures.

Zero tolerance

Berkeley issued a follow-up statement Monday. "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 other faculty members enjoy," it said.

The university also reiterated that the agreement reached in June avoided a drawn-out process that would have required a faculty committee hearing. In this way, the school says, it found "the most certain and effective option for preventing any inappropriate future conduct" (Ghorayshi, Buzzfeed News, 10/9; Overbye, New York Times, 10/10; Feltman, "Speaking of Science," Washington Post, 10/12; Read, "The Ticker," Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/10; Leff, AP/ABC News, 10/12; Mervis, "Science Insider," Science, 10/9).

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