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After a lengthy process, Boston University fired geologist David Marchant in the wake of a prominent sexual harassment case.

Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Boston University fires geologist found to have harassed women in Antarctica

Boston University (BU) today fired David Marchant, the geologist whose alleged harassment of women at remote Antarctic field camps Science first described 18 months ago.

A faculty hearing committee that handled Marchant’s appeal of BU’s November 2017 decision to terminate him had instead recommended that he be suspended for 3 years without pay and prohibited from leading university Antarctic expeditions, according to a letter sent today by BU Provost Jean Morrison to faculty in the Department of Earth & Environment. (Marchant had chaired that department.) However, BU’s president, Robert Brown, overruled the Hearing Committee, deciding that termination was appropriate. In a final, required step under the university’s faculty handbook procedures, BU’s Board of Trustees today accepted Brown’s recommendation. “The decision of the Board of Trustees is final,” Morrison wrote.

“I often say no one ‘wins’ a sexual harassment case, but I’m wrong: Science, academia, and BU are better today because of this announcement,” says Jane Willenbring, the associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, whose 2016 complaint to BU’s Title IX office about Marchant’s behavior toward her in Antarctica at the turn of the century launched the investigation of Marchant. She added: “I’m grateful to the many women and men who told the truth about his behavior.”

Marchant, in a statement issued through his lawyer, Jeffrey Sankey of Braintree, Massachusetts, vowed to fight his termination in court. In the statement, Marchant maintains that he has “never” engaged in any form of sexual harassment, “not in 1998 or 1999 in Antarctica or at any time since.”

He calls the investigation conducted by BU’s Title IX office “a travesty, operated by an administration who has capitulated at every turn to the fear of adverse publicity at the expense of providing due process to an esteemed professor who has worked for nearly 20 years since these false allegations supposedly occurred without a single complaint.”

Sean Mackay, a visiting researcher at BU, completed his Ph.D. and did postdoctoral work with Marchant. He says the accusations “are inconsistent with” the actions of a man he has known and worked with for 11 years. And he says Brown’s “unilateral” decision to override the faculty hearing committee showed “a lack of respect for the committees hard work, courage, and due process in making a decision that was based on the facts presented, rather than the pressure of public opinion.”

But others welcomed the move. It “sends a clear message that harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. It also affirms the experiences of survivors,” says Erika Marin-Spiotta, a biogeochemist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who is lead principal investigator of ADVANCEGeo, a National Science Foundation (NSF)–funded project to improve workplace climate in the geosciences. “Tenure should protect intellectual freedom but not abusers and harassers.”

Hillary Tulley, a Skokie, Illinois, high school tutor who reported that Marchant taunted her and made degrading, profane comments about her body when she was at a field site in Antarctica with him in the late 1990s, began to cry when told the news. “It’s just an overwhelming sense of relief,” she said. “Boston University delivered justice today.”

The Marchant case focused national attention on sexual harassment in the sciences, especially during fieldwork, even landing on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. It sparked an investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives, prompted the renaming of a glacier once named after Marchant, and helped drive new reporting requirements recently imposed by NSF, which had supported Marchant’s expeditions.

*Update, 12 April, 6:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from Erika Marin-Spiotta and Hilary Tulley.
*Update, 12 April, 8:50 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from Sean Mackay.