Updated: Oct 17, 2020
To many, David Marchant, professor of geology, is an excellent teacher and scientist and a charming man who has gone on more than thirty expeditions to Antarctica. Journalist Meredith Waldman reports that Jane Willenbring, a professor of geosciences, recently filed charges against Marchant with Boston University, alleging that he sexually harassed her twenty years ago when she was a graduate student. Willenbring did not file a complaint earlier because she was concerned that Marchant would retaliate and interfere with her application for tenure at her current university. Her complaint “alleges that Marchant repeatedly shoved her down a steep slope, pelted her with rocks while she was urinating in the field, called her a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore.’” He made Willenbring share a tent with his brother and urged her to have sex with his brother because he had a “porn-sized” penis.
Hillary Tulley alleges that before she had even safely cleared the helicopter that brought them to the field site, Marchant grabbed her, and called her a “dumbass, lazy c—t.” She said, “His taunts, degrading comments about my body, brain, and general inadequacies never ended. Every day was terrifying.” Adam Lewis, a glacial geologist, verified the women’s claims: “On multiple occasions while walking without Tulley, Marchant made grotesque sexual comments about her body.” Marchant “clearly stated that he did not believe women should be field geologists.” A third woman, who refused to reveal her identity to the public, said that Marchant would gloat that “he could say absolutely anything he wanted to because we were ‘in his domain.’” He threatened to interfere with her attempts to apply for grants once she completed her Ph.D. When she complained to the university, the department chair suggested that she drop the matter. She dropped the issue and left the Ph.D. program, but the abuse left her tramautized. She said: “it took years, literally, to overcome the damage to my self-worth. I slowly rebuilt a career grounded in scientific inquiry.” She was wracked with guilt because she did not pursue her complaint and protect other women from the abuse. Tulley also attempted to file a complaint when she returned from the expedition, but the university did not follow up on her request.
“His taunts, degrading comments about my body, brain, and general inadequacies never ended. Every day was terrifying.”
In support of Marchant, a colleague said he is a person completely absent the stain of misogyny or unchecked anger.” But Meredith Hastings a founder of the Earth Science Women’s Network notes that abuse can run unchecked in isolated field stations such as in Antarctica, where there is no one to monitor the conduct and no one for the victim to complain to. Also, the victim cannot escape the situation in distant field settings such as Antarctica.
“It took years, literally, to overcome the damage to my self-worth. I slowly rebuilt a career grounded in scientific inquiry.”
In April 2019, Boston University fired Marchant for sexual harassment. Willenbring told the press: “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. I’m grateful to the many women and men who told the truth about his behavior.”
The publicity surrounding the case prompted the National Science Foundation to issue new procedures for universities to follow when they receive sexual harassment claim regarding a principal investigator on an NSF grant. Congress also launched an independent investigation of Marchant. The case also encouraged professors at other universities and at international associations of sciences to train scientists on how to prevent sexual harassment and assault in fieldwork. And the U.S. Board on Geographic Names changed the Marchant Glacier's name to Matataua Glacier.