What do we do with disgraced academics?

Pretty much following the libretto of Carmina Burana (e.g.,

Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,

), Geoffrey Marcy was celebrated by the New York Times in May 2014 as a Prius-driving save-the-Earth-from-a-comfortable-Berkeley-perch right-thinker (link). The same newspaper today reports that he must resign from his tenured job at UC Berkeley for “groping students, kissing them and touching or massaging them inside their clothes” and then failing to apologize properly (what would have been sufficient?).

Earlier this month I asked where Syrian and Afghan refugees would fit into a U.S. economy with a $15/hour minimum wage. But maybe a harder question is what does a pariah like Professor Marcy do next? Running an astrophysics lab is a pretty specialized skill and the field is small. Could he emigrate to a country where they don’t care about this kind of incident and are willing to set him up with an all-male lab? Presumably no big U.S. company would be enthusiastic about bringing in this kind of litigation risk even if Marcy wanted to debase himself by taking a Java-programming job or whatever.

This reminds me of what a tenured UC Berkeley professor once told me: “I can be fired for any reason… except incompetence.” But, more importantly, I wonder if this calls into question the value of corporate training and groupthink. My physics prof friend is required to spend hours of time each year learning about various things that he is not supposed to think or do around students and colleagues. Marcy grew up in California and received all of his education within the UC system, which is also where he has worked for most of his career. If Marcy didn’t get the message, what is the point of all of those hours that everyone is required to spend looking at PowerPoint slides?

Separately, I think that Marcy and Tim Hunt may be examples of how academic science is a crummy career. Marcy was getting paid about one third of what a competent dermatologist or radiologist might earn. Due to America’s desperate shortage of doctors in many regions, the dermatologist who was accused (but not criminally convicted) of sexual harassment in San Francisco could probably get a job in a Great Plains state at a substantial raise. Consider a 22-year-old contemplating investing in graduate school and 15 years of scrambling through post-docs and the tenure race. Perhaps he or she is confident that he or she will not commit any of the sins that are currently firing offenses. But how does that 22-year-old know that, upon reaching middle age, there won’t be some new ways to get fired such that it is impossible to work anywhere else within academia? [The “groping” accusation against Marcy is, of course, way beyond the apparently-not-funny words that ended Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s career.]

So… readers: where does Dr. Marcy fit into the worldwide workforce now?


  • Kary Mullis shows what a scientist could get away in fairly recent times (the Wikipedia article hints at only about 1 percent of his bad behavior; this 1998 nytimes article mentions a conference talk where “‘His only slides (on what he called ‘his art’) were photographs he had taken of naked women with colored lights projected on their bodies,”
  • Tim Hunt
  • Women in Science

15 thoughts on “What do we do with disgraced academics?

  1. I graduated from college in 1992. I did not even consider an academic career. Talking with graduate students and associate professors who were climbing the ladder, it was clear that there was a situation of very few job openings and a huge number of people chasing them. There were people who managed to do this but it was clear even then that the math didn’t work out.

    This brings up something I’ve observed about extremely tight labor markets or labor gluts. They can get to a point where employers just stop valuing competence. Since they don’t really need all their current employees, let alone wanting to take on more, they have no compunction for making personnel decisions for ridiculously petty reasons. They just need to keep a core of competent employees and the rest can be flunkies. It would more profitable to just fire all but the core of competent employees, but then you get into situations such as academia where you are not supposed to be making a profit.

  2. All I know about the Marcy allegations is the time frame: 2001-2010. That is enuf for me to suspect that he is being railroaded. No complaints more recent? 9 years of bad behavior without anyone saying anything? If he were really that bad, then his colleagues or the administration should have taken action earlier. Waiting this long just shows everyone is to blame, if anyone is.

  3. Alas, Marcy hadn’t realized all professional interaction with women must be in the presence of a chaperone (with the door open).

    Due to the weaponized usage of this sort of accusations, I’m leery of believing them anymore. Many turn out to be malicious hoaxes (that usually go unpunished for some reason). Tim Hunt, for instance, may have been hounded out of the field by what appears to be some sort of CV charlatan, Connie St Louis, aided and abetted by Twitter and The Guardian of course.


