The relationship between a student and professor is delicate: it is one based on trust, professional understanding, and boundaries. These standards are put in place to protect students from those who are in a position of power – especially those at the post-graduate level. When this trust is broken through unwanted sexual actions, the effects on the individual on the receiving end can be devastating. The individual may feel guilty, confused, and may contemplate leaving the program.  This abuse of power is serious, damaging, and overwhelmingly common between professors and their graduate students.  It is for these reasons that Title IX dedicates a branch of its department to sexual harassment in academia.  Ideally, its function is to stop these sexual abuses from taking place in the academic workplace.  Although the investigative process for all parties can be convoluted, it may leave the victim feeling isolated and defenseless.

Professor Geoffrey Marcy was a renowned, tenured astronomy professor at UC Berkeley. His illustrious academic career speaks for itself: numerous scientific discoveries, various distinguished awards, potential Nobel laureate, and the list goes on. His personal life, however, is marred with serious sexual assault accusations.  Geoffrey Marcy is one of many professors who used his teaching and advising positions to harass, perform unwanted and inappropriate actions, and cause discomfort to some of the students he worked closely with throughout his career.

Through several formal complaints, it was reported that Marcy had sexually harassed several of his female students over the span of a decade. A student reported “she was at a post-colloquium dinner […] when Marcy placed his hand on her leg, slid his hand up her thigh, and grabbed her crotch.” Other witnesses noted on several occasions that Marcy inappropriately touched his students by rubbing and caressing them. After several victims filed formal complaints, and after a six-month investigation, the board of regents decided that he did engage inappropriately with his students, and established a “zero tolerance policy regarding future behavior”. This justifiably caused a huge uproar, as students and faculty felt that this was no more than a slap on the wrist and a huge disservice to the women who were violated by him. Due to this, Marcy reportedly communicated his remorse and issued a letter of resignation. However, in a recent article, he mentioned that his teaching method was mischaracterized, as he was simply being “human and friendly” with his students. This latter point, of course, is entirely irrelevant, as it does not factor in how the victim felt. A gesture may seem comfortable to one person, but it may signal something very different to another. This is one of the reasons why professional, relational standards are put in place; they are used as boundaries so that those in a position of power may not use their role as a medium for abuse.  The sequence of events in this case is all too familiar in academia: repeated harassment by an individual in power, victim stays silent, victim finally has enough courage to file a complaint, investigation is long and tedious, and the conclusion only minimally affects the aggressor.

The nature of these investigations and the minimal punishment given to the offenders are egregiously wrong. This raises concerns about how students can feel protected by a system that favors its tenured professors. Title IX often throws uninformed students into bureaucratic procedures that they hardly know how to navigate. When official complaints are filed, the person who receives the most protection is the one who caused the violation.  University officials are quick to admit that Title IX proceedings are tough, lengthy, and the “standard of evidence needed to discipline a tenured professor is high.”  This kind of mindset deters them from genuinely following through on complaints, as there is little incentive for a Title IX coordinator to thoroughly follow through on complaints made against an individual that is protected by the system. It is an ineffectively long, tedious process that often leaves the victim feeling disappointed and overwhelmed.  

There is a reason why students often stay silent when they are violated by their professors. They are dependent on these individuals for their grades, their dissertation, and their future academic positions. This dependency is a breeding ground for sexual abusers: the chance of getting away with their behavior is higher than their chance of being reprimanded. One student mentioned that when she saw “every complaint being ignored, and every male professor who has violated have zero consequences, it really makes [one] not want to step forward.” She is certainly not alone. Marcy’s case was unique in that many members in his department knew about his tendencies and the witnesses were plenty, but the university still did not give the victims the justice they deserved.  This causes other victims – those who do not have witnesses and have nothing aside from their word – to question whether they should go through the process at all. It is a wholly broken system that needs a major transformation.

One significant similarity between Marcy’s case and other recent high-profile violations (Thomas Pogge, Timothy Hunt, etc) is that the primary victim’s Title IX investigation prompted many other victims to step forward to lend support and to tell their story. While the legal-political aspects of Title IX are cumbersome, the social effects of these notorious cases are encouraging. There is more university-wide awareness surrounding Title IX and sexual harassment and victims feel more compelled to come forward.

To the students who have experienced sexual abuse from those who were supposed to protect and nurture your academic careers: you are not alone – ever. Whether you choose to file a formal complaint or not, remember that there are people who will support and guide you. Never blame yourself for the gross violations made by your aggressor: they are at fault. They should maintain student-professor boundaries, even when faced with unprofessionalism. Most importantly, they should make you feel safe and secure in pursuing your academic endeavors.  The beauty of graduate school is found in the work that a student completes through years of research and guidance from advisors.  It is this bond – formed through the trusted exchange of ideas – that can make grad school rewarding.  If broken, the results can be devastating - as Marcy’s victims can surely attest.

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