Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What Geoff Marcy Did Wrong

It's my view that Geoff Marcy's actions were most likely entirely well-intentioned. By this I mean that I don't think he befriended his young female students in the hopes of having sex with them, and certainly not that he intended to use his power as a professor to make that happen. He has never been accused of sleeping with a student; and he has never been accused of retaliating against a student who wouldn't sleep with him. It is clear that he enjoyed the company of his students. It's not clear that this enjoyment was sexual.

Despite this, Geoff Marcy has become the face of sexual harassment in astronomy. Though he did not (in my judgment) sexually harass anyone, he does seem to have violated Berkeley's sexual harassment policies by cultivating the sort of relationship he had with, for example, Sarah Ballard. If we try to state the policy implicit in Marcy's reprimand as a set of don'ts derived from Ballard's complaint, we might get something like the following:

1. Do not attend events organized by students. If you must attend, do not write to them afterwards thanking them for their efforts. If for some reason you do this, do not answer their mail thanking you for your support with anything more than a simple acknowledgement. If you think the student is trying to establish a connection of any kind (whether scientific or political), do not reciprocate.

2. Do not form friendships with your students. Do not meet with them outside of class or your office hours (and keep your office door open, of course). Do not invite them to sporting events or concerts. Do not discuss their personal lives with them, and do not share anything about your personal life with them. Talk to them only about course content.

3. Do not share your opinion of a student's suitability for a career in your discipline. Evaluate only their work in your class, grading their assignments and giving them feedback. Don't give them the impression that you think they are "promising". Don't show any enthusiasm for their ideas or suggest that they may have talent. Certainly, don't give them the impression that you see something of "you" in them.

4. Never, under any circumstances, touch a student. While touching is a familiar custom when offering reassurance to friends and family members, students may be easily confused by such gestures. Don't stand too close them. Don't look at them too intently.

I hope my distaste for the form of life these rules imply is clear. It is not only dull, it is inhibiting. If Marcy had observed these rules he would never have gotten into any trouble with Ballard, but Ballard might also never have pursued a career in astronomy. She might never have known she had the talent for it. That's an unhappy consequence of the climate that the current sexual harassment worries seem to be establishing in academic life. But there's an important fifth rule that should worry especially feminists.

5. You can safely ignore these rules if your student is male. There is virtually no risk that encouraging male students in their extracurricular activities, befriending them and attending events outside of class, inspiring them to pursue careers in science, shaking their hands, patting them on the back, or even giving them hugs will occasion a sexual harassment complaint. All these are likely to be understood in the spirit in which they are intended.

I hope the irony is clear. The rules that the Ballard complaint implicitly invoke would strongly disadvantage women in their pursuit of scientific careers, as their male professors hold them at arm's length (for fear of being fired) while cultivating the natural (non-sexual) intimacy that has always been part of an apprenticeship in science with their male counterparts. The truly sad thing is that I'm probably going to be thought of as anti-feminist for pointing this out.

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