  4. These sorts of affairs, along with statistics like 20% of women on campus get raped, also raise the question of whether universities should be coed in the first place. It seems a rather dangerous option to women, doesn’t it? So why is it permitted to continue?

  5. Tom, I’m with you on the subject of weaponization of male-female relations, esp. in education, hence the need to seriously question such accusations, but—I am not talking specifically about Tim Hunt—there is a “history” of male academics speaking in denigrating tones of female peers[*] and students, as well as that of underdog/bitches-students using sexuality to advance their grades (so what else is new). Some of the latter seem to be bizarre at best, or else how else does one explain the writer Naomi Wolf, her of “The Beauty Myth” missive, 20-year delayed accusation of her former professor of literature [name withheld to protect the innocent] for THE HORROR! THE HORROR! allegedly putting a “bony hand” on her holy thigh in the course a meal they shared in a restaurant, an occasion during which she hoped to be assessed SOLELY FOR HER POETRY! (I guess she should’ve taken Palmistry 101 to get the reading of that.)

    This is the state of affairs that the 2nd wave feminists have brought; that, which one 3rd wave lipstick ditto one has characterized as “our hard-won right to the Dutch treat” (pace the ethnic Dutch, but that’s the idiom). Things being what they are, I’m only waiting for some public figure, disgraced for hiring call-girls, to mount a spirited defense that it was the only rational, optimal choice in the pursuit of tenderness/ ergo the constitutionally guaranteed happiness/, that was left to him/ is left to men/ in that minefield of inter-gender relations that are now en vogue. And then parade a string of female witnesses (plus the lead singer of the “Phil & the Philettes”) corroborating that claim.

    Digression over, neither of these types of nominal transgressions can be discounted, but mainly the first one, the faculty’s limits of behavior, has been formalized against. That said, it seems a poor tactic to offset the alleged but unlinked The Guardian’s abetting the accusers with a rebuke in The Daily Mail – hardly a paragon of (if here counter-) justice.

    [^*] James Watson about Rosalind Franklin, who could be interestingif she did something novel with her hair.”

  6. Mr. Greenspun, with all due respect, I believe that your stance is severely exaggerated on several accounts. Allow me to enumerate a few such instances.

    * Geoffrey March was being paid about $210k a year (not including benefits) according to California state employee records which are publicly available due to state sunshine laws. I suspect that perhaps only a handful of dermatologists or radiologists – even competent ones! – in the Great Plains states are making triple that (hence $630k+ a year), especially after subtracting malpractice insurance fees, which I suspect could be quite hefty for a radiologist in particular.

    *Tim Hunt was already retired and therefore was presumably living off a nice academic pension that I strongly suspect remains intact. What Hunt lost was an *honorary* position at UCL which like paid only a nominal honorarium if anything at all. Hunt’s retirement is therefore retirement secure.

    *Speaking of academic pensions, Marcy was a California state employee since 1984 (including his time at SF State) and a University of California employee since 1999 and has therefore been paying into CALPERS for over 3 decades. The California state employee pension system is not only unusually generous, but also has strong protections against pension forfeiture – not only do you not forfeit your pension just for being fired for cause, I believe that nothing short of being convicted of a job-related felony would cause you to forfeit your pension. Marcy may have been forced to resign, but (like Cosby) he was never convicted of anything and likely never will be. I therefore would not exactly fret for Marcy’s retirement security. Indeed, I suspect that his annual CALPERS pension payment will be more than most people will ever make during their career peak earning year.

    *Given your discussion of fireable offenses and academic tenure, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, what’s worse: Tim Hunt stating that girls in the lab will fall in love with you (or you with them) and cry, or continually outright denying the Holocaust, in the case of Arthur Butz who nevertheless continues to hold a professorship at Northwestern? Yet while Northwestern can and has distanced itself from Butz can’t fire Butz because he is *tenured*, which means that he enjoys completely unfettered freedom of speech without fear of termination.

