Geoscientist Jane Willenbring tells Moneyish what it was like to file a Title IX complaint against her former thesis advisor, David Marchant
On a spring day in 2016, geoscientist Jane Willenbring brought her then three-year-old daughter to the lab. Sylvie had heard her mother was a scientist, but the sight of her decked out in a lab coat, gloves and goggles seemed to make it click: “I want to be a scientist just like you, Mommy,” she said.
That moment spurred Willenbring, after putting Sylvie to bed that night, to finally draft a Title IX complaint against David Marchant, her former Boston University thesis advisor who she says sexually harassed her on field expeditions nearly two decades ago. Even today, she tears up imagining her daughter enduring the same abuse and isolation.
Willenbring, now 40, had also just accepted her tenured associate professor position at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “I was like, ‘You know, I don’t have to worry about this guy now,’” she said. “I have tenure, and what can he do to me? I have my job for life.”
While Willenbring was a master’s student at BU, she alleges, Marchant engaged in “appalling, abusive behavior” during fieldwork seasons in Antarctica spanning 1999 to 2000 and 2000 to 2001 — verbally harassing her daily, and amping up his efforts if she didn’t appear sufficiently upset. The alleged abuse turned physical, too: Willenbring says Marchant pushed her multiple times down a debris-covered slope, threw rocks at her while she urinated, and once blew volcanic ash — which contains fragments of glass — directly into her eyes.
“He just went out of his way to make sure that I had a terrible time,” said Willenbring, who came to BU to work with Marchant on his National Science Foundation-funded project. “And doubted myself.” (Marchant and his lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
The passage of time helped Willenbring compartmentalize the experience, she said, and some “mental gymnastics” convinced her letting things go was the best course. “Each step farther away from Boston University that I got, the easier it was to let things sort of slide and to just leave it in the past,” she said.
There was also the fear of professional retaliation. There was Willenbring’s aversion to confrontation. There was her reluctance to be viewed as a “woman scientist” instead of just a scientist. There was, of course, doubt that anyone would believe her. So she kept her secret, intimating to some fellow grad students only that “Dave behaved like Dave in the field,” telling only her parents and boyfriends and people outside of the field whom she “trusted inherently.”
But Willenbring thought back to Antarctica when she would send her own students into the field. She wondered whether she should be helping future women. The reaction of “shock and horror” after she recounted the story to other women later in her career, she added, helped her realize the situation had been unacceptable despite her excuses. And “the big one” driving her Title IX letter was Sylvie.
She sat on the complaint for months, wondering if it was worth the trouble. Then, incensed by the multiple rape accusations against Bill Cosby, President Trump’s boasts of sexual assault on a leaked “Access Hollywood” tape and “the idea of all these people getting by with impunity,” she sent copies to the dean and the school’s Title IX coordinator on Oct. 27, 2016, supported by letters from a former grad-student witness corroborating her claims and additional women who alleged Marchant had harassed them.
In late 2016, when Willenbring says Marchant was notified of the investigation, an uncharacteristic anxiety set in. She struggled to sleep and began seeing a therapist, worried that a negative outcome to the probe would render it “all for nothing.” “I wanted to check my email, but I didn’t want to check my email,” she said, “because I wanted news, but I didn’t want the wrong news.” With an Oct. 6 article in Science magazine, the case went public. (Hearing people describe her experience as “alleged” after that article ran, Willenbring added, was “not particularly helpful.”)
Despite Marchant denying her claims in a lengthy rebuttal, including testimony from his brother and multiple women, BU’s probe concluded Nov. 17 that he had “directed derogatory sex-based slurs and sexual comments” at Willenbring, though it found no “credible evidence” to back her claims of physical and psychological abuse. Provost Jean Morrison, in a letter to faculty, said the findings were serious enough to warrant termination if a potential appeal failed. “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 any other time,” his lawyer, Jeffrey Sankey, told Science at the time.
The geologist’s subsequent appeal of the findings was denied, BU spokesperson Colin Riley told Moneyish last month, and the professor remains on paid administrative leave with “the right to have a faculty committee determine whether termination is the appropriate sanction.” But while Willenbring is dissatisfied with the Title IX investigation process — she believes the office misrepresented some of her interview statements, and says they disregarded the other grad student’s letter due to an alleged work-related disagreement he’d had with Marchant — she says the investigation’s outcome proved “psychologically” helpful.
“Now that BU has told the world, basically, that at least some of this stuff is true … it becomes a little easier to handle,” she said. “It was a decision that sexual harassment had taken place, and that this dean decided … (it) could be punishable by termination.”
Willenbring was also heartened by how many people seemed to believe her, having expected a 50-50 split of scientists “in Marchant camp or in Jane camp” for the rest of her life. “What’s been surprising is how many people in the Jane camp there are,” she said. In the ensuing months, a hundred-odd strangers have reached out to Willenbring: victims emboldened to file their own Title IX complaints, men rethinking how they mentor students, women inspired that others are working to make science more equitable.
“Only good things have happened,” said Willenbring, adding she’s now “less pessimistic” than before. “Even things that I never imagined would happen.”
Among those things, Willenbring said, was an October congressional investigation by the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee into Marchant, who had allegedly received more than $5.4 million in NSF and NASA awards since the 1990s. The NSF announced last month it would require universities it funds to report sexual harassment findings involving principal investigators.
In a 2014 online survey of 666 mostly female field scientists, 64% said they had experienced sexual harassment. To women in such situations, Willenbring advises always doing “the best thing for you.” “Now it might be a little different, but maybe not,” she said. “Maybe it’s still a good idea to wait 20 years.” She would tell her own daughter, she added, to notice and act on on negative signals from a perpetrator early on; communicate displeasure in the moment; and talk to all of a potential advisor’s previous students to find out what he’s like. Form alliances with a powerful, diverse group of women in your field, she added — in other words, “good allies who are going to go to bat for you, and can do something.”
Of all the roughly 20 senior-level women in academia to whom she’s told her story, Willenbring said, not one has said she should have come forward 20 years sooner. “I think it was good that I sort of kept my eye on the goal and got out of there with my sanity and career intact,” she said. “I have no regrets.”
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