Wednesday, October 05, 2016

What Happened Between Sarah Ballard and Geoff Marcy?

One of the most frustrating things about the Tim Hunt saga, at least to me, was the unwillingness of his accusers to discuss what Hunt actually said and actually believes (i.e., meant by what he said). Any attempt to clarify these sorts of facts was ignored or dismissed, and his critics instead latched on to "facts" of a much more general kind—he confirmed the quoted words, he apologized, even his defenders called his remarks "stupid" and "unacceptable", etc.

Something similar is happening in the Geoff Marcy case, where less interest is taken in his actual behavior (from which he and others might actually learn something) and more interest is taken in the "fact" that he violated Berkeley's harassment policies and acknowledged that his behavior made people uncomfortable. I will of course address the question of whether Marcy's relationship with Sarah Ballard was appropriate. But in this post, I want to confine myself to what I think the relationship involved. My view is that whether you want to attack Marcy or defend him, you have to form an opinion about what he actually did. You can't just have a vague notion about whether there's something "off" about him.

The official account can be found in the PRA documents. Ballard's account is on page 28-30 and Marcy's response is on page 37-38 (of the pdf file).

As far as I can tell, before the spring of 2005, Marcy and Ballard had a normal, more or less anonymous teacher-student relationship. She was taking what I imagine to be a pretty large course (an introduction to astronomy) and he was teaching it. I have taught large lecture-based courses myself, and a few weeks into the semester I do recognize some names and faces, and even have an impression of the personalities of a few of the students, but mostly they constitute a crowd. There is nothing in either Marcy's or Ballard's story to suggest that, prior to the events detailed in the case, Ballard had stepped out of that crowd and distinguished herself.

Actually, there is one thing that might suggest it. The first contact between Marcy and Ballard that went beyond the teacher-student relationship was made by Ballard, who wrote him to thank him for attending and supporting a Take Back the Night rally on campus. Technically the contact had been made by Marcy to her roommate (though he appears merely to written to thank the organizer for putting on the event), who then passed it on to Ballard because she was taking astronomy. What Ballard found strange, we are told, is that Marcy wrote back immediately and invited her to call him and talk about it further.

It is possible that this was because he had already had an "eye on her" and saw this as opening to pursue a relationship. And Ballard indeed suggested something like this in her interview with Kishore Hari on Inquiring Minds. A the 8-minute mark, she talks about how the contact was first established. But, it seems to me, she implies that Marcy made the first move. She says that Marcy came to the rally in an "attempt to befriend [her] or get to know [her] better". That's a strong claim. She even suggests that this is a common pattern: harassers are often, she says, vocal advocates against harassment. The implication, I guess, is that they use the advocacy community as a stalking ground.

It is important to keep in mind that this attribution of motive (a) has no other basis than Ballard's intuition and (b) was part of the relationship from the beginning. Already from her first email exchange with him, she says, she felt that something was "off" about his interest in her.

This is important because, according to Marcy, he considered what developed over the next few months, until the relationship ended (or at least changed dramatically) in August, to be a "friendship". He was, he says, unaware of how uncomfortable he was making her, and was indeed "mortified" to be told, years later, that she considered his behavior to be harassment. From his point of view, she had come to him for advice about her studies, her future career and, eventually, her romantic relationships. And he had shared relevant experiences from his own life in response. I think he liked her; and I think he thought she liked him.

An aside: as an undergraduate, I had one relationship with a professor that resembles what was going on here. The professor was a man and the relationship utterly non-sexual. But conversations, which could go on deep into the night at the student pub, covered all sorts of topics, and were challenging both philosophically and personally. We had our ups and downs, of course. Sometimes he seemed to find me (and said I was) very promising, at other times his disappointment in me, whether intellectual or moral, was palpable. Sometimes, indeed, it felt like the relationship was itself at stake. Needless (I would have thought) to say, it's one of the most enriching relationships I had at college. After I graduated, I even called him during a moment of crisis while at grad school.

Everyone agrees that the most important encounter between Marcy and Ballard is the last one. After a conversation at a café about her romantic troubles, he drives her home and, as she is getting out of the car he puts a hand on her neck or shoulder and squeezes or rubs or massages it in a gesture of support. Already before she does this, Ballard is uncomfortable and has adopted a posture of flight. In the story, however, there is not much of what T. S. Eliot called an "objective correlative" for this emotion. The facts and actions so far presented would not make us feel uncomfortable on Ballard's behalf. We have been told, but not shown, how she feels.

The question is, if she felt that his interest in her was inappropriate, why did she tell him about her personal relationships? Indeed, she had already once before felt uncomfortable when he volunteered information about his own sex life. (He believes that he must have volunteered this only as an "in kind" response to something she had said.) And she once before declined what she saw as a too personal invitation to attend a tennis match. (She did not tell him the real reason she didn't want to go.) The answer is, as I noted earlier, that he had an "overlarge presence" in her image of academic life. She felt that a great deal depended on whether he was (personally) pleased or displeased with her. She was overly aware of his power.

To me, it is clear what happened. Geoff Marcy naively believed that Sarah Ballard was genuinely interested in him as a whole person. He was no doubt aware of his status as an inspirational figure to young scientists, but he had not properly considered the way students might also organize their ambitions around his person. He thought that taking an interest in the lives of students was mainly a good thing. He did not realize how anxious this can make someone who sees him mainly as a powerful man, not a knowledgeable person.

That, then, is the image of the relationship that forms for me. Geoff Marcy was naive to think he could have friendships with his students. He was, to borrow Laura Kipnis's image, not sufficiently paranoid. Like I say, I will try to assess this situation in a later post. My view is that Marcy and Ballard had a relationship that was appropriate in every respect except Ballard's subjective attitude. Given how she felt, she should not have pursued the relationship. If Marcy knew how she felt, he should have broken it off. It's a good question, to be taken up in that later post, whether he should have known how she felt. I don't believe that professors should presume that students will feel that way. (But I'm sure there are differing opinions about that.) Obviously, my assessment would change significantly if it were to be demonstrated that Marcy was, in fact, pursuing a romantic connection. I see no reason to think he was at this point.

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