Berkeley star astronomer Geoff Marcy resigns, but why only now? Advice to the desperate on why you should never STFU about harassment or abuse.

Make some noise!

Make some noise!

You probably have seen in the news today that star University of California-Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy has resigned because details of the university’s inquiry into a decade of sexual harassment charges and his weak reprimand were published by BuzzFeed last Friday.  Here’s a typical take on the matter from Inside Higher Ed and republished at Slate this morning:

One of the biggest names in astronomy resigned his professorship at the University of California at Berkeley on Wednesday over the fallout from a damning investigation into his conduct with female students. The news demonstrates that not even star scholars enjoy impunity when it comes to sexual harassment, but in the end it was Geoff Marcy’s fellow scientists—not the Berkeley administration—who forced him out.

A vigorous peer pressure campaign launched Friday, upon news of the investigation and Berkeley’s lukewarm response, seemingly backed Marcy into a corner and, in so doing, sent a strong message to academic science: Even if your institution doesn’t reject you for harassing students, your colleagues will.

Oh, really?  I mean, I completely agree that his astronomer colleagues are the ones who have known about this kind of behavior all along.  For example, from the very same story: 

One of Marcy’s former students, John Asher Johnson, now a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, said in a personal blog post that he and other colleagues had been aware of Marcy’s pattern of behavior for years, and that he operated by a calculated playbook of sorts. Johnson said that Marcy’s status among astronomers provided a kind of cover, and he congratulated the women who’d finally brought his behavior to light. (Marcy’s former department chairman was informed of student complaints back in 2005 but said he couldn’t respond to anonymous complaints, according to BuzzFeed.)

So instead of his fellow astronomers being the heroes of this story, they actually knew about his behavior with women students all along  and covered up for him.

That’s the real story, friends:  most of Marcy’s colleagues are just trying to jump on the bandwagon so as to avoid being rolled over by it!  Now that Buzzfeed has picked up the story and has pulled the pants down on the entire profession, now we can congratulate those courageous women astronomers who have been jumping up and down and screaming about this for more than a decade.

Isn’t it nice that some want to “congratulate” the women in the field for finally getting their story heard outside of professional gossip circles?

This story is an excellent object lesson in something I’ve learned in the course of my professional life again and again:  it never pays to shut up, so sing your song from the rooftops.  Never.  Whenever you see some bullcrap going on, speak up and refuse to shut up about it.

Again and again, I get emails and phone calls from friends, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers because of this blog in which a woman–usually a junior scholar, but not always–wants my advice because she’s being bullied at work, or because her tenure is being threatened by the behavior of colleagues or administrators.  And always, always, always! she’s told at some point to shut up, keep it quiet, don’t offend anyone, STFU.

Why is the victim’s silence and discretion so important?  Because if she doesn’t shut up, it will reveal the professional incompetence of someone in her university’s governing structure–it will reveal that the Chair of her department is an idiot, or that the Dean doesn’t know the tenure standards in the college, or that the Provost doesn’t understand or care to follow the policies and procedures of the college or university.

Pro tip:  don’t take advice from people who want you to conceal their incompetence, abuse, or refusal to confront abuse.  These people just want you and the problems they created to go away quietly so no one notices.  So RTFM (read the frikkin’ faculty manual), study your uni’s grievance processes, hire employment attorneys, tell your story and look for allies and mentors*, and above all, make sure your Chairs, Deans, and Provosts know that you refuse to let them think that you’re poor, scared, and all alone.

They count on that, friends:  they count on intimidating you into silence.

*Sometimes even your allies and mentors will tell you to STFU too, because they’ve been effectively intimidated in the past.  Don’t take this advice!  Sunshine is the best disinfectant.  Explain to them why you just can’t shut up about what’s happening to you, and that as in an alcoholic family, the problem doesn’t go away just because everyone is polite and refuses to have an honest conversation about what’s going on.

26 thoughts on “Berkeley star astronomer Geoff Marcy resigns, but why only now? Advice to the desperate on why you should never STFU about harassment or abuse.

  1. It depends on what you blow the whistle about. You’re protected if you blow the whistle on sexual harassment. If you blow the whistle on other forms of harassment or malfeasance, watch out. Doing so nearly ended my career.


