The Serial Harasser’s Playbook

A former graduate student of Geoff Marcy’s has more details.

Based on the stories I’ve heard from women who don’t know each other, but share eerily similar experiences, I put together a Serial Harasser’s Playbook. Most of the stories I heard before writing that post were related to one specific colleague: my former adviser Geoff Marcy. Thus, the Serial Harasser’s Playbook I posted is seemingly Geoff’s playbook. To be clear, many harassers employ such a strategy. But Geoff is the person most commonly named by targets with whom I’ve spoken.

After [I published] the Playbook post, most of the people who contacted me with additional stories named a single person. That person was the target of a six-month Title IX investigation at UC Berkeley. That investigation report, which I have seen, concluded that, “The evidence gathered supports the conclusion that the totality of [Marcy]’s behavior violated the relevant UC sexual harassment policies.” Violations of that university policy de facto are violations of the federal law on which the policy is based, as articulated by Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Berkeley Astronomy faculty were unaware of the conclusions of the report because their former and current chair declined to inform them.


After multiple complainants testified about Geoff’s behavior, he was given a warning. Until he was recently asked to step down, he was on the scientific organizing committee of the upcoming Extreme Solar Systems III meeting. He was recently the featured lecturer at UC Santa Cruz’s “Evening with the Stars” program. Following the findings of UC Berkeley’s Title IX investigation, he was free to continue to exert his considerable power within the community.

Geoff recently posted an open letter that is, in my view, as vague as it is calculated. But what it does do is remove any doubt about his actions and guilt. This should be surprising to very few researchers in the exoplanets community, particularly those of my generation or younger. Geoff’s inappropriate actions toward and around women in astronomy is one of the biggest “open secrets” at any exoplanets or AAS meeting. “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.

It’s all so horribly familiar, isn’t it? The famous guy, the open secret, the networks of women warning each other. The long history of people in charge doing absolutely nothing about it.

In 2013 I received tenure. Leading up to my tenure decision, I decided that I would use my position, voice and male privilege to finally do something about the open secret—Geoff’s long con of holding the community in fear to provide himself cover to continue harassing our junior female colleagues. Yes, I have greatly benefited from Geoff’s letters over the years. But his publication record shows that he has benefitted from my scientific productivity. In 2013 I figured we were square, and I effectively ended our 13-year collaboration.

I’m ashamed that I didn’t speak out sooner. I hate that academia’s power structure, which allows a single phone call from a senior member to sink a person’s career, so often forces junior people into silence for fear of losing their jobs. For this reason I am in awe of the bravery of the women who spoke out all the more; they were far braver than I and other male astronomers have been over the years.

With today’s news story, I hope Geoff’s long con of the astronomy community has finally come to an end.

It certainly seems unlikely that it can continue as before, given all the discussion I’m seeing.

That said, and if Geoff is finally brought to justice, it will only be a partial victory for our community. I sincerely hope that we recognize that Geoff wielded a highly effective weapon in his use of sexual harassment. His expertise in harassment, honed over the decades, ruined many promising careers; pushed women away from exoplanets in particular, and astronomy generally; and in so doing set progress in our subfield back in ways that we’ll still be grappling with in a decade hence. But it will be important to recognize that Geoff is just one of many serial harassers in our field of science, and that other fields are also widely infected (cf Clancy, Nelson, Rutherford & Hinde 2014). Plus, it’s not just the serial harassers. It’s also the “everyday” harassment that women face in their departmental hallways, astro-ph discussions, scientific conferences, and committee meetings. All of this is aided and abetted by a vacuum of leadership at universities like UC Berkeley, which is dealing with a class-action lawsuit as well as a civil lawsuit by many former students for mishandling their complaints.

Sexual harassment is just one very powerful aspect of the systemic sexism that pervades our daily lives.

It seems astonishing that any women at all go into the field.

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