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Berkeley astronomer found guilty of sexual harassment

A prominent astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, has been found to have violated the university’s policies on sexual harassment and told to shape up. But neither Geoffrey Marcy nor the university, which earlier this year completed its investigation into complaints against him going back more than a decade, is providing any details of the case, first reported today by Buzzfeed. And the American Astronomical Society (AAS) has turned down his request to publish what he intended to be a letter of apology.

“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women,” Marcy wrote on 7 October to AAS’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA). “I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions,” Marcy said in the letter, which he posted on his website.

AAS’s president, Yale astronomer Meg Urry, says Marcy’s request was rejected because “we don’t publish letters” in the CSWA newsletter. Noting that the letter is already available on other sites, she added, “I don’t think we should be seen as validating his letter.”

The Berkeley investigation “stemmed from a number of incidents believed to have occurred between 2001 and 2010 and [that] involved students who have since graduated,” according to a statement by the university. “The investigation concluded with a finding that Professor Marcy violated campus sexual harassment policy … Professor Marcy and the Vice Provost entered into an agreement that states he will abide by clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students. Were he to fail to meet those expectations, the terms of the agreement provide that he would be immediately subject to sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal.”

Asked the nature of those expectations and whether Marcy would be under additional scrutiny, a university spokesperson replied, “I don’t have additional details for you regarding the specifics of the agreement.”

Marcy is a leader in the field of exoplanets, with many key discoveries to his credit. He was a co-investigator of the Kepler mission, a NASA search for Earth-size exoplanets.

Although Berkeley declared in its statement that “we consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action,” Buzzfeed reports that several astronomers feel the university’s response has been inadequate. There is also an online petition for people to express their support for “the people who were targets of Geoff Marcy's inappropriate behavior and those who have spoken publicly about it.” The signatories include several of Marcy’s fellow exoplanet hunters.

Buzzfeed reports that one of the alleged incidents took place at an AAS meeting, and Urry said that AAS has taken a very strong stance against sexual harassment in part to protect its members. “Sexual harassment usually involves a question of a power imbalance,” Urry says, noting that she was not talking about the Marcy case. “We run a professional astronomy meeting, not a dating market. And one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is when a young woman realizes that the extra attention she is receiving from an older, male astronomer is not related to her science.”