    • I’m sorry, Gabriel, but I still think it’s worth it. Speaking up is sometimes risky, but silence is more dangerous for everyone.

      Here’s where RTFM and consulting attorneys is a great idea. If you follow policies and procedures as a whistleblower, then it’s harder to railroad you. If you speak up as a victim or a target, I don’t see how telling your story (with documentation) can legally jeopardize you.

      In my experience, malign administrators are really, really poor Machiavellians. They don’t RTFM and follow the rules, so their pathetic attempts to fire or intimidate people haven’t worked well.


      • My consulting attorney reminded me of the general lack of legal protection for whistle-blowing and, even more important, how little I was worth in settlement should I sue. Just look at what’s gone on down the road, Ann.

        And what if the victimizer is a major figure or institution in your field? I was brave and principled and resisted pressure, but it just got me into the fix of Will Kane in “High Noon”: people coming to get rid of you all of a sudden you have no friends.

        Let me tell you from experience—it feels really miserable to do the right thing. I did, but I paid.


      • I’m glad you did the right thing.

        If more of us were that courageous, then it wouldn’t be such a hazardous undertaking. This is why I say we must speak up and refuse to STFU!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for writing this. I wish I had read this as a younger grad student. When reporting verbally abusive mentors, who crossed lines of common decency more than once, I got told that women are just naturally sensitive and I needed to man up if I wanted to make it in the field. The program coordinator went on to describe a verbally abusive, male dominated, foul-worded, interview that the IT team had conducted to interview a potential woman candidate a week ago. Why? To initiate her typical group dynamics and disrespect within that team. This coming from the coordinator who supposedly pledges to support minorities and women. Appalling. I left the organization and actually made it in my field without having to suffer verbal harassment every week. I hate places (mostly science labs and academia) where there is no defined process to report harassment and no clear repercussions. Reporting to a boss’s boss makes no sense and you will get told to STFU.


    • DM, I’m sorry (but unsurprised!) to hear about your experiences. But all universities have sexual harassment and grievance policies–you’re right that reporting abusive behavior to a supervisor w/i that environment is probably futile, but there are places to report outside of the unit, surely.

      (Here’s where looking for allies and mentors outside one’s department/unit are really important. For example, I’ve found senior women outside my department to be really important sources for more information and reality checks, as well as institutional history that may have a bearing on what’s going on.)


  3. Well, I hate to be that person, but I disagree. I have seen malign (and otherwise incompetent) administrators and senior faculty be quite successful at firing outspoken people. There are all sorts of reasons to let people go that can be used as a cover for racism, sexism, retaliation etc etc and it can be very difficult to prove otherwise. If you’re not tenured, if you’re supporting your family on your paycheck, or you’re a grad student who can’t move to another program, you need to be careful. If you’re tenured, no excuses not to speak up.


    • We at least agree on this: “If you’re tenured, no excuses not to speak up.”

      I’m sorry you’ve seen more competent bad guys & gals. But I’ll just say this to defend my command that people speak up & make some trouble, whatever your rank or position in the hierarchy: the more people who know of your situtation, the better insulated you’ll be. Silence not only hurts the wrong people (see the comment below), it also isolates people from potential allies.

      In every case I’ve heard of, in EVERY ONE, the people I’ve talked to about their bad work environments have told me that when they reached out for help, the response they got was incredible: some people ran away, but there were so many more people who were eager to help, people who offered key information, people who helped widen the circle of allies, people the victim didn’t even know well but who were sharp observers of the situation and who had wondered why the victim had self-isolated rather than looking for friends. They won’t serve as a magic shield in every case. But isolating and shutting up guarantees that you’re on your own.

      And like I said above in response to Gabriel Finklestein: the more who speak up and refuse this kind of treatment, the better off we all are. It’s like vaccination, and each of us can be an antibody or a virus/bacterium. It’s our choice, and together we can isolate the bad actors & neutralize their effects.


  4. This is tangentially related but really struck a chord with me in terms of speaking up, refusing to shut up, and not taking advice from people who pressure you to keep quiet.

