When astronomer Sarah Ballard walked onto the University of California, Berkeley, campus for an academic job interview in February, it was a homecoming. She had attended college there, walking to class underneath the Seussian London plane trees as the campanile chimed periodically in the background. Berkeley had made her the exoplanet-studying scientist she was. It had taught her well, prepared her for graduate school, and propelled her into a successful career, including her current position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It had, in fact, prepared her so well that she was back, being considered for a professorship at one of the country's top astronomy departments. And what a nice narrative--to have come full circle. She had grown up in this department, but she also had been harassed, and helped topple an astronomical icon.
In the past few years, sexual harassment in the sciences has become an increasingly visible problem. Disturbing allegations about the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, and the former head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all made headlines. So have a number of cases involving prominent university professors. On the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Kishore Hari talks to Sarah Ballard, an accomplished exoplanet researcher who was also a complainant in one of the most high-profile recent harassment controversies. Last year, Buzzfeed reported that Geoff Marcy, a renowned astronomer at the University of California-Berkeley, had faced sexual harassment accusations.
Celeste Kidd was elated when she learned, in 2007, that she had been invited to interview for a PhD program at the University of Rochester. The talented 24-year-old linguistics major had applied to many of the country's top cognitive science departments, but among those, she had her eye fixed on UR's. There, she might have the chance to work with Richard Aslin, a nationally respected expert on infant learning, her area of research. Aslin had the right lab equipment, the right grants, and a reputation for supporting his students' interests even when it diverged from his own. Getting an interview in his department was "one of the most exciting moments of my life," Kidd remembers.
The lesson likely to be widely drawn from the eviction of Bill O'Reilly from Fox News, announced Wednesday, is that even the biggest of big shots can't evade their comeuppance forever. Put simply, "what goes around comes around." This will no doubt gratify the legions who detest O'Reilly for his politics, his abusive manners, his baleful influence on American public discourse and his reported history of sexual harassment, the proximate cause of his departure from Fox. The right lesson is less uplifting. It's that if you bring in lots of money for your employer and have the right friends in the right places, you can get away with the most egregious conduct almost forever.
When news broke last month that the dean of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law was being sued by his assistant for sexual harassment, faculty and students weren't the only ones caught by surprise--so was University of California system president Janet Napolitano. "I know you appreciate my level of concern about this situation, and my unhappiness in learning about it through the media," Napolitano wrote to UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. Within two days, Dean Sujit Choudhry had resigned. Eight months had passed since the university found that he violated their sexual-misconduct policy. According to a trove of documents released by the university this month--showing firings, resignations, even transcripts of text messages related to its sexual-harassment investigations--at least 19 UC-Berkeley employees were found to have violated the school's sexual-harassment policy since 2011.