Lead image courtesy of Dr Suzie Thomas
The annual meeting of the prestigious Society of American Archaeology [SAA] is one of the red letter dates in the academic calendar. However, this years 84th annual meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico has been overshadowed by a bitter dispute over the alleged mishandling of a bitter #MeToo row by the SAA’s senior management.
The row centers on retired archaeologist Dr David Yesner, who has been banned from his own former university campus at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, following an independent inquiry into three decades of alleged sexual misconduct carried out under the so called Title IX disciplinary procedure.
The confidential report into Dr Yesners conduct, carried out on behalf of the University by the Pontius Law Offices, was obtained by Alaska based TV Station KTVA and its key elements were published by the station on 25 March 2019.
The Title IX report found that Dr Yesner had subjected nine women to sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, and concluded that,
“As a result, what should have been a safe environment for the female staff and students, became a place where they had to protect themselves from discrimination and potential harassment and/or assault. Seemingly benign situations with their professor, advisor, or colleague produced anxiety and discomfort. This environment hindered their ability to learn and thrive in what should have been a supportive educational environment. [Yesner] was made aware that his conduct was offensive by at least two of his students, C7 and C9, yet it appears that he failed to modify his behavior or address it in any meaningful way.”
Most serious was the case of the woman complainant identified as C9. In her case the report found
“Based on the facts, there can be no debate that C9 was subjected to sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, both of which were a product of her gender and adversely affected her education at the University. However, the more serious allegation, that [Yesner] sexually violated C9 while in Delta Junction while working at a University sponsored archaeological dig, amounts to sexual assault.”
While leaving it up to the individual complainants as to whether they chose to make a complaint about Dr Yesner to the Police, the University of Alaska instituted a cross campus ban on the now retired Yesner’s presence on 8 April , with the acting University Chief of Police issuing an e-mail bulletin to that effect including Dr Yesners photograph.
However, in spite of these actions being taken by the University of Alaska and as a result entering the public domain two days before registration for the SAA annual meeting commenced on 10 April, the disgraced academic was still able to register for the SAA meeting, where three subjects of his abuse were also present among the six thousand attendees, and where the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault was to be the subject of a full conference session to discuss the movement in relation to archaeology.
However, when Dr Yesner tried to enter the conference venue at the Albuquerque Convention Center on 12 April he was intercepted and escorted from the site by New York based Science journalist Michael Balter, who has written extensively on the #MeToo movement.
Mr Balter told the website The Scientist that he was informed that Dr Yesner was attending the conference by survivors of Dr Yasners abuse and he claimed that he took action because nobody from the conference organisation, would intervene in spite of attempts to report and to discuss the issue with SAA officers, including with SAA communications director Amy Rutledge, who, Mr Balter claimed in his blog,
“… looked at me like I was crazy.”
when he tried to discuss the issue.
It was noted that all this was going on in the presence of SAA staff wearing badges saying “Talk to Me” as part of the SAA’s attempt to create a “safe space” for people attending the event.
Referring afterwards to the situation he found himself in Mr Balter told the Scientist,
“Journalists shouldn’t necessarily be kicking the subjects of their reporting out of meetings, but quite frankly nobody else was protecting these students,”
“I considered this an emergency.”
Emergency or not, following a phone call, the senior management of the SAA then banned Mr Balter from the rest of the annual meeting. Ironically the ban included the #MeToo session at which he was due to speak.
It is not yet clear if the ban originated entirely within SAA management, or was the result of a complaint by another party. Neither is it clear if legal advice was taken before Mr Balter was banned.
However, Mr Balter subsequently published an e-mail from the SAA’s executive director Oona Schmid on his blog in which Ms Schmid offered to discuss the issues Mr Balter had raised, but not until four days after the meeting ended. The e-mail also set out the reasons for his being banned.
“Dear Mr. Balter,
As we just discussed, I appreciate that you have been trying to reach SAA to discuss your concerns. I would like to set up a telephone call with you to understand your concerns fully and I suggest that Thurs 4/18 is a possible date at my end if you can suggest at time that is convenient for you.
As much as I recognize that you are trying to share your concerns, your calls are not appropriate. Given the nature of this outreach, SAA must withdraw your 2019 conference registration per our Standard of Conduct Policy. I will arrange for you to receive a refund as soon as possible. Please refrain from attending the rest of the conference including your participation in Saturday’s session.
Thank you for your anticipated cooperation and I look forward to hearing more details about your concerns when we talk next week.
The action taken by Ms Schmid and the management of the SAA in apparently shooting the messenger, while kicking a very awkward can down the road beyond the end of the annual meeting came under fierce criticism almost immediately, with many conference attendees asking why the organisation seemed to be at least as concerned with removing Mr Balter as they were with creating what their own bylaws state should be a safe space for all those attending the meeting, and in preventing a disciplined sex pest from attending an event at which three known survivors of his abuse were also present?
Compounding the anger of its critics; while many attendees took to social media to express their anger and frustration, and demand answers; with the exception of a short sequence of Tweets in the immediate aftermath of the banning of Mr Balter, the SAA’s own social media output continued throughout the annual meeting as if nothing had happened.
“Fix your policy. Communicate with local associations and universities, and do f*cking better.”*
*Comment from an attendee at the SAA annual meeting.