    I had a colleague and friend at another institution who I brought in as a co-PI on a grant, and last year we ran a faculty search. He ended up getting the offer from our institution. Due to a gigantic well-publicized budget crisis (you may be able to imagine my institution now), the search got pulled after he got an offer. This was a disaster but ended up with a huge silver lining when it came out that our hire had faked data. He had faked data – and there is hard evidence proving it! Not only that, but it was a pattern of data faking, and it led to a bunch of pulled papers, and he is still under investigation now at his home institution even though he resigned in June. It’s been a huge mess.

    I have reflected a lot on the ways in which my community let me down, not to mention my colleagues, by not telling us. I personally know 7 people in the community who knew about this situation. Some I count as pretty good friends. Nobody told me. Nobody told me when I put him on my grant, when we ran the search, when we made him the offer. Even worse, nobody told another colleague on our grant, a junior scholar without tenure, who had an IRB with data faker and who had co-authored publications with him. Consequently she lost access to her data for 7 weeks and had to pull some papers. Nobody told data faker’s grad student, who had to pull 5 papers (basically her entire CV is now wiped out). In my case, due to not knowing for the entire first year of the grant, I’ve lost a year’s worth of data I can’t use and can never replace. Plus, we suffered the embarrassment of offering to hire this guy.

    Three of my friends at another institution, pretty good friends (I thought), knew for a year and couldn’t tell me because their institution placed them under a gag order. So who did that protect? It protected their institution from embarrassment, it protected the deans and administrators who let this fall through the cracks, but at the expense of people without power, at the expense of junior colleagues and graduate students. Meanwhile, my junior colleague and data faker’s former grad student are now being pressured by their institution to keep quiet about this. To not talk about it, to keep it under wraps, to not embarrass anybody, to “keep it professional”. Who does this protect? It protects data faker himself, as well as their institution, again at their expense.

    Screw that. If somebody, anybody, had had the guts and the courage to be open about this, we all would have been saved this gigantic mess. But nobody stepped up to protect us. As a result of this experience I am strongly convinced that this type of secrecy is unhealthy and it protects the wrong people, those with power, at the expense of the powerless. I feel like our community failed us, and I refuse to keep this a secret or keep quiet about it. In fact, I think this example should be used as a vehicle for sparking larger conversations about research ethics and when and how to share concerns and blow the whistle. Secrecy hurts the wrong people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Secrecy hurts the wrong people.” Right on.

      What a nightmare. I’m sure your silent colleagues were just eager to make him your problem & get him out of their hair. I think you should make some trouble among these shirkers!


  5. Another comment, in defense of Marcy’s colleagues at Berkeley (I’m on the wrong side of all the arguments today): I think their letter was brilliant, though (cough) *a little late* (eyeroll). But it was a perfect counter to the slap on the wrist from the administration. Is it really true that the admin couldn’t have fired him after the hearing? I don’t know. But 22 (or 23?) of the Berkeley faculty signed that letter, and there are only 24 of them in the department! If all (or all but one) of your colleagues publicly states you can’t perform your duties as a professor, then ipso facto, you can’t. You’re done.

    Also just read that his salary was $217K…jfc.


    • Meh: the letter was published Monday, three days after buzzfeed got a hold of the story. I’m not impressed.

      In my post, maybe I should have clarified: I’m not indicting just his colleagues at Berkeley; I’m indicting the entire profession, which apparently knew about this stuff all along, but thought it was his personal business, or an appropriate prerogative, or just what women students should expect entering an overwhelmingly male profession, or the students’ personal responsibility, or whatever.


  6. I did a quick search & didn’t find a discussion of this here, so I apologize if I missed it and you’ve already discussed this blog post from Tenure, She Wrote Title IX – A Step by Step Guide.

    I think it brings up many issues relevant to the discussion here. Mostly, that it is entirely possible to do your “speaking up” in a way that actually makes the problem worse, insofar as it can actually create *more* “culturally enabling cover”. Your institutional Title IX office is often (explicitly or implicitly) tasked with discrediting complainants, which then allows everyone to point at these (cough cough) “false and discredited” accounts as evidence that Professor Groper is a good guy who is just victimized by Crazy Chix(TM) (cuz bitchezbelyinamirite, obvs).