    That illustrates the key advantage that academia has over any other career (except for perhaps the civil service): tenure means that you can only be terminated for misconduct, and the definition of misconduct has to be specified beforehand. You say that “how does that 22-year-old know that, upon reaching middle age, there won’t be some new ways to get fired such that it is impossible to work anywhere else within academia”, however such “new ways to get fired” have to be defined beforehand, with no ‘ex-post-facto’ rule. Contrast that with the typical private-sector at-will employment arrangement where you can be fired at any time for any reason, or no reason at all. If you’re a fan of the Boston Red Sox, and the new boss is a fan of the NY Yankees, he can decide to fire you and there is nothing you can do about it. Any dermatologist or radiologist who writes books or gives public speeches denying the Holocaust will probably find himself unemployable by every hospital in the country. In contrast, Northwestern to this day cannot fire Butz.

    Indeed, you even alluded to this yourself when you related the story of the tenured Berkeley professor saying that “I can be fired for any reason… except incompetence.” What that means is that he cannot be fired for performing his job duties poorly. In contrast, private sector employees live lives of perennial dread of needing to produce high quality work for fear of being fired – and even if they do, they also have to live with the knowledge that the company at any time can surreptitiously change the definition of ‘high-quality’ to exclude you. Academic tenure essentially means no longer having to live in constant fear about the actual quality of your work – and quite honestly, for many tenured profs, also means that they effectively have been granted a lifetime vacation. {Ever notice how a substantial subset of professors stop publishing papers and how their course ratings significantly dip once they obtain tenure?}

    Plus, the post-tenure academic lifestyle is extraordinarily flexible. Other than the courses you are assigned to teach and a few required administrative meetings every month, you are not truly required to be anywhere at any given time. If you decide that you don’t want to show up to the university on certain days of the week, or decide one day that you want to go home early, or whatever the case may be, nobody can tell you otherwise. You don’t have a ‘boss’ who is constantly checking your attendance and inquiring into your daily activities. I suppose radiologists or dermatologists who run their own practice may enjoy similar flexibility to set their own schedule, but then they also have to run the risk of running their own business.

    The upshot is that I strongly suspect that many dermatologists and radiologists would actually prefer to be tenured professors, even if they are making less

  7. Marcy is probably old enough to retire. Maybe like blacklisted Hollywood scriptwriters in the ’50s, his colleagues will let him secretly ghostwrite their papers.

    I think the safest thing would be to ban men from higher education. It’s true that at all girls schools, certain of the more masculine co-eds sort of fill the ecological niche formerly occupied by men (with the added benefit of no unwanted pregnancies), but on the whole it will be safer for women once all universities become all female. Men can pursue more lucrative careers such as trash collector and stone mason, with the added benefit that there are usually no women around to accuse them of harassment.

  8. Sam: Thanks for pulling the data on Marcy’s actual salary. Is $630,000 out of reach for a dermatologist? A quick Google search revealed


    where a South Carolina practice was offering a base starting salary of $400,000 for working 4 days/week with “$1 million+ potential” (with bonus?). http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/23/education/23pay.html was also an interesting result, showing an academic dermatologist earning $4.3 million/year. Let’s assume that a smart person such as Marcy would likely have been near the top of any medical specialty that he chose. How about radiologists? One of my aviation buddies is a radiologist. He was offered an academic position with a salary of close to $1 million per year plus substantial cash assistance to buy a new house. His wife made him turn down the offer as insufficient.

    You do make a strong case for the tenured life. And http://philip.greenspun.com/book-reviews/higher-education calculates the hourly pay for a humanities professor in a range of $242/hour (Kenyon College) to $820 per hour (Yale). But I do think that in a humanities or pure science field it is tough to earn a high total annual income, even if the hourly rate can be high for those who do the minimum. So I guess a lot depends on one’s preferences for leisure time versus work.

    [And, of course, as explained in http://www.realworlddivorce.com/ , a person who has sex with a dermatologist or radiologist in the right state and can obtain custody of the resulting child can enjoy the after-tax spending power of a tenured University of California professor for between 18 and 23 years.]

  9. Phil, I have never disputed that *some* dermatologists and radiologists probably are paid far more than 3x Marcy’s salary. Nevertheless, the fact is that a 2013 Medscape survey found that dermatologists and radiologists drew an average income of $304k and $340k a year respectively. It is not clear whether those figures factor in the cost of malpractice insurance – I strongly suspect not – but even if they do, those figures are still a far cry from the $630k figure that you cite.

    Nor am I convinced that Marcy would necessarily been at the “top of any medical specialty” as you have assumed. Scientific research and medical expertise are divergent skillsets, the former having more to do with creativity and insight with the latter (frankly) relying more upon memorization and (especially with dermatology) relationship building with patients.

    One must also not discount the fact that PhD students, whether in astronomy or any other discipline, are *paid* to study (even if only modestly), whereas MD students must *pay* for their studies. Indeed, the average debt incurred for medical school alone is over $150k according to the AAMC. And while astronomy postdocs are not particularly well paid, neither frankly are doctors undergoing internship/residency, and in particular, not paid sufficiently to service their medical school debt payments without allowing the debt principal to grow. Hence, an aspiring astronomer emerges from both his PhD program and his post-doc years debt-free – perhaps even with some small savings – whereas the MD emerges from his residency awash in debt. By the time that his postdoc is finishing, the astronomer – given the quality of the professorship placement he can obtain – has the luxury of switching to an entirely different career (and many astronomers successfully transition to careers in finance or tech) given his debt-free status, which means that the astronomer retains ‘option-value’ on what sort of career he chooses to pursue. The MD has no such luxury, as his med-school debt compels him to pursue a medical career even if he no longer wants one.

    And besides, most importantly of all, I believe that you’ve neglected the concavity of the utility function with respect to income. The higher your income, the less meaningful any incremental income increase becomes. Honestly, what really is the difference in lifestyle and enjoyment delivered by the $210k that Marcy made versus the $304-340k figure that the average dermatologist/radiologist makes – or even the $630k figure that you originally implied? Sure, with the latter, you can buy a bigger house, a more lavish car, a fancier vacation. But honestly, so what? Once your income can support a reasonably comfortable life – and $210k can certainly do that – anything earned above that seems to merely be a matter of keeping score. While one might argue that extra income can always be used to build a sufficiently large retirement fund, I doubt that that is a serious problem for somebody like Marcy who has been paying into CALPERS for over 3 decades, and therefore certainly has a comfortable California public employee pension waiting for him. {Perhaps the only real difference is that one can leave a larger trust fund for your children.}

    The upshot is that it is far from obvious to me that Marcy – or any astronomer for that matter – is making a suboptimal career choice. Sure, certain medical specialties ultimately provide higher late-career incomes. However, an astronomy career provides not only a debt-free apprenticeship but also a *paid* apprenticeship, hard technical skills that are transferable to the finance/tech sector, and the opportunity for tenure which effectively means a guaranteed job for life as long as you don’t violate certain rules that must be spelled out in advance. {To your point: I actually don’t think it’s unreasonably burdensome for a prof to never have a private discussion with a female student}. Neither publishing books denying the Holocaust nor even outright incompetence at one’s job responsibilities can result in your firing once you’ve obtained tenure. As long as you teach the courses you are assigned – even if the teaching is abysmal – and attend the required administrative meetings – even if you contribute absolutely nothing ever in any of those meetings, you cannot be fired, because, like you said, incompetence is not a fireable offense for tenured faculty. Only specific and clearly spelled-out activities are grounds for the firing of a tenured professor, with no ex-post-facto rules allowed.

    Given all of the ridiculous reasons that people have been fired in real-life (i.e. the lifeguard who was fired for saving the life of a drowning victim because the victim was not actually drowning within that particular lifeguard’s zone of responsibility, the workers in Georgia who were fired for voting for Obama, the Iowa dental assistant who was fired for being ‘irresistable’), I hope we can agree that tenured faculty enjoy the type of job security that most of us can only dream of having.

  10. Allow me to also add as a direct answer to the question on the title of this blog posting: What do we do with disgraced academics? – one simple answer would be to export them to Asia. The brutal truth is that plenty of Asian universities are interested solely in improving their international rankings (THES, Jiao Tong ARWU, US News Global, etc.) – which are almost exclusively research focused. Somebody like Marcy would provide an instant rankings boost to any university who hired him, for that university could then immediately lay claim to Marcy’s entire CV full of heavily cited publications in ‘top’ journals as ‘belonging’ to that university for ranking purposes. Indeed, I strongly suspect there would be certain schools in the Gulf States, China, or perhaps Singapore who might be willing to pay him more than what he was being paid at Berkeley. Nor would these schools be particularly deterred by Marcy’s history of sexual harassment, for let’s be bluntly honest, Asia is not exactly the most enlightened place in the world when it comes to gender relations (and I say that as an Asian). For public relations purposes, a school could finesse the harassment issue by simply saying that Marcy is being granted a ‘research professorship’ with which he has no contact with students but is devoting his time purely to his own research (when in reality the job is likely little more than a sinecure through which the school ‘rents’ his CV.)

    The upshot is that I wouldn’t exactly fret for Marcy’s financial future. I’m sure he’ll be just fine.

  11. “Asia is not eactly the most enlightened place in the world when it comes to gender relations”? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_top_executives says “South Korea has the highest proportion of female CEOs in the world, with 30 percent of companies employing female CEOs, followed by the People’s Republic of China, with 19 percent. In the European Union the figure is 9 percent and in the United States it’s 5 percent.”

    Sam: How would you account for this apparent discrepancy?

  12. I believe that you could have inferred by context that I was talking about ‘enlightenment’ in the context of sensitivity towards sexual harassment in the workplace – for after all, I thought that that was the topic at hand. I struggle to think of many Asian managers who have actually been terminated just because of a harassment scandal. {There have been plenty of types of other scandals that have brought down Asian leaders, but harassment doesn’t really seem to be one of them.}

  13. With regards to the following paragraph:

    “And, of course, as explained in http://www.realworlddivorce.com/ , a person who has sex with a dermatologist or radiologist in the right state and can obtain custody of the resulting child can enjoy the after-tax spending power of a tenured University of California professor for between 18 and 23 years.]”

    I truly must inquire: what exactly does that comment have to do with the topic at hand? That paragraph seems to be a rather glaring non-sequitur. I thought that this blog posting was specifically about the post-termination future of Geoffrey Marcy, who I am sure will enjoy a comfortable retirement, indeed, far better than will the overwhelming majority of Americans. And if he wants to continue his career, I have no doubt that he can find a wealthy rankings-hungry foreign university that will pay him well, indeed perhaps more than Berkeley ever would.

    But what any of that has to do with the issue of child custody and child support payments is far from clear. There seems to be no indication that Marcy’s wife is divorcing him and even if she is, there is no indication that young children are involved in the marriage that might engender support payments.

    Indeed, Mr. Greenspun, forgive my brutal honesty, but I’ve now read through a number of your blog entries and – while I mean this in the nicest possible way – I nevertheless really feel that I must ask: why must you always steer so many of your conversations back to the topic of family law, and in particular, child-support & alimony? Quite frankly, that topic seems to be quite the obsession of yours, for you bring up the topic again and again. While I don’t dispute that family law has its abuses and injustices, at the same time, nevertheless, if I had to prioritize my choices of legal reform, frankly, I’m not sure that alimony/child-support reform would be among the top priorities (I would instead probably choose drug law reform or perhaps intellectual property reform as more pressing issues.}

  14. Family law is not very relevant to Marcy, as you point out, Sam. However, family law is relevant to the question of career/life-planning. See http://www.realworlddivorce.com/Introduction , for example:

    “When young people ask me about the law as a career,” said one litigator, “I tell them that in this country whom they choose to have sex with and where they have sex will have a bigger effect on their income than whether they attend college and what they choose as a career.”

