It all depends on when you start the clock

Katy Murphy and Thomas Peele at Inside Bay Area ask if the “swift” departure of Geoff Marcy signals “a profound shift in how society reacts and responds to sexual harassment and abuse on campus and in corporate boardrooms?”

No, it doesn’t, because it wasn’t “swift” at all. It took years. See astrokatey on Twitter:

Katey the Astronomer ‏@astrokatey Oct 16
@dalcantonjd 3 years to compile stories. 3 to find ppl willing to come forward. Hours of phone convos about strategy. It succeeded.

Three stinkin’ years, and all that hard work. This is no swift departure.

Back to Murphy and Peele:

But in a flash last week, the white-hot glare of social media revealed the darker side of the UC Berkeley professor, a titan in the field who sexually harassed aspiring female scientists. And just as notably, it exposed how many of his colleagues and institutions appeared to know about his behavior — but were either too intimidated or indifferent to stop him.

After years of inaction, it took just five days for an international firestorm to force Marcy to resign from his prestigious posts at UC Berkeley and the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project to study extraterrestrial intelligence.

But that’s just it – there were years of inaction. It took years plus five days.

The question many are asking now is: Is Marcy’s undoing simply a rare example of the stars aligning? Or does his swift departure signal a profound shift in how society reacts and responds to sexual harassment and abuse on campus and in corporate boardrooms?

No. No, it doesn’t. Not at all, any more than Mark Oppenheimer’s reporting on Michael Shermer or the string of accusations against Bill Cosby did. All this tells us is that eventually, if enough people are willing to put in a lot of work and take a lot of risk, maybe one harasser will feel compelled to resign…at age 61, when most of his harassing days are in his past.

What’s so extraordinary about Marcy’s case is that once it made headlines “so many people across the board were able to publicly say, ‘I know this guy is in the running to be a Nobel laureate, and I don’t think he should be in our field,’ ” said Robin Nelson, an assistant professor of anthropology at New York’s Skidmore College and who published a study last year on sexual harassment in academia.

I don’t see anything extraordinary in that at all. Once it made headlines, it was dead easy to say that. Once it made headlines it was safe to say that. Once it made headlines it was even popular to say that.

Nelson said she senses a groundswell of changing attitudes over sexual harassment behind the digital expressions of moral outrage over #GeoffMarcy. Ever-greater numbers of women in the workforce, growing activism against campus sexual assault and high-profile exposés of rape and harassment in the military have shined a bright light on similar issues, Nelson said.

Meh. It’s not as if this is a new issue.

Two women said in interviews last week with this newspaper they tried to report Marcy for similar behavior when he taught at San Francisco State University in the mid-1990s. Both were sickened to see that he was found to have harmed other students at Berkeley — yet allowed to keep his position.

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.

So she tried to report him – and was shut down. A classmate made the same attempt and got the same response. Dalziel had wanted to work at NASA, but after that experience she felt discouraged, and pessimistic about getting a reference from Marcy, so she left the field. Geoff Marcy stomped out her dream because he wanted to grab her tit. Nice guy.

She said she hopes the outcry over UC Berkeley’s response forces universities to take their students’ complaints more seriously.

“It just kind of hurts me because it’s not right,” she said. “I don’t want professors to feel that they can get away with this stuff because they have tenure or they did something great.”

Yes but you see that’s exactly it – the stars can get away with it because nobody wants to lose the stars. Nobody wants to alienate the Bill Cosby, the Michael Shermer, the Geoff Marcy.

At the UC Santa Cruz Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics’ “Evening with the Stars,” celebrating the university’s 50th anniversary in August, Marcy was “the star,” lecturing on behalf of his alma mater at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton. As for the brilliant professor’s darker side?

“We didn’t know,” said Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, chair of UC Santa Cruz’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Yet others, like Harvard astronomy professor John Asher Johnson, who was one of Marcy’s key assistants at Berkeley, revealed on a blog post last week that his “inappropriate actions toward and around women in astronomy is one of the biggest ‘open secrets’ in astrophysics.”

So, is it plausible that no one at UC Santa Cruz’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics had a clue? No, it’s not.

Maybe the department chair is relying on a lawyerly meaning of “know” – they didn’t know for sure; they knew of allegations but they didn’t know for sure they were true. That of course is entirely plausible…but since the lawyerly meaning is not the only one in play, it’s not altogether honest.

Marcy enjoyed “considerable power” in the field, Johnson wrote. “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.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said when she attended UC Santa Cruz in 2005 she was told as she pursued her career to “stay away” from Marcy. She’s passed the same advice to others.

So people at UC Santa Cruz warned her in 2005, but the chair in 2015 said they didn’t know. Didn’t know what? That Marcy was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Or that women were warned to stay away from Marcy if they didn’t want to be groped?

Deniability can be so helpful to department chairs and studio executives.

The “current academic hierarchical structure ensures that predators like him have significant safety once they enter the higher ranks,” said Prescod-Weinstein, the MIT postdoctoral fellow. “It is very easy for professors to get away with racist and sexist behavior — and they do — because junior researchers don’t have the power to push back.”

Alex Zalkin, a San Diego lawyer representing three former Berkeley students suing the university over the way it handled sexual assault allegations they filed, said the light punishment Marcy received is indicative of campus culture that gives predators a pass.

“There is an institutional problem,” he said, that is similar to what his clients faced in trying to force investigations. The women, he said, “aren’t surprised” about how Marcy was treated. “I am not optimistic anything will change.”

I’m not either. I’d like to be, but I’m not. Universities aren’t going to become eager to get rid of their stars overnight.

But Nelson, the Skidmore College professor, said Marcy’s remarkable downfall could send a bigger message to powerful men everywhere.

“What this story kind of tells us,” she said, “is if you get caught and this catches up with you, your career will end in a week.”

But only if you get caught, and the catching takes literally years – so your career will end “in a week” plus 30-odd years.

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