The Marcy case, cont.

[15/X/15: last word on this here]

One of W. Edward Deming’s 14 points for quality assurance is “drive out fear,” and Deming is one of my moral and intellectual heroes.  It runs like a river through all the reporting on the Marcy affair (see the links in my previous post), and also on reporting sexual abuse on campus generally, that we have not driven out fear at Cal: victims of abuse, by men who can damage their lives and careers, are broadly afraid to stand up for their rights; witnesses are afraid to step up and drop a dime.  Fewer than one in twenty rape victims in college report or complain formally.  We’re in court now defending ourselves against the justice department for mishandling sexual assault cases. Students in astronomy are not OK with things as they are.

This whole vile episode did not begin in a drunken frat party, but with a peer group of senior faculty protecting one of their number–whether because of his charming wit and lively presence, or his management of a Niagara of research money we do not know–from the discomfort of a serious talk with the chair or dean, and documents in a file, when he started his campaign of abuse.  All of them are obligatory reporters under UC rules, by the way; but there’s no talk of going after them for ducking that duty.  Anyway, there’s always another student sending in an application (docility in a labor force is surely a virtue, which fear usefully furthers), and seriously, Geoff is One of Us! Think how awkward this will be (for us) if it gets out (of our senior common room), not to mention if Marcy decides the hunting is better at MIT.  We’re serious scientists here, not social workers, and everyone needs a hobby.  Continue Reading…

Maybe John Yoo will have lunch with him? [see note at end of post]

[15/X/15: last word on this here]

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy is a big deal in big science, apparently on the Nobel Prize short list.  A Sirius-level magnitude star in Berkeley’s constellation.  For  a decade, at least, he’s also been a serial harasser of women and on notice about it, in a field that has a big problem treating women as colleagues. Not a careless act or slipup: a long-time hobby. Everyone knew about it; women had a whole network to warn each other about him.  You will, however, be pleased to know that Cal deeply deplores this behavior, and after six months of finding out what, apparently, any one in the exoplanet trades could tell them, he has been given a sharply worded admonition and told to not do it any more! His department chair, who presides over a faculty of 21 men and 3 women, counsels them that the episode is “hardest for Geoff in this moment”.  No, really; this guy thinks this is something that happened to Marcy! and in case you think the god of irony is on travel today, that chair is also our Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.

Marcy is so contrite and abashed that he has personally written a uniquely mealy-mouthed letter of apology and posted it on his own web page, where we can learn that even a Nobel Prize candidate can be clueless enough to need ten years of “deep and lengthy consultations” to figure out what any woman over the age of six could tell him, and indeed what many of his adult victims have been telling him in “complaints…going back more than a decade“.

Now, this is a good opportunity to all calm down and not get emotional, and do a little cost-benefit analysis.  And let’s be sure to keep our eye on the ball, which is doing more better science for the benefit of all humanity, plus getting more bigger grants at Cal.  How serious is this, really?  On the one hand, Marcy undoubtedly published more brilliant papers, and found more planets, on account of the emotional support he appropriated for himself from his female grad students. Sort of like the Japanese victories that wouldn’t have happened without the “comfort women” who nourished the soldiers’ morale, right? If he had been fired or driven away early in his tenure here by an administration more concerned for our own women’s dignity and morale than his comfort, he would have done famous things somewhere else, which is  at least as bad as doing less of it here.  So there was great scientific value created by letting him do his thing his way as long as possible.  Slapping his wrist gently, as we have, assures several more years of high-powered scientific achievement, maybe even that Nobel Prize, before having to upset him again, even if he should backslide immediately, because these investigations cannot be rushed.  Best of all, any women inclined to blow a whistle and upset Marcy or another Big Man groper will be suitably abashed and discouraged by seeing how little their abuse counts, and not make waves.

So the scientific benefits of letting this skeeze skate as long as possible are enormous, one could say cosmic.  On the other side, what were the costs?  Well, at least three of his victims dropped out of astronomy entirely, so whatever discoveries they might have made are gone.  There’s the science other women in the department aren’t doing day by day, because they are enraged, afraid, anxious, and demoralized as they see, year after year, that the senior people who are supposed to be taking care of them and mentoring them are OK with a big shot  treating them like toys [only one? I have no evidence, but I know organizational culture is usually a pervasive thing].

