Skip to navigationSkip to content

University cover-ups of sexual harassment are “just like the Catholic Church”

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination pervade academia.
  • Jessica Kirkpatrick
By Jessica Kirkpatrick

Lead product data scientist, Hired

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, I saw a professor in the astronomy department behave lecherously toward an undergraduate woman. I soon learned that the professor had a reputation for groping, kissing and talking about sex with female students. People had attempted to confront him directly and to report him to the department without success. The professor’s abuse followed a specific pattern: First he would claim that he had no idea his actions were inappropriate or unwanted. He would vow never to do it again. And then he would repeat the exact same behavior with a new, unsuspecting student.

I asked a woman on the faculty for advice. She warned me that I didn’t want to get a reputation for being “overly sensitive” or “difficult.”

“If you report him, you could ruin his career,” she said. “Do you really want that on your conscience?”

If by some miracle he did face consequences for sexual harassment, I ought to feel guilty. His bad behavior was my problem.

The message was clear: My discomfort didn’t matter. Reporting the professor would be fruitless and only hurt my reputation. If by some miracle he did face consequences for sexual harassment, I ought to feel guilty. His bad behavior was my problem.

That professor was Geoff Marcy—a world-famous astronomer whose decades of sexual harassment at multiple institutions were exposed last fall. Eventually, I did report what I had witnessed, having learned that over 10 of his targets were planning to file a sexual harassment complaint together. After an extensive investigation, Berkeley concluded that Marcy had violated campus sexual harassment policies over the course of many years.

This was a big victory. After all, students are disposable and easily replaceable, whereas professors like Marcy bring in millions of dollars in grants and prizes. And ultimately, who are university administrators going to believe—a lowly coed or an internationally renowned professor?

In essence, the university told him: If (we find out that) you do this again, then (maybe) we will take disciplinary action.

But the university’s ruling did little to help Berkeley students. The protections of tenure meant the university couldn’t do much to discipline Marcy. In essence, the university told him: If (we find out that) you do this again, then (maybe) we will take disciplinary action. The findings of the investigation were kept secret. Even faculty in his own department were not informed about the outcome.

Ultimately, it was media attention and support from the wider astronomy community that led to Marcy to resign from Berkeley, not the actions of university administrators. While I’m glad that Marcy will no longer be able to harass students, this is not really a positive outcome. This situation exposes the huge failures of a system that is supposed to protect the targets of harassment—but is incentivized to protect their abusers.

A number of recent stories point to the pervasiveness of the problem. Astronomy professors at other universities have also been found by their employers to have violated sexual harassment policies over long periods of time, with multiple students as targets.

Universities are supposed to protect the targets of harassment—but are incentivized to protect their abusers.

A 2004 investigation by the University of Arizona found that astronomer Timothy Frederick Slater had repeatedly committed offenses, such as giving a student a vibrator, telling another she would teach better if she weren’t wearing underwear, inviting students to strip clubs, and initiating unwanted physical contact. Slater stayed on at Arizona for four years after the investigation, and went on to become the endowed chair of science education at the University of Wyoming.

California Institute of Technology astrophysics professor Christian Ott, meanwhile, fell in love with a female graduate student and fired her because of his feelings, then made inappropriate confessions about his emotional turbulence to another female graduate student. Both men were allowed to keep their jobs with minimal consequences.

And these problems are not specific to particular men, universities, or the discipline of astronomy. Sexual harassment happens everywhere in academia. A friend in physics recently said to me: “At least women in astronomy have been whispering about these serial harassers. In physics, we don’t even have the critical mass to have these underground protection networks.”

Academia is a culture that at best minimizes—and worst outright denies—the existence of sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination. This is especially true when the targets of harassment are people whose professional status limits their power—students, post-docs, junior faculty members—and those who tend to be marginalized by society as a whole. In order to solve this systemic problem, we need sweeping, systemic solutions.

On Jan. 12, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier introduced legislation that would require universities to inform other schools about the final results of disciplinary proceedings.

“Students enter astronomy to study the stars, not the professor’s sex life.”

“Some universities protect predatory professors with slaps on the wrist and secrecy, just like the Catholic Church sheltered child-molesting priests for many decades,” Speier said, noting that the bill could help prevent repeat offenders from moving seamlessly between institutions. “Students enter astronomy to study the stars,” she added, “not the professor’s sex life.”

This is a step in the right direction. But it only addresses a small part the issue.

We need a central, objective place for students to report abuse that is not incentivized to protect faculty abusers. Speier has encouraged anyone who has experienced sexual harassment in the STEM fields to call her office, but this is not a sustainable solution. Instead, we should establish an independent agency to conduct these investigations and keep information escrows—perhaps run by state or federal officials.

Tenure has too often shielded faculty members so they can continue abusing the very people they’re supposed to support.

Another issue is the way that tenure has too often shielded faculty members so they can continue abusing the very people they’re supposed to mentor and support. Universities need to establish clear codes of conduct for faculty and enact clear consequences when these codes are violated. And when a faculty member violates a school’s policies, the whole university community has a right to know who that faculty member is, what rules they broke, and what the university plans to do to prevent future problems.

These changes will only come about if people in the sciences, and indeed across academia, speak out about their encounters with discrimination and abuse. In solidarity with the most recent women to come forward to share their experiences of harassment, I recently decided to share my own experiences of sexual harassment using the Twitter hashtag #astroSH. These experiences include a member of my lab suggesting that I go skinny-dipping with my friends in his hot tub, a senior member of my group putting his hand up my skirt at a work party, and a professor at a conference showing up at my hotel room, uninvited, at 2am.

In response to these tweets, I was called horrible names, accused of lying, and told to drink bleach. But I also received a wealth of support from both women and men, many of whom are using this opportunity to share their own tales of abuse and harassment, and to push for change.

People whose power depends on maintaining the status quo will always go out of their way to persuade people to keep silent about harassment. This can mean outright threats of retaliation and character assassination. Or it can manifest itself as the subtler discouragement I received from a female faculty member at Berkeley. But while individual stories can be easily quashed, collective voices hold real power. At a moment when sexual harassment in astronomy is making headlines, let’s seize the opportunity to spread the word about academia’s dark secrets.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.