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Touchy Professors and Institutional Disinterest

October 10, 2015

Whilst we’ll never know the full story, the recent BuzzFeed article outlining complaints against well-known planet-hunting Astronomer Geoff Marcy by several former UC Berkeley students is representative of a much larger problem.

Although I’m disappointed it’s Marcy at the center of this, I’m saddened more by the knowledge this is the tip of the iceberg. This seems particularly so within Academia, the perfect environment for providing young, eager-to-please students for those with power to prey upon, safe in the knowledge in the unlikely event one of their victims chooses justice over their career (which will likely implode the moment they lodge a complaint), they’ll probably face minor consequences at most.

It’s not just Academia of course. Any environment with significant power inequities between individuals – be they managers and workers, teachers and students, adults and children, political leaders and interns – presents these opportunities for exploitation, as the weaker player lacks reasonable avenues for refusing unwanted advances without jeopardising an important (for various reasons), relationship, and in many cases their reputation, future employability, perceived trustworthiness and career. Worst-case – they expose themselves to legal consequences and years spent in court.

In terms of Academia, I do wonder whether so-inclined individuals are partly attracted to the vocation by the potential to satisfy their sexual desires through the abuse of their power, or whether the environment ‘grows’ them into what they become through constant positive reinforcement of their earlier, less overt sexual advances which aren’t ever formally challenged. 

Either way, what does seem clear is that universities and colleges – as indeed corporations – lack sufficient motivation to adequately and fairly protect those on the wrong end of the power equation. Research grants, government funding and reputations are at stake, and just like in business: workplace harassment is a nasty little secret best kept quiet. Victim blaming, disbelief and failure to act seem default positions by the hierarchy, allowing the ‘touchers’ (for want of a better word), of the world to carry on with impunity, whilst the female student body warn each-other about the touchy professor they should avoid, knowing there’s nothing they can do about him without sacrificing one or more of their own.

Human relations are complex. College students have likely hooked up with their Professors since universities were first established (and yes I know these originally excluded women). But the power-inequity means the student lacks the choice, and the failures of the administrations to act only reinforces the teachers’ delusion their conduct is acceptable, or at least accepted. There needs to be open and frank conversation about this so we can provide the powerless with permission to express their wishes, and clear expectations of being taken seriously when those wishes aren’t respected. 


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