Harassment scandal shifts perspective on Title IX

Allegations of world-renowned astronomer Geoffrey Marcy’s sexual harassment of students while teaching at SF State and University of California, Berkeley and recent changes to Title IX have raised questions about professor-student relationships. 

Marcy taught at SF State from 1984 to 1999 in the department of physics and astronomy and remained an adjunct professor until two months ago. He resigned Oct. 14 from UC Berkeley, where he had taught for the last 16 years, following a six-month long sexual harassment investigation that prompted several victims from both schools to come forward, the Golden Gate Xpress reported.

Pauline Gagnon, now a senior research scientist at Indiana University Bloomington, said she first met Marcy in 1986 when she was a master’s student and part-time lecturer in the physics and astronomy department at SF State. It was then that she said she first felt uncomfortable around Marcy, a rising professor in the department.

“(Marcy) was always flirtatious, making inappropriate comments – particularly regarding my girlfriend –  making lewd comments or using a tone that made me highly uncomfortable,” Gagnon said. “I felt vulnerable even though I was not Marcy’s student and was his peer as a lecturer, but I was still just a graduate student.”

Marcy’s inappropriate behavior was perpetuated by the policies and perceptions regarding professor-student relationships, which were much more lenient during that time period, according to Gagnon and her former co-worker Vicki Lindsay. 

“Relationships between faculty and students were certainly seen as abuses of power, but the regulations were not as clear as they are under the new Title IX,” Lindsay said.

Recent changes to Title IX include a rule that prohibits consensual relationships between professors and students at all California State Universities, according to an SF State Title IX notice.

James Kelley, who was the dean of the College of Science and Engineering from 1975 to 2001, remembered Marcy as a promising young scientist and said he couldn’t recall instances of impropriety during Marcy’s time at SF State.

“Usually when there is an allegation of sexual harassment in the college, it got to my desk pretty directly, and there were such allegations, which we investigated and resolved in an appropriate manner, but there was nothing in my 27 years as dean that reached the dimensions of the pattern which apparently developed at Berkeley in the more than 10 years Dr. Marcy was there,” Kelley said.

A 2015 survey from the Association of American Colleges found that more than 7 percent of students who reported being sexually harassed said they were harassed by a faculty or staff member or administrator.

The new rule prohibiting romantic relationships between school employees and students was adopted by the CSU June 23, according to CSU Title IX Coordinator Pamela Thomason, who said in an email that the rule aims to prevent favoritism, exploitation and conflicts of interest.

The ban includes teaching assistants, lecturers, coaches, residential hall staff and others with similar authority over students, according to SF State Title IX Coordinator Luoluo Hong, who is responsible for implementing and overseeing the procedures in response to complaints, which are detailed in CSU Executive Orders 1096 and 1097.

Those reporting complaints against faculty members can opt out of an investigation and resolve the issue through an early resolution, which would address the complainant’s concerns and requests, Hong said in an email. Complainants are also referred to medical care and mental health support services as needed, she said.

However, if SF State’s Title IX team deems an investigation is necessary, then an investigator is assigned to determine whether there is at least a 51 percent chance that the violation did occur, in which case an investigation would be initiated, and both the complainant and the respondent would have the opportunity to appeal once a finding is made, Hong said.

“It is important to emphasize that when the University institutes its administrative procedures, we are determining if a policy violation occurred, not whether a crime has happened,” Hong said. “This is why we use a different standard of evidence and have different investigative approaches.”

In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, there were 10 sexual violence reports and three sexual violence investigations at SF State in which a CSU employee was the respondent, according to the University’s annual Title IX report.

Creative writing Professor Paul Hoover said the allegations surrounding Marcy make the issue a delicate topic.

“It’s a sad story, because (Marcy) did great here as an astronomy professor at State, but I’m not sure about him personally, but it sounds like he ruined everything through misbehavior,” Hoover said.

Hoover said the nuances of the student-teacher relationship can be difficult to navigate.

“It’s understood that you are not supposed to have a relationship with students, so it’s fine if it’s explicitly stated,” Hoover said. “It’s not appropriate for a male professor to invite a female student to office hours at his home; I think that may be borderline. Even when I meet with students in my office, I usually keep the door open unless it’s too noisy in the hall and the student requests it to be closed.”

Liberal studies associate professor Jose Acacio de Barros  said the ban on student-professor romantic relationships is sound policy.

“Universities are hierarchical institutions, and faculty has sometimes lots of power over students. When such relationships exist, they may get in the way of equal access to education, which is exactly what Title IX is trying to address,” de Barros said. “For example, a faculty (member) might give more academic opportunities to someone with whom he or she is involved than to other students, or at least give the perception to others that such imbalance is happening.”

Relationships between faculty and students develop primarily due to romantic attraction fostered by a close environment, according to SF State psychology associate professor Christian Wright. 

The dynamic of romantic relationships between professors and students makes them professionally inappropriate, Wright said.

“The student-professor relationship involves a power dynamic that is similar to subordinate-supervisor in a workplace,” Wright said. “This imbalance in power provides opportunities for the professor to exploit the student, in my opinion.”

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  • There is, of course, no excuse whatsoever for unwanted contact or behaviour which we normally call “sexual harassment”, as described in the Marcy case. That has no place anywhere. However, the idea that all social and consensual relationships between professors and students are forbidden denies basic human nature, and even something deeply held in European culture, as exemplified by the story of Heloise and Abelard. At my non-American institution, the conflict of interest which relationships may create is dealt with through a simple mechanism: the instructor involved reports the situation to his or her superior, who then handles assessment of the student’s work and any other problems which may arise. I feel that viewing relationships in purely power terms is a rather American notion, and while that may be the proper way to regard such things in the military, universities are rather different, where intellectual pursuits are closely entwined with, and profit from, personal relationships, some of which occasionally become romantic. How to be fair to everybody is then the issue. It’s a fine line, and there is never a perfect resolution, but a blanket ban on relationships to me seems to be going too far. I know of many professor-student relationships, and some of those include people who have risen to the very pinnacle of science. Nowadays we do not punish and castrate Heloise and Abelard.