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Graduate students push BU on sexual harassment complaints

Students walked across the campus of Boston University.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff/file 2015

Graduate students at Boston University are calling on the school to more urgently address sexual harassment and assault, just days after reports surfaced that several women had accused a prominent department chairman and scientist of hurling slurs and rocks at them, shoving them, and berating them about their bodies and their work during academic research trips to Antarctica.

Dozens of students rallied this week demanding that BU expand its training on sexual assault and harassment and streamline the process for making complaints. They carried signs that said “BU: Protect your students” and “We won’t back down.”

“These incidents keep happening over and over again,” Jessica Lambert, a third-year doctoral student in anthropology and an organizer with the Graduate Workers Union, said Thursday, speaking broadly about academia. “The details of any allegations change. The difficulties of reporting an incident, the fear that it won’t be believed, the fear that it could harm your reputation don’t change . . . they resonate.”

Some female graduate students said they have long wanted BU to do more to protect the university community from harassment and abuse. Then last week the magazine Science published a story detailing allegations against David Marchant, a professor and chairman of the earth and environment department at BU, galvanizing student efforts around the issue.


Several women, including Jane Willenbring, an associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, have complained that they were subjected to verbal and physical harassment by Marchant during the late 1990s while on research trips.

Willenbring, who filed a Title IX complaint with BU last year, said she waited to speak out until she had secured tenure at her current job.

Willenbring provided a copy of the complaint she submitted to BU to the Globe. In it,
Willenbring alleged that Marchant, who was her adviser at the time, announced every morning that, “Today, I’m going to make you cry,” according to the complaint.


Marchant also repeatedly told Willenbring that she should have sex with his brother, who was among the small BU team in Antarctica, according to the complaint she submitted. One week, she alleged, Marchant threw rocks at her every time she urinated in the field, so she limited her water consumption during the day and drank liters at night, triggering a urinary tract infection and urinary incontinence, according to the complaint.

Another unnamed former graduate student said Marchant began making derogatory comments about her ability and intelligence while on campus, and when they got to Antarctica that treatment escalated. He used slurs and threatened that he would ensure she never received National Science Foundation funding, according to Science.

An Illinois high school teacher who also participated in an Antarctic expedition described to Science that she was taunted by Marchant about her breast size and her age. She was in her 40s at the time.

Marchant, who continues to teach at BU, did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday. BU officials said he had recently been placed on administrative leave as chair of his department.

The school said it was aware of the “serious allegations” against Marchant and is investigating them.

“We are a number of months into the investigation and we regret it is taking this much time,” Rachel Lapal, a BU spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement. “However, the accusations involve harassment that is alleged to have occurred as long as 18 years ago in Antarctica, and it is taking time to reconstruct circumstances, identify witnesses, and verify facts. Once we complete this process, we will be able to reach conclusions . . . and share them with the complainants.”


Sarabeth Buckley, a fifth-year doctoral student in earth and environment at BU and the New England coordinator for Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, said students are watching how the university handles the Marchant case.

But graduate students also want BU to address a broader array of concerns facing female researchers, Buckley said.

For example, graduate students receive only a 15-minute introduction to the resources available for reporting sexual harassment and abuse, which isn’t enough, Buckley said.

And students said that it can be difficult to come forward and make a complaint when it is against an adviser or a mentor or a powerful colleague. Graduates have to rely on professors to write recommendations for research grants, and they can hold sway on young academic careers, students said.

A 2014 study found that 71 percent of women experienced some sort of harassment while conducting scientific fieldwork, while more than 25 percent experience some sort of assault. The study was based on an online survey of nearly 700 field scientists and published in PLOS ONE, a scientific research journal.

And cases at other universities have also brought sexual harassment to the forefront.

A doctoral student at the University of Rochester has alleged that a professor in the cognitive sciences department sent her sexually suggestive e-mails for years. The professor last month took a leave of absence while the university further investigates the allegations.


A former Columbia University doctoral student filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging that a prominent history professor kissed and groped her, while he served as her mentor.

Buckley said she personally hasn’t experienced harassment at the levels described in the Science article.

More common is the “casual misogyny” in academic settings that can also be undermining, she said.

Recently, Buckley said that when she and another female student were preparing pamphlets for an event for women studying science and engineering, an older male professor asked, “Is it arts and crafts time?”

“There is more that can be done,” Buckley said.

BU is “committed to providing an environment for our students, faculty and staff that is free of harassment,” Lapal said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes
. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.