    To be clear, I’m not saying “Don’t speak up because you might fuck it up for everyone!”, I’m saying that its clear that many academic institutional systems are set up in such a way as to be able to alchemize just and reasonable whistleblowing/ complaints into more rape culture & discrimination. If you think you’re facing just such a system, that post gives a nice gameplan for how to advocate effectively.

    We already know that a HUGE reason marginalized people & victims don’t speak up is because they’ve rationally assessed the situation, and realize it is more likely than not that THEY will be punished rather than the wrong-doer. Part of Marcy’s victimization included research malfeasance, and when the female colleague in question made a just complaint, SHE was fired and it was HER career in astrophysics that was submarined. I suspect in part b/c she walked in thinking that the research malfeasance was so clear-cut that they would HAVE to do something to Marcy, so she walked in armed only with the truth.

    Don’t do that! Have the truth, a Team You, including legal rep, and the longest CYA paper-trail you can generate on your side! And be prepared to document the ways in which your whistleblowing will be retaliated against. My place of employ is tolerably good at enforcing its WB protections (because the best policy on paper is worth bupkis if it’s not actually followed), and I STILL see retaliation.

    Shorter me – speak up, speak up smart by having your ducks in a row, and as Historiann said, don’t shut up about it, because the process is designed to wear you out.


    • Wow, irishup–thanks for that link, which is terrifying but really helpful. The comments thread is really useful too, especially towards the end when a new dean asks the guest poster what she can do to make the process of Title IX work on behalf, rather than against, complainants and witnesses.

      Yes, have your ducks in a row. I disagree with the advice in the Tenure She Wrote post about NOT revealing that you have an attorney advising you. I think it makes people treat you more seriously & sends the message that they can’t push you around. That said, being truthful does not necessarily mean being candid, as the post points out.


  7. but there are places to report outside of the unit, surely.

    Not necessarily, at least not within the university itself. My former uni got rid of its Ombuds office, for the specific purpose of reducing reporting. The administrative assertion was that staff had HR avenues for reporting so Ombuds was redundant. Except of course that HR represents the university and its interests, not individual interests. You can go to your union, if you have one, but the union *must* represent all members of the bargaining unit and ensure that all employees have access to due process (as it should).

    I’ve been a “whistle blower” more than once. I’ve seen one good, strong response–when the university lost little by coming down on the offender and the offence was pretty bad. But more often I’ve seen slaps on the wrist–when the offender was valuable to the university. What I take from this is that you need to dial up the stakes as much as you can (as the buzzfeed reporting clearly did). The cost of retaining the bad actor must be higher than the cost of releasing hir. This is not something a person can do by hirself, unless ze has considerable power already. As h’ann says, networks matter*.

    *HR processes isolate people: by imposing gags; by making the victim the focus of investigation and followup; by conversing in legalistic terms. This may be a bug or a feature but in my observation it’s universal.


    • Yes, exactly: and the only thing that ramps up the stakes is refusing to STFU.

      Here’s another idea, speaking of Buzzfeed and raising the stakes of retaining a problem employee: get to know the newspaper at your uni and/or in your town. I’ve been contacted by local reporters because of information they’ve found on my faculty bio or on this blog. Reporters are always looking for stories.


  8. Agreed approximately 90%. There will never be progress until decent people speak up against abuses. My 10% of misgivings is about faith in the power of legal counsel.

    Smart, forceful advocacy is hard to find. Lawyers who represent victims* of discrimination or other mistreatment from universities don’t earn much because even when their clients win–which is rare, given how courts apply the law–the dollars aren’t there. So even very good lawyers with strong records can’t specialize in representing victims and have to do other work, whereas the university side has experienced (though often not very bright) lawyers on its payroll whose job all day long is to press for the advantages of their bosses. Victims frequently get turned down when looking for an attorney, or hear that the lawyer would like to help but can’t recommend going ahead with a complaint.
    *Not sure this is the right word but I can’t think of a better term here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t really disagree with you, LadyProf, but we need to acknowledge that not all mistreatment in academia is grounds for legal action. I mean, those attorneys who turn people down are usually taking into account the legal merits of the case (and the prospect of big damages, as distinguished from, say, injunctive relief). Actually, I’ve been surprised to learn how willing some top labor lawyers are to take discrimination cases on contingency. And I have seen some academics waste their time, energy, and money because they unearthed a lawyer of dubious skill or effectiveness who was willing to represent them.


