Protesters rallied against sexual harassment at Boston University in October. 

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Geologist appeals finding that he sexually harassed grad student in Antarctica

David Marchant, a Boston University (BU) geologist who faces termination after an investigation concluded that he sexually harassed a graduate student during fieldwork in Antarctica nearly two decades ago, appealed that finding this week. The move postpones full resolution of a case that has roiled the campus and focused attention on harassment of women at remote field sites.

“Dr. Marchant is extremely disappointed in the findings and continues to maintain that he did not engage in any sexually harassing behavior in 1999 or at any other time,” his lawyer, Jeffrey Sankey, in Braintree, Massachusetts, said. Sankey said that the appeal, filed 27 November, argues primarily that BU’s 13-month probe produced insufficient evidence to support its findings. The appeals process may take weeks, during which time Marchant will remain off campus on paid administrative leave. 

On 17 November, BU concluded by a preponderance of evidence that Marchant sexually harassed then–graduate student Jane Willenbring by aiming repeated sexist slurs such as “slut” and “whore” at her, creating a hostile learning environment. Provost Jean Morrison announced the investigation’s findings and recommended Marchant’s termination in a published letter. Marchant did not respond to emails seeking comment, nor would BU comment further. 

Willenbring, now a geologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, filed her complaint with BU in October 2016, 3 months after earning tenure. She said she waited to do so for fear of reprisal from Marchant.

During the 1999-2000 field season, Willenbring was at an isolated Antarctic site with Marchant, his brother, and then–graduate student Adam Lewis. She alleged sexual slurs as well as physical abuse, saying that Marchant pushed her down a slope and blew volcanic ash laden with glass shards into her eyes. Her complaint was supported by at least three women who worked with Marchant in Antarctica in that era and also said that he mocked their abilities and verbally abused them with sex-based insults. One has filed a formal complaint against him that is still under investigation by BU.

An additional supporting letter came from Stephanie Thomas, who was in Antarctica as an undergrad with Marchant and three other male professors in 2002. After reading about the investigation in Science, Thomas, now an energy analyst with Public Citizen in Houston, Texas, wrote to BU investigators that Marchant entered her tent and told her: “I am the king, and you are my servant,” and “I am the master, and you are the slave.”

This picture contrasts with one painted by other women who worked with, or for, Marchant more recently, and have called him a gifted teacher and non-sexist mentor.

The investigators of BU’s Equal Opportunity Office did not find Marchant guilty of physically harassing Willenbring. She calls their written report “only half-right.” According to Willenbring, the investigators wrote that some witnesses were likely “contaminated” because they had read press coverage of her complaint.

Willenbring says investigators also discounted a written statement from Lewis, now a geologist in Calgary, Canada, because of a later professional dispute with Marchant and because he and Willenbring are friends. Lewis wrote that he witnessed the ash-blowing incident and saw Marchant grab and push Willenbring. She adds that the BU report did not cite an incident alleged by Hillary Tulley, a Skokie, Illinois, teacher, who wrote in a supporting letter that during the 1998–99 field season she “was aggressively grabbed by Marchant.”

Still, the investigators concluded that Willenbring’s account of verbal abuse was credible because several women, including Tulley, reported similar sexual slurs from Marchant in the field around this time. “I’m happy that they saw the collective experiences of many women as enough proof,” Willenbring says.

Tulley says, “I feel much better that no one else will ever have to go through that with [Marchant]. Jane’s courage is going to … make things a lot safer for everybody.”

BU’s actions were welcomed by others.Geophysicist Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science, said, “I really want to congratulate BU for … taking what seems like very appropriate action.”

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has also launched a bipartisan investigation into the Marchant case, noting that he received more than $5.4 million in federal funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA. Brandon VerVelde, the committee’s press secretary, wrote in an email: “The troubling allegations of sexual harassment towards female researchers are now confirmed by the Boston University investigation,” whose report the committee has. “Any behavior that stymies the advancement and support of women in science should not be tolerated and we will continue to seek all surrounding facts,” he added. VerVelde encouraged “anyone with additional information” about Marchant or any other “improper behavior in the scientific community” to contact the committee.

Willenbring says her message to female scientists is twofold: “This sort of thing is no longer acceptable in science.” Yet, she cautions: “Complaining about sexual harassment is a long, hard road full of uncertainty.”