Some number of women who could be probing the cosmos in our shop didn’t come and are doing it elsewhere. And this is not just a “women’s issue”: every man on the Cal faculty, and in science everywhere, is suffering some degree of harm as women we work with, quite understandably, are giving us the fisheye because of stuff like this. Not to mention men being hit on by gay, or female, profs, and yes, that happens too.

On balance, I don’t think coddling Marcy had net benefits in science: we don’t even have to examine all that mooshy stuff about human dignity and a safe workplace and equal rights!

We have a Vice Provost for the Faculty in charge of this stuff. Obviously not VP for the students, as her office mission statement confirms, but one can’t do everything.  Janet Broughton is a philosopher specializing in theories of mind (to be fair, that might well leave little time for theories of heart, or ethics).  And when you’ve spent your career in the field with the smallest percentage of women faculty of any of the humanities, I guess you could get to think that’s the way it s’posed to be.

Now we have a PR disaster. When you cover up and enable outrage for the comfort of Important People, better wear a hat, because sooner or later It’s Going to Start Coming Down. [minor non-substantive edits 10/X/15]

[more here 12/X/15]

[added 10/X/15] If you don’t think it should be this way, there is a (very gently worded) petition you can sign here.

[added 12/X/15] a couple of people have criticized what they took to be an implication that John Yoo is a sexual harasser.  I do not mean that; as far as I know Yoo is a perfect gentleman in all his personal and professional relationships. I meant to use him as an example of a professor with whom no colleague should share so much as a cup of coffee. Yoo is a war criminal who enabled and justified torture in our name (that didn’t even obtain useful intelligence). As a government lawyer, he violated his professional obligations, dissserved his client,  shamed my country, and implicated me as a citizen in those crimes. To my knowledge, he has never retracted his torture memo.

The Berkeley law school dean’s office suite is decorated with paintings of Abu Ghreib.



Two doctors

Laura Esserman, shaking things up in a men’s world to improve the health and increase the happiness of her patients, and other people’s patients. Evidence-based medicine and courage.  Rockstar! You go, doc!

Patricia Horoho, [link corrected 29/IX] smoothing things out in a men’s world to improve the comfort of officers at the expense of her patients (students who aren’t officers yet). Evidence-suppressing management and craven servility.  Flack in scrubs costume, and not such a great officer come to think of it. Hang up your stethoscope, doc, and maybe park your stars in the kitchen junk drawer too.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Accused

This week’s movie recommendation continues last week’s theme of court-related drama. As the credits are still rolling, we watch a deeply distressed young woman named Sarah Tobias exit a roadside bar in an urgent search for help. Tobias has just been raped in full view of the bar’s patrons, and in this week’s movie recommendation, Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused, she is looking for justice. Continue Reading…

Two sad stories, not just one

Jon Ronson tells the story of “Hank,” who joked about “a really big dongle” and “forking someone’s repo” at a tech conference.

Another conference attendee was offended and complained to the conference organizers, including a photo of “Hank.” As a result, “Hank” lost his job. Ronson thinks this is a sad story, and I agree. So does Christina Hoff Summers, who Tweets:

Man tells innocuous joke to friend at conference. Overheard by aggrieved woman. What happened next is frightening.

And, yes, the story is pretty much as you might guess. In Ronson’s telling, the complainant is a “men’s movement” caricature of the sort of woman who uses “being offended” as a weapon and has no remorse about wrecking someone’s life for an off-color joke.

But – also in Ronson’s telling – the complainant, named Adria Richards, is then the victim of an internet lynch mob. She is subjected not only to insults but to physical threats. She, too, loses her job: the on-line mob takes down her employer’s server, and threatens to keep it down unless she is fired; the employer (not named by Ronson) complies.

And, unlike Hank, who quickly finds a new job (at a place that, conveniently for him, doesn’t employ any women), the complainant is still out of a job, and still subject to digital harassment, two years later.

Ronson skilfully uses language and selects facts to make “Hank” sound like an innocent victim, and Adria Richards like someone who was last seen knitting next to the guillotine. Naturally, Richards (as relayed by Melissa McEwan) tells the story somewhat differently: among other things, she asserts that she protested against the firing of “Hank.” She also, (quite plausibly) accuses Ronson of practicing the bait-and-switch characteristic of low-rent journalism, setting someone up for character assassination by pretending to provide a sympathetic ear.
But put that aside for the moment.

