The price of sympathy with the harasser

[ Trigger warnings abound for what follows: references to sexual harassment and assault. ]

UPDATE: A group of astronomers wrote an open letter to the Chronicle editors, which I hope you’ll read, share, and (if you’re in the academy) sign.

It's hard to illustrate a post like this, so here's my cat Pascal being imperious. Or hungry. One or the other.
It’s hard to illustrate a post like this, so here’s my cat Pascal being imperious. Or hungry. One or the other.

This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article by Robin Wilson about the pervasive problem of sexual harassment in science, focusing on the case of Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy. The article made many valid points: public shaming of sexual harassers is a last-ditch effort to achieve justice, when the official channels fail (as they too often do). Ultimately, however, the story ends up being Marcy’s story, his version of what happened, virtually unchallenged. Wilson visits Marcy’s home, talks to his wife, and paints a picture of a sad man facing the premature end of a glorious career that could very well leave the reader with the impression that Marcy was the real victim here.

But he wasn’t, and isn’t.

Marcy characterized his misdeeds as “a hug and a kiss on the cheek from 15 years ago”, which isn’t the case at all. It shows he isn’t repentant at the very least, much less ready for rehabilitation. While Wilson does point out that the case against him was built on his systematic harassment over a period of more than 20 years — and let that sink in a moment, given that the average astronomy graduate student is in her twenties — the conclusion of the piece and the generally sympathetic treatment of Marcy undermines that whole point. In fact, Tim Slater, the former University of Arizona professor whose misdeeds sparked a Congressional investigation by Rep. Jackie Speier, is allowed to make what seems to be Wilson’s thesis: that investigation alone is punishment enough.

But Wilson does not sympathetically profile the women harassed and otherwise mistreated by Geoff Marcy and Tim Slater and Chris Ott and Jason Lieb and Brian Richmond and all the others we don’t know about. Partly that’s because we don’t know who all the women are, for good reason: if you’ve been harassed, the last thing you want in most cases is to have your name in print every time your harasser is mentioned, forever. Official investigations are often stymied because victims rightfully fear retribution from their harasser (one of the named harassers above is notoriously vindictive, and everyone who knows him will be nodding vigorously in agreement). Furthermore, anyone coming forward will face accusations of lying, exaggerating, being oversensitive (“it was just a hug and a kiss!”), or trying to bring down the career of a Great Man. Never mind that these same victims have already had careers disrupted to some degree, and many feel science has no place for them anymore. Who will visit their homes and talk to their partners for academic magazines?

With all of that, and sympathetic profiles of harassers such as this one, is there any wonder few women are willing to go public? That goes double if there’s any way their story can be spun into something they were responsible for: she was drinking, they were all at a party, she went to his hotel room, all the usual excuses made that avoid putting responsibility onto the person with power.

The truth is, harassment is against the law and against university policies. It’s also scientifically unethical behavior. Part of a professor’s responsibility is to nurture students and prepare them for a career to follow, whether in academia or outside it. If they regard students as a dating pool, or take advantage of their power over students’ careers to get sexual favors, they’re failing in that responsibility. This is true even if their behavior still technically is legal. (If I never hear the phrase “he didn’t break the law!” again as justification for someone’s behavior, it will be too soon.) This is a point Janet Stemwedel has made many times, as the rare academic voice who is calling for a wider acknowledgement of the need for scientific ethics.

Marcy is in many ways an anomaly: he’s someone who has faced consequences for harassment. (Slater and Ott still have their jobs, for example.) I know stories about harassment that aren’t public knowledge, that may never become public; if I know them as a non-academic writer, they’re likely common knowledge among women who warn each other about harassers in the academy. But that system isn’t failproof, and frankly it still puts the pressure on potential victims to avoid being harassed, rather than on the harasser to, you know, stop harassing.

That’s precisely the problem. The system supports harassers, passively and actively. Even some processes designed to help harassment victims end up helping harassers too: a rule that protects the privacy of a victim can keep other people from learning about the harasser’s existence. Dealing with the problem out of the public eye can mean that a harasser gets back to interfering with his students after undergoing another “training”, while the powers that be can pat themselves on the back for having done their job.

The problem is also cultural. Male faculty members “joking” about their female students is a commonplace; don’t ask how many times during my faculty years I heard the same jokes about the “student affairs committee”. (Did I speak up? No. I was part of the problem too.) When young scientists hear those jokes and see their elders — the people they look up to — behaving badly, they recognize those things as normal. That means some people are informed early on that they don’t belong, and others find encouragement to become harassers themselves.

Professors are the gatekeepers for science, for good or — far too often — for ill. Sarah Tuttle points out how many problems are rooted in the “master-apprentice” model of academia: if the academic “master” fails to do their duty, the student “apprentice” is pretty much screwed, career-wise. If the “master” provides a bad example, the “apprentice” learns that example as normal behavior too, and whether they emulate or reject it, they’re put in a bad position.

To break the self-replicating problems of academic science, we need to change the system. We need to stop putting all the onus for change onto students and other junior academics (especially non-white academics), a point Chanda Prescod-Weinstein makes eloquently and often. We need to stop thinking of the most powerful men in the community as simultaneously the most valuable, no matter how many of their subordinates’ lives they derail.

Losing sight of that results in sympathizing with harassers, and forgetting that the hiccup in their careers is something they brought on themselves, not something unavoidable. This article in The Chronicle shows yet again how far we have to go in fixing a system with broken values, and achieving justice for those who need it.


One response to “The price of sympathy with the harasser”

  1. Great post. It’s a pretty disturbing reveal on Marcy: despite having tons of women point out to him over and over again that his behavior was inappropriate, he lied over and over again and never changed. I sincerely hope no university hires him again on astronomy, because he pretty clearly can’t be trusted to actually stop harassing women – he’s slipped back into it repeatedly.

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