The Marcy case III

Geoffrey Marcy is resigning from the Berkeley faculty. [15/X/15: the Daily Cal has a good long wrapup here] Mark Kleiman has noted that more people are fired by their subordinates than by their superiors, and I would add …”and by their peers.” The Astronomy faculty’s public statement, copied at the end of my previous post, along with similar sentiments from the students and post-docs, obviously made it impossible for him to stay, even though the university authorities had no way to make this happen.

I take no satisfaction from this worst possible outcome.  Cal has lost an important, productive scientist, careers of other scientists (especially the women Marcy abused) were damaged or ended before they began, Berkeley is enduring pessimal PR, and everyone feels just wretched about the whole thing.

What went so wrong here, and who are the authors of this episode? Simple: there were many moments at least a decade ago when some members of the astronomy faculty, perhaps clued in by students, were aware that they were harboring a ticking bomb. That was when a chair or dean, or maybe just a peer pal, should have taken Marcy aside and drawn a diagram:

Everyone knows what you are doing. You have to stop, now, forever, because you are damaging not just these young women but all of us and yourself as well. If you don’t, here are a series of things that will happen to you, in sequence of increasing severity, and to show how serious this is, I expect you to ask for an unpaid leave from teaching next semester.  That’s half your pay. Next step will be to inform the department of the reasons, and so on.

Instead, one after another of his friends and colleagues decided that it was more important to avoid an awkward moment than to (i) try to save their friend from a suicidal path (ii) protect their young colleagues. Marcy was thus given a ten-year lesson that he could get away with it, and that his peers and superiors would not only not protect the junior people, but would cover up for him and assure his continued access to prey and personal comfort. Indeed (see my last post), that club of powerful friends continued to operate in that way until it became impossible.

A systematic contributor to this outcome is cultural: because there is so much of this (sexual and other harassment) going on, and we know it, students and others are increasingly enraged and act out by expecting atom-bomb sanctions for the few violations that come to light, initiating a positive-feedback cycle that suppresses appropriate and humane guidance out of fear of a disproportionate result. One colleague just told me that if he saw a faculty member pat a student’s rear end he would not take it up with the violator but go immediately to a formal report. The more common response in fact is of course to do and say nothing. That’s not how healthy societies enforce and implement norms of behavior; that’s how organizations are managed for the short-term comfort of their managers, usually with bad outcomes on many dimensions.

The chancellor and provost are working on “different and better options for discipline of faculty.” OK, but if they aren’t also working in different and better ways to acculturate, teach, and guide faculty (yes, and randy frat boys), they will leave a lot of value on the table and set us up for the next humiliating and tragic episode.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

8 thoughts on “The Marcy case III”

  1. So, want to place a bet on how long it will take another university to snap him up? Other famous scientists with big grants who have disgraced themselves ethically have tended to have brief periods of unemployment.

  2. Instead, one after another of his friends and colleagues decided that it was more important to avoid an awkward moment than to (i) try to save their friend from a suicidal path (ii) protect their young colleagues.

    The priorities right here are the problem. Protecting the vulnerable should come first.

    1. Of course, this kind of thing doesn't happen in a vacuum. Whoever first (and second, and third) had that talk with him would likely have considered themselves at risk for retaliation. So you need to change the atmosphere pervasively. The department chair's initial reaction doesn't bode well.

      1. Seconding this. The people who took the lead would be taking a huge risk, especially since that guy was hard to remove. The odds of him being around for retaliation were high, and it's clear that he had no ethics to restrain him.

        The leadership of the university could have done something, with impunity, but chose not to.

  3. "Other famous scientists with big grants who have disgraced themselves ethically have tended to have brief periods of unemployment."
    Names? I've been "in" science as a worker/student/postdoc/faculty member for nearly the entire duration of Title IX, and while creepers still exist, Marcy was so far over the line I think he is radioactive and will remain so for a very long time. Possibly forever.

    1. This was the first time I saw it, 30 years ago when I was at a research assistant at Michigan State University and this scandal broke. Note too this was not “just” groping, but having sex with young psychiatric patients. A *woman* faculty member on the committee that actively recruited him said she had full knowledge of his past, but was sure it was just a one-time slip up, and he was after all very famous and would help our reputation.

      I could name many others, but I won’t.

      1. Keith, I see something quite remarkable in the newspaper story you linked.

        While his associates and peers were willing to overlook his little foibles, those desk-driving bureaucrats were the ones who took action. And serious actions it was, too.

        And I say "Hooray for the bureaucracy."

        1. It's a long story, and their were certainly times his peers were complicit though others when they weren't. I think the true heroines were the patients who complained.

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