      • Good points, EngLitProf. I should have clarified that people should be willing to PAY for legal counsel, not expect attorneys to assist them pro bono or on the promise of a successful lawsuit. Even just a few hours of help can be useful, and going to a suit is a sign that everything has broken down & gone wrong.

        Several years ago, I spent nearly an HOUR on the phone with a guy who gave me all kinds of advice. We agreed that I didn’t need his help at that point, but he still spent a lot of time with me. I was surprised that he never sent a bill, so I called his office a few weeks later to ask if I could send him his hourly rate for his trouble. His secretary obliged me–it only seemed like the right thing to do.


  9. I appreciate your sentiment but as a junior scholar I have to disagree with untenured folks speaking out. It’s too high of a risk to, and frankly, in my experience little to nothing gets done about it. I’m at a SLAC (so “collegiality” is a big thing for tenure) and we’ve had blatant misogynistic and racist things said/done and even when I talked to one of my female colleagues and someone outside the department nothing happened except that I was counseled to stay on his “good side.” I even spoke with the Provost but there’s nothing that was done (that I’m aware of) because the chair continues to act the way he does. I’ve heard similar stories re: these things happening in faculty members in another department and the tenured professor, from another department, I spoke with said we should all get together and organize a training for faculty. That was about a month ago and no follow up (and I expect none). My response has been applying to other positions. Despite a decent CV nothing has turned up yet except for someplace that has a higher teaching load than the one I have now. I feel stuck and just have to deal with it. Even with all of the continual microaggressions I face because I coteach a class with this person (from grabbing things from my hands in front of students without asking, to interrupting me when we have joint sessions, to me not being informed about required events for certain students in the class, to him emailing me about a situation and doing what he wanted to despite my disagreement [I responded asap to his email re: a problem, that I don’t think a mass email was good because it was one student; he sent a mass email anyway and replied that he thought it was a good idea to do so (he read my response before sending an email)]. This all happened in a course of 10 minutes, so despite my hesitations, he didn’t want to continue a conversation with me but did what he wanted to anyway) I’ll stop because I’ve probably already doxxed myself.


    • Ugh. Your experiences sound so familiar to me as the survivor of a similar job situation. I understand your frustration and your caution, but really: why would you want to stay in a job like that? How would that be good for your long-term physical or mental health? Sometimes the price is just too high.

      I want to emphasize an important point. This is what happens to most people if they keep quiet and get tenure in an abusive an discriminatory environment: they become enablers of the abuse and discrimination, because guess what their advice is to the new folks who get hired on? Just shut up, keep your head down, etc. And then they drink a lot, have unstable relationships, and age quickly. They are so effectively domesticated to that warped environment that they don’t actually use the influence and job security they get.

      Keep your C.V. updated and apply apply apply, even for positions that look less desirable from the outside. You never know–you could be more productive and happier even with a heavier teaching load. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you’re not being constantly undermined and abused! Also, keep an open mind about jobs outside of academia. You have a lot of salable skills–have friends or relatives look at your CV and get their advice for applying for jobs outside of academia, how to write a resume, etc.

      Good luck.


      • Thanks! I’ll need all the luck I can get 🙂 I’m in the social sciences and have multiple sole-authored publications in top specialty journals, so am also a bit frustrated re: the state of the current job market, but I’ll keep trying! And, you’re right, I probably will be much happier with a heavier teaching load. Last year when we were hiring a VAP and the misogynist stuff that was said – I would literally cry on the way home and it decreases my productivity and makes me into a cynical person that I just do not like to be.


      • Miss Ann, I like your warrior spirit! I think you can figure a way out of your current situation. Sometimes, just naming and describing the problem is a really useful exercise that can help you clarify your wants and needs. Once, on the ride home from the airport after a job interview, I was describing the interview to my husband, and as I did that I realized there was no way in hell I was going to take that job. So, I immediately withdrew from the search the minute I walked in the door.

        Also: Work your networks, and ASK people SPECIFICALLY to help you find another job. There may be a network out there that can work for you, but they won’t call themselves into being and get to work until you ask.


  10. Pingback: Return of the Link Love | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured)

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