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BU says geology professor sexually harassed grad student in Antarctica

Students walked across the campus of Boston University.
JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2015
Students walked across the campus of Boston University.

Boston University has found evidence that a well-known geologist sexually harassed a graduate student almost two decades ago while on an isolated field expedition in Antarctica and could fire him for the violations.

The allegations against David Marchant, which came to light last month, stunned the university’s earth and environment department, where he was a well-known and popular professor. It has also triggered a congressional investigation and increased calls from the university’s graduate students for more protections against sexual harassment.

After a 13-month investigation, university officials uncovered enough evidence that Marchant’s “sexual harassment was sufficiently severe and pervasive so as to create a hostile learning and living environment,” according to a letter BU Provost Jean Morrison sent to faculty on Friday.

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Marchant, a tenured professor who was until recently a department chair, plans to appeal the investigation’s findings, according to his lawyer, Jeffrey Sankey. However, if he is unsuccessful, BU said it will begin the process to “terminate his faculty appointment.”

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“Dr. Marchant is extremely disappointed in the findings and continues to maintain that he did not engage in any sexually harassing behavior in 1999 or at another time,” Sankey said.

Since the allegations have been made public, former students have defended Marchant and said that they never witnessed him treating women inappropriately.

But several women alleged that Marchant hurled rocks at them, shoved them, used sexual slurs, and berated them about their bodies and their work in the late 1990s and early 2000 while conducting research in small groups in Antarctica. Their accusations were detailed in a story in the magazine Science last month.

One of the women, Jane Willenbring, an associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, filed a Title IX sex discrimination complaint with BU last year. Willenbring alleged that Marchant subjected her to verbal and physical harassment while she was a 22-year-old graduate student and he was her thesis adviser.

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In her letter to the school, Willenbring said that Marchant repeatedly urged her to have sex with his brother, who was also on the trip. 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.

Willenbring said she was only comfortable bringing the complaint forward after she herself achieved tenure and felt professionally secure.

Willenbring said she is pleased with the results.

The investigation showed, “BU’s future commitment to students’ well-being,” Willenbring said. “Common sense prevailed here.”

BU said investigators found evidence that Marchant made derogatory comments to Willenbring and used sexual slurs during the trips. However, the university did not find credible evidence that Marchant directly physically attacked her or subjected her to physical and psychological abuse, according to the faculty letter.

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Two other women also made allegations against Marchant in the Science article. An 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.

BU said that it still has a second complaint against Marchant that remains under investigation.

The US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has also launched a review into the case, the steps BU took to investigate the allegations, and what safeguards the university has to address sexual assault and sexual harassment cases.

Since the 1990s, Marchant received more than $5.4 million in funding from NASA and the National Science Foundation.

BU said it interviewed more than 30 witnesses and reviewed over 1,000 pages of records provided by Willenbring, Marchant, and others, during the course of the investigation.

Marchant has been placed on paid administrative leave and is not allowed on campus.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.