Geoffrey Marcy, John Johnson, and the bystander culture of scientists

last copyIt happened again- but it turns out that it has been happening for a while.  And everyone knew it was.

Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy was found guilty of sexual harassment in June, and his punishment, should it happens again, is that he could be suspended or dismissed. (He is getting well-earned though delayed social flack from his community.)

Does it matter that Geoff Marcy is a superstar astronomer? Of course it does. It makes his actions far more insidious, and the protection granted him far more hideous and deliberate. It also doesn’t matter that he half-apologized (“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcome by some women…” ) in a letter posted on his Berkeley webpage, still not admitting what he had done but apologizing only for the perceptions others may have of his actions.

One of his protectors, Marcy’s former student and now Harvard astronomy professor, John Johnson, blogged of the community knowledge of Marcy’s behavior in the astronomy field and his own reaction:

“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.”

This apology is as supercilious as Marcy’s. It may be worse. It doesn’t appear he reported his mentor, but mentally decided to not support Marcy any longer. Johnson rationalized, blaming “academia’s power structure” for his own lack of will. Bizarrely, in some weird rationalization, he could only not support Marcy after he had paid some imaginary academic debt as a point of honor. Did he owe nothing to his woman colleagues? His actions with his colleagues’ actions were as harmful to their careers as were Marcy’s.

(My reply to Johnson’s post was never published on his website.)

It sounds as if a whole lot of people in astronomy should be ashamed of themselves.

Read Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” to remind yourself of the results of compliance with wrongdoing and with turning a blind eye to abuses of power.

Harassment can be shocking and unrecognizable. If you are trying to find help, check out Joan Schmalz’s Women in Astronomy blog post “Advice: Dealing with discrimination and harassment.”

See Athene Donald’s blogpost for a list of everyday things to look out for and act on- before you have an escalated situation.

Be in the habit of speaking the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

, , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply