No statute of limitations for accused academics

David Marchant, still a geologist, but no longer a Boston University employee, has learned what my friend who teaches at University of California explained: “I can be fired for any reason… except incompetence.” (Science Mag)

The alleged unkind words and actions toward three people occurred in the late 1990s (2017 Science Mag article), but no complaints were made until October 2016 (at least 17 years after the alleged facts).

Had these aggrieved individuals wanted to sue former Professor Marchant, they would generally have had to do so within three years (Massachusetts law) of the events.

(Separately, the accused geologist seems to be a bit of a skeptic regarding climate change catastrophe. He is co-author of a paper telling people not to worry about the East Antarctic Ice Sheet melting and leading to a 60 meter rise in sea level. The Ice Sheet has been around for 14 million years, the paper says, and thus has survived some very warm periods indeed.)

Even if we assume that we can establish 20-year-old facts to perfect accuracy, should there be a statute of limitations for this kind of situation? We could say that what Dr. Marchant (his Ph.D. hasn’t been rescinded yet!) allegedly did was like murder and it can’t be forgiven so we need to punish him even though he might have changed completely during the intervening years. Or we could say that people do evolve over a period of two decades so we want to consider only accusations regarding reasonably recent behavior.

What if, for example, Dr. Marchant had changed gender ID between 1999 and 2019? Would it still make sense to get rid of her on the theory that her presence made it difficult for women?


6 thoughts on “No statute of limitations for accused academics

  1. The paper you linked to, by Merdith Wadman, is an outstanding example of reporting on a sexual harassment complaint. Wadman extensively covered the evidence, presented both sides, and made a point of questioning and explaining inconsistencies on both sides. I wish all articles on sexual harassment were as fair minded and as thoroughly researched as this.

    • The article was done as well as can be expected. But I would like to see the specific allegations timelined. For instance, if I understood it correctly, a woman alleged that he had berated her, thrown rocks at her, shoved her down a hill, and then after all that he told her one day that he was going to teach her something, and she was thrilled that she would be learning something new … and then he blew glass particles in her eyes.

      Is she alleging that she was acting irrationally like this because of something akin to Stockholm syndrome?

      At any rate, the rationale behind statutes of limitations is that as time passes it becomes harder to prove or disprove allegations, and eventually the odds of an unjust resolution exceeds that of justice for past wrongs.

      I’m trying right now to remember details of unpleasant encounters twenty years ago, and I really can’t.

      And I know from cleaning out old boxes of records and letters from decades ago that I definitely had formed some false memories in that period. And I discovered I had a girlfriend in my twenties who I cannot for the life of me remember, although I have letters to prove it.

      And I have “new” memories of my past that appeared after discussions with my mom and with a college friend. Also I’ve found that my brain seems to fill in gaps in memories with made-up stuff, which I speculate is because it wants memories to be logical or complete. This could explain why you might find that others back up your fake memories unless you are very careful not to prompt them with data.

      In thinking these things over I’ve run across the memory research of Elizabeth Loftus, which is very interesting. She got her start in this field of research after the McMartin preschool case.

  2. > his Ph.D. hasn’t been rescinded yet!

    Can an earned Ph.D. be rescinded? Bill Cosby has lost 59 honorary doctorates, but his “earned” Ed.D. from UMass from 1976 still stands.

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