Let’s assume arguendo that Adria Richards is precisely the sort of unsympathetic character Ronson portrays. (Of course, it’s also possible that being fired and then harassed for two years might have somewhat depleted her stock of empathy.) She is also – again, by Ronson’s account – the victim of a crime, and someone who lost a great deal more for complaining about the rude jokes told by “Hank” than Hank did for telling them. But somehow Ronson and Sommers sympathize only with “Hank.” Like millions of battered women and rape victims before her, apparently Adria Richards was asking for it. How is it possible that Ronson, Sommers, and editors of Esquire, and the publishers of Ronson’s book all missed a point which was obvious even to me, based entirely on Ronson’s own account?

After all, I’m squarely in Ronson’s target audience. I’ve been the victim of enough “STFU-you-privileged-white-male” treatment to fully sympathize with someone in the position of “Hank.” My natural response to pompous unsolicited moral advice is a rude gesture; I’ve been known to respond to the two hours of dim-witted “sexual harassment” training the University of California imposes on me every year by asserting I am already expert at sexual harassment and require no further training.

But how morally challenged do you have to be not to sympathize with Adria Richards, the victim not merely of organized intolerance but of a criminal conspiracy involving extortionate threats?

There’s a broader point here, too “Hank” and Richards both lost their jobs, though neither had done anything anywhere close to violating the law, or even raised serious questions about their job performance. That was possible because of the doctrine of “employment at will,” which makes puts every (non-union, non-civil-service, untenured) employee at the complete professional mercy of his or her employer. I think professors and civil servants are somewhat over-protected against being fired for incompetence or shirking. But it seems obvious that the rest of the population is grossly under-protected against the whims – or, in Adria Richards’s case, the mere cowardice – of the kind of people who wind up working in “human resources” departments.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Obvious Child

Romantic comedies have a peculiar relationship with sex. It’s treated as the goal, yet it’s rarely mentioned explicitly. It’s hard to attain, yet for the lucky few who succeed, all other fortunes and contentments await. But if romantic comedies struggle to talk about sex explicitly, then they are outright squeamish to talk about its consequences. Not so in this week’s movie recommendation Obvious Child, in which debut director Gillian Robespierre takes aim at rom-coms’ queasiness about the ramifications of an impromptu fling.

Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a New York stand-up comic who regularly bears her soul on stage for the amusement of strangers. Hers is the comedy of the revoltingly personal, replete with confessions about farts, filthy underwear, and her moribund sex-life with her scoundrel boyfriend (who happens to be present in the audience and is forcibly corralled into the humiliation). After one such set, he frankly reveals that he’s been cheating on Donna with her friend, and leaves her to pick up the pieces of her already unstable life.

Screen shot 2015-02-12 at 13.09.05

In a drunken stupor one night at the bar, Donna meets Max, a handsome and sweet guy who could as comfortably be typecast as a librarian as a model for Ralph Lauren’s winter collection. He’s the guy you’d be happy to introduce to your mum, but not the guy you envision for a rough-and-tumble one-night stand. When they clumsily hook up, Donna becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and has to deliberate about whether and how to tell Max that she intends to have an abortion. You heard it right: it’s a comedy about an abortion.

The self-effacing honesty of Jenny’s professional comic persona is a vehicle for the hapless, shrug-and-take-what’s-coming attitude she brings to the abortion. But Obvious Child achieves more than just rehearsing the tired trope that sets a comedian’s stage act in relief to the bitterness of their home life. On the contrary, Jenny’s comedy feels like a necessary catharsis, both for her and for us. As audience members, we also struggle to process the challenge in which Jenny finds herself. Not only does her standup routine force us to commiserate with Jenny as she works through her predicament, but we’re also wrested into being active—and unwitting—participants in that therapy. It’s not enough that we listen to her complaints and exasperations; we’re also recruited into her cheering section, demanding that everyone around her do their best to make things just a little easier for her.

Screen shot 2015-02-12 at 13.08.19

The recent alignment of stoner comedies with shock-factor film-making (see The Interview – or preferably don’t – for a noteworthy example) has nonetheless retained a space in which some of the most mundane topics still remain absolutely off-limits. Even Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, which ostensibly was about the same theme of an unplanned pregnancy, desperately steered clear of even mentioning the word abortion (Jay Baruchel’s character wincingly refers to it as “an A-word”). Then again, where there’s discomfort, there’s ripe material for comedy, and while Obvious Child takes aim at that discomfort, it doesn’t go the whole way: The main sources of laughter in Obvious Child are the peripheral challenges that attach to an abortion, including the awkward conversations and the confused questioning about one’s ‘readiness’ to be a parent. It ultimately steers clear of addressing some of the really routine and mundane happenstances that truly can make abortions the uncomfortable life event they are for many, such as unsupportive family members, the stigma, and the expense. Instead, everyone from the best friend to the mother to Max is hearteningly understanding of the life challenge Donna is experiencing. The result is that Obvious Child is a comedy about an inconvenient (aren’t they always?) abortion in a nurturing environment.