    I think that you’ve misunderstood the purpose of Real World Divorce. We don’t take the position that collecting $5 million in tax-free child support after a one-night sexual encounter is “abuse” or “injustice” or requires “reform.” We point out only that having sex a mile away into Minnesota, for example, would reduce the cash yield by more than 90 percent. And that having sex in Sweden or Germany might eliminate the profitability of a child altogether. An informed young person might still choose to spend 10 years in college, 5 years in post-doc, and 7 years working 80-hour weeks hoping to get tenure. But, having read our book, that person would at least be aware that it was an economically irrational choice.

  15. Mr. Greenspun, I must continue to ask: why do you continue to insist that an academic career is automatically economically irrational?

    As I alluded to before, economic rationality does not mean attempting to maximize one’s *money*, but rather to maximize one’s *utility function*. While the utility function is admittedly difficult to observe, there is near-unanimous agreement within the economics community that it is a concave function which means that every incremental dollar is worth increasingly less. Like I said, the incremental additional utility derived from earning $200k compared to $100k is not particularly large relative to the additional utility derived from earning $100k compared to $0.

    Furthermore, we have to factor in the whopping utility gain from obtaining tenure after which your job performance no longer matters. Granted, you can still be fired for harassing your students as happened to Marcy. But he couldn’t have been fired for simply being an incompetent astronomer – whether by teaching classes terribly, or producing slipshod research, or both. I am sure that everybody – including dermatologists and radiologists – would love to have a job where they no longer have to care about the quality of their work. This is particularly salient given that incompetence is in the eye of the beholder, with the beholder being your boss. Most Americans live lives of perennial fear that today will be the day that the boss simply ‘decides’ that you’re incompetent and therefore must be fired.

    Granted, not everybody gets tenure. One could therefore model tenure as a non-random lottery with a probability distribution that is a function of one’s pre-tenure effort, whereupon the individual then maximizes his expected utility. However, it should be said that even if you fail to get tenure at your first-school, the lottery is far from over. Most people who fail tenure review will move on to a different (usually lower-ranked) school and attempt to obtain tenure there. Nowadays, that often times means moving to Asia, where the chances for tenure and salaries are often times higher than they are in the US (but the ‘prestige’ of Asian schools is lower, which may be why aspiring academics prefer to stay in the US). And even if you fail tenure review at your 2nd school, you may still be able to try at a 3rd school, or perhaps start a career in university administration (I know lots of professors who failed tenure review that become administrators) which often times pays better than does a professorship.

    Furthermore, like I said before, the choice of an academic career is not irrevocable. One has numerous opportunities to bail out if matters seem unpromising. For example, one could bail out as a PhD student, settling for the consolation master’s degree, while using your school’s career office to garner a job offer in, say, finance, consulting, or tech. Remember, PhD students are being paid (albeit not much), so one could simply treat one’s PhD student years as a paid job search. Similarly, one could bail out once you receive your PhD. You could also bail out at anytime during your post-doc years. You could bail out during your years as a junior prof. Presumably, you are constantly gathering more information about your tenure odds, and if tenure seems unlikely, then you bail out.

    One nice aspect of being a PhD student, post-doc, or a junior prof, is that you generally enjoy some measure of temporary ‘job security’ of at the very least one semester, and sometimes for years. A junior prof who immediately discovers that he hates the lifestyle and and wants a career change has several years of lead time before his academic contract expires. Even if he likes academia but fails his tenure review, most reputable schools will give that prof a ‘gap year’ – hence he still will be paid a salary, have an office and access to university resources for another year for him to make a career transition. Contrast that with the private sector where you can be fired on the spot and be expected to vacate the premises immediately, and where even severance pay is far from guaranteed.

    The upshot is that choosing an academic career is far from being a universally economically irrational choice. It all depends on the parameters underlying the dynamic program that describes a given individual’s expected utility. At best, one might argue that it is economically irrational for *some* people. If your don’t derive much utility from the job security of tenure, if your utility function is not highly concave, if you don’t like the academic lifestyle, then obviously it would be economically irrational for you. But for others, it is in fact highly economically rational.

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