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BU professor is fired after investigation finds he sexually harassed grad student in Antarctica

David R. Marchant.
David R. Marchant.(Photo fron Boston University Earth and Environment webpage)

Boston University has fired David Marchant, a tenured geology professor who was the subject of an internal investigation that found he violated the school’s sexual harassment policies during expeditions to Antarctica in 1997 and from 1999 to 2000, according to a letter from the university’s president.

In a letter to faculty Friday, BU president Robert A. Brown said he reviewed the case and concluded that Marchant should be let go. The university’s board of trustees endorsed the recommendation Friday, Brown wrote.

Brown’s decision overruled a recommendation from a five-member faculty panel that conducted a hearing to determine how to sanction Marchant. The faculty panel concluded Marchant should be suspended without pay for three years and then permitted to return in good standing, according to Brown and a letter from Jean Morrison, university provost and chief academic officer.

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The faculty panel also recommended that Marchant be permanently banned from leading BU-sponsored expeditions to Antarctica, Morrison’s letter said. The faculty panel members weren’t identified in the letters from Brown and Morrison.

The decision by trustees to fire Marchant is final, Morrison wrote.

Attorney Jeffrey Sankey, who represents Marchant, said he denies the sexual harassment allegations and is considering legal action.

“In this day and age, I think the university was under a significant amount of pressure and I can only say that they capitulated to that pressure, which is extremely contrary to what the evidence showed,” Sankey said Saturday. “It’s very disappointing that the president of the university and the trustees, having appointed these faculty members to do their job, then ignored them.”

Marchant requested the hearing before the faculty panel after Morrison endorsed an investigation that found he violated sexual harassment policies during trips to Antarctica and initiated termination proceedings, Brown wrote.

On Saturday, a listing for Marchant on BU’s website said he was on administrative leave. A website for the university’s Antarctic Research Group described Marchant as its leader.

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Marchant appeared before the faculty panel on Jan. 23, Sankey said. As part of his defense, Sankey said Marchant provided documents dating back to 1998 and participated in interviews. At least 10 witnesses testified on his behalf and evidence was submitted showing that one accuser, Jane Willenbring, had thanked him in her master’s thesis, and then at different times over a decade wished him a happy birthday and inquired about his family, Sankey said.

Responding to a question about Sankey’s claims, Willenbring said in an e-mail Saturday that many people “can relate to having to be nice to a terrible boss so you aren’t treated even worse later.”

BU suspended Marchant with pay in October 2017 after the magazine Science published a story about the sexual harassment allegations, Sankey said. At the time of Marchant’s suspension, BU had been investigating the accusations for about a year, Sankey said.

The investigation was initiated in 2016 when 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, the Globe has reported.

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.

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

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“I often say no one ‘wins’ a sexual harassment case, but I’m wrong: Science, academia, and BU are better today because of this announcement,” Willenbring said.

BU’s investigation found evidence that Marchant made derogatory comments to her and used sexual slurs during the trips, the Globe reported in 2017. At the time, BU said it did not find credible evidence that Marchant directly physically attacked her or subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.

Hillary Tulley, a retired high school science teacher, said she traveled to Antarctica with Marchant in 1998 and prepared a written account of her experience, which was provided to BU.

Tulley, who lives in Chicago, said Marchant called her a derogatory term, grabbed her, and made degrading remarks about her body.

“I was terrified, but I was also not willing to give into it,” Tulley said Saturday. “I’m feeling super grateful today because I never thought I’d see justice prevail.”

Erika Marín-Spiotta, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and principal investigator for ADVANCEGeo, which seeks to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace for geoscientists, said BU’s decision was supported by “overwhelming evidence.”

“Tenure should protect intellectual freedom, not those who abuse and harass,” she said in a statement.

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In 2018, the National Science Foundation implemented new rules requiring institutions to report any findings of sexual or any other type of harassment by a grant’s principal scientists or personnel. The organization finances billions of dollars of research annually, paid for by taxpayers.

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

The allegations against Marchant prompted a review by the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.