It’s Valentine’s weekend, folks. Nothing says ‘I love you’ like ‘I support a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.’

Traits and management

K-12 education has been convulsed for years by the idea that good teaching is a trait, a tacit justification for all the versions of the loony idea that we can increase learning by just finding the ‘bad teachers’  and firing them. The latter scheme looks even better if “finding” employs a bureaucratic, mechanistic process of testing students (on things that can be measured “objectively”–bye-bye art, music, creativity, and courage). The alternative idea is that people with widely varying intrinsic qualities, or starting points, can all learn to be better teachers.  Both are obviously correct to some degree; at the time they get control of the chalk, some people have better “teacher traits” than others, and it must also be the case that practice, training,  and coaching can improve anyone’s performance at this job, like all others.  But the relative weight placed on trait and learning theories of effectiveness matters a lot.

Administrators and politicians love what I call immaculate corrections, schemes like student testing for teacher promotion, that excuse managers from all the heavy lifting of retail attention to what subordinates and customers are actually doing and why they do it.  If you can couple  impersonal performance assessment with a theory of motivation that puts greed (for a money raise) and fear (of dismissal) in play, and delegate the implementation labor to people who aren’t on your payroll and can’t defend themselves against having their time wasted (the students), it’s a hat trick.  The only defect of a scheme like this is that it doesn’t deliver much value in the classroom (or wherever), but that’s a feeble weapon with which to confront an internally consistent and theoretically beautiful construct that lets managers out of doing a lot of real work.

Alison Gopnik’s WSJ column has more on the costs of using the trait model, retailing this recent paper [paywall]: people in academics who believe traits count for a lot seem to (i) gather in particular disciplines (ii) have a lot of trouble engaging women and African-Americans as peers, presumably because they also wrap up familiar stereotypes about what kind of people are (intrinsically) smart. Gopnik:

Professors of philosophy, music, economics and math thought that “innate talent” was more important than did their peers in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology. And they found this relationship: The more that people in a field believed success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African-Americans made it in that field.

This should be sort of a bombshell, but it’s been  a busy few weeks. We’ve known for a while that the student evaluations of teaching we use at Cal–to the near-exclusion of anything else–for promotion and tenure decisions don’t have much to do with student learning. Indeed, our administrative higher-ups are reflecting deeply on the fell implication that maybe we should (i) do more observation and coaching with an eye to actually improving teaching before review time, when it could actually be useful, and (ii) evaluate teaching for promotion in some way that actually indicates whether students are learning.  Of course, both of these involve actual work, while SETs produce numbers (which must be Data, right?) and don’t cost us (faculty) anything to obtain, so it’s a tough call.

This call has got a lot tougher with the appearance of the first study known to me [HT: Philip Stark] in which students could register their evaluations without knowing the actual sex of the instructor, using an on-line course in which the same teacher presented as a male and as a female, and hooboy:

Students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be male rated their instructor significantly higher than did the students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be female, regardless of the actual gender of the assistant instructor….For example, when the actual male and female instructors posted grades after two days as a male, this was considered by students to be a 4.35 out of 5 level of promptness, but when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness.

Hard to imagine anything more traity than sex, mmm. There’s more (a colleague reminded me of this about a minute after this post went up; click on the link at the top of the story) and stuff like this anyway needs to be considered against the background of the crap women put up with every day, at work, at school, and on the street.

So the same teaching practices will get a woman significantly lower student evaluation scores than a man.  Could this be true for minorities…how could it not?  I think this study–assuming of course that contrary findings don’t emerge from similar experiments–is a beacon to personal injury lawyers and every woman prof (at least; stay tuned for the experiment in which Phyleesha and Felice are the same person) henceforth denied a raise or tenure through a process in which student evaluations counted. Not to mention an ambitious federal prosecutor with a copy of Title IX in his pocket. Now we’re not just talking about leaving student learning on the table, but consent agreements and actual money: I wonder if this will be enough to make us stop delegating teaching assessment to unpaid, inexpert conscripts.  There’s lots of useful stuff to learn from student evaluations, but not for pay and hiring.