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Boston University concludes geologist sexually harassed student

Boston University (BU) has found that geologist David Marchant sexually harassed his former graduate student, Jane Willenbring, when they were working at an isolated field camp in Antarctica in 1999 and 2000, when Willenbring was 22 years old.

“We have concluded by a preponderance of the evidence that Dr. [David] Marchant engaged in sexual harassment in violation of Boston University’s Sexual Harassment Policy … by directing derogatory and sex-based slurs and sexual comments at you during the 1999-2000 field expedition to Antarctica,” Kim Randall, the executive director of BU’s Equal Opportunity Office, wrote to Willenbring in a 16 November letter obtained by ScienceInsider. “We further conclude that this conduct was sufficiently severe and pervasive so as to create a hostile learning and living environment at the camp.”

But Randall wrote that university officials “did not find credible evidence to support the remaining allegations regarding Dr. Marchant’s behavior.”

Willenbring, now an associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, had alleged, in a lengthy complaint filed with BU in October 2016, and reported on by Science last month, that Marchant also physically harassed her, throwing stones at her while she was urinating, blowing volcanic ash in her eyes, and pushing her down a steep, rocky slope several times. She also alleged that Marchant threatened to ruin her career if she failed to write a positive recommendation for his tenure and promotion file.

BU’s policy defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that has the effect of creating a hostile or stressful living, learning, or working environment.”

After reviewing the findings of BU’s 13-month investigation into Willenbring’s allegations, Provost Jean Morrison told faculty at a meeting of the Department of Earth and Environment late Friday, and in a 17 November letter, that the university considers Marchant’s actions grave enough to warrant his termination if he does not appeal the findings of the investigation. Morrison noted in her letter that BU had gathered information from more than 30 witnesses and reviewed over 1,000 pages of records. “We take all complaints of sexual harassment very seriously and will always be vigilant in conducting a thorough, fair, and effective investigation,” she wrote.

Marchant plans to appeal the university's findings, according to his lawyer, Jeffrey Sankey, who told ScienceInsider: “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.” According to Morrison’s letter, Marchant remains on the faculty but is on paid administrative leave and will not be on campus.

Willenbring said in a telephone interview that BU’s apparent intent to fire Marchant “is a warranted consequence for this kind of offense.”  As for the investigators’ reportcomprised of 85 pages with 17 appendices, according to hershe says, “it’s only half-right.”  She challenges their conclusions that there was not a preponderance of evidence supporting her allegations of physical harassment from Marchant. Based on her reading of the report, the investigators appeared not to believe the testimony of her former colleague Adam Lewis, a glacial geologist who worked at North Dakota State University in Fargo until he emigrated to Canada, who wrote that he witnessed Marchant blowing volcanic ash in Willenbring’s eyes during one of the expeditions.

Lewis is nonetheless grateful for the report’s overall conclusion. “I'm glad BU took it seriously and that they have responded with a serious penalty,” he says. “In the end, the more important issue is that the publicity sends a message to others like Marchant that terrible behavior like this won't be tolerated. I've explained this to my two daughters and warned them about what to expect. I hope with these revelations it will be less terrible than I've warned them it could be.”

Meredith Hastings, an atmospheric chemist at Brown University and co-principal investigator on a $1.1 million National Science Foundation grant aimed at curbing sexual harassment in the geosciences, says she is “excited that [Boston] University is stepping forward and taking some type of action—that they were able to come to the conclusion that he has harassed her.” Hastings says that since the Science story on the allegations was published on 13 October,  many colleagues, including department chairs, have contacted her “expressing concern, asking for resources, asking:  What can I do in my department to talk about this? What can I do to make my students and faculty feel safe?”

*Updated 9:35 p.m.