The principle question arising from the handling of the Yesner affair is why the SAA appeared to be caught completely flat footed and unable to react effectively when notified of Dr Yesner’s presence by Mr Balter and others?
In that light there is some anecdotal evidence that this was a moral disaster which was waiting to happen because the SAA’s ability to communicate effectively is deeply suspect in some quarters with experience of the organisations inner workings.
In a letter to to the SAA’s board and senior management resigning her post as Chair of the SAA Media Relations Committee, published on her blog, bioarchaeologist and writer Dr Kristina Killgrove wrote,
“Given the SAA’s lack of interest over the past two years in using the expertise that my committee and I bring to the practices of social media and media relations, I was unsurprised that SAA was caught off-guard by the registration of Dr. David Yesner, whose case has been widely circulated by archaeologists on both Facebook and Twitter for more than a month now. Yesner was a known threat with sanctions in place from his former employer, the University of Alaska Anchorage.”
In her letter Dr Kilgrove accepted that the SAA could not have known in advance that Dr Yesner would attempt to register for the annual meeting, however, she stated that, in her view, the response of SAA staff and the leadership team when the presence of Dr Yesner was raised in person by Michael Balter and also on Social Media on April 11, had been,
“…nothing short of appalling.”
Dr Killgrove concluded her resignation letter by stating,
“I truly hope that SAA will learn from its membership’s and public’s vociferous reaction to this situation, but I am no longer interested in giving my time and effort to an organization that has such clear contempt for the most important cultural movement of this generation.”
However, what is perhaps the most brutal criticism of the SAA’s handling of the Yesner affair came from survivor of Dr Yesner’s abuse who went public to describe being left in tears after reporting his presence to SAA officers and then hearing nothing further from SAA after the complaint was made.
However, there are anecdotal reports, again in Social Media, that the SAA may have received legal advice to try to close down the problem, to appear even handed with regard to both Dr Yesner and those making accusations against him, and above all not to make any comment to the public which might result in legal risk to the organisation, particularly if personal confidentiality was breached.
“gross mishandling…that super sucks”
If the SAA is concerned at the reputational aspects of the Yesner affair perhaps the most serious concern which the senior management has to address is the fact that a significant and vocal part of its membership appears to believe that the organisation failed to state clearly what had occurred when Dr Yesner tried to enter the conference center and what action they were taking to reassure and protect attendees.
Indeed, by failing to accomplish what might be expected to be a basic function of event organisation the SAA seems to have angered all levels of attendee, from undergraduate students to senior academics, who were present at the Albuquerque Conference Center, not to mention others who were watching what transpired in real time across the social networks of the archaeological world.
To illustrate the problem the SAA faces, Professor Emerita Lynne Goldstein, the Founding Director of Michigan State Campus Archaeology Program, vented her own frustration on Twitter in the wake of the affair,
“Going to be selfish for a moment, just to get it off my mind. Was delighted to be awarded @SAAorg Lifetime Achievement Award, but rest of this crap really ruined my ability to celebrate. I always try to be supportive, but all of this is overwhelming. Fix the problem, SAA.”
However, in a later Tweet Professor Goldstein alluded to what may have lain at the root of the SAA’s apparent failure to respond in a timely way to the Yesner row.
“…here is problem” she wrote ” – @SAAorg should be telling their attorneys we want to do X – how to do this without putting society at legal risk?
1) talk with the victims,
2) tell DY that all we’re watching him, and
3) inform members something was being done.
Attorneys said no.”
If Professor Goldstein is correct about the intervention of the SAA’s lawyers, and there is no reason to think that she is not correct, then what is presumably a well intentioned, if risk averse, attempt to protect the organisation, and its members who fund it through their subscriptions, from legal risk has actually made the situation worse.
By creating a situation which enforced the silence of the senior management of the SAA who are responsible for the physical and emotional safety of those attending the meeting, with no proper explanation, even of their silence, the SAA’s lawyers created an information vacuum into which rushed all the anger and frustration of survivors Dr Yesner’s abuse, and potentially the abuse of others, of concerned SAA members and of their supporters outside the walls of the Albuquerque Conference Center in archaeological cyberspace.
Thus an affair which was already deeply damaging to the organisation has lingered longer than it need have done; the damage done by the Yesner affair has become much deeper than it should have done; and the emotional wounds it has caused are likely to fester for longer than they need to have done.
It is a bleak scenario, and without seeing the legal advice obtained by the SAA it is not possible for the organisation’s members, let alone any outsider, to make a judgement over whether there were alternative courses of action, as Professor Goldstein suggested, or whether the damage done is an acceptable trade off against the potential legal risk of the SAA being subjected to hostile litigation.
The depth of the problem the SAA now faces is illustrated in another Tweet from a student attendee, who faced with SAA’s survey about the annual meeting stated,
“…you kinda just want to write “my first SAA wasn’t focused on awesome archaeology but instead a gross mishandling of what seemed to be a simple situation that distressed literally everyone and that super sucks”
Others are going further posting suggestions for organisations to join if members feel the need to resign from the SAA in protest at the organisation’s handling of the affair.
Meanwhile an open letter to SAA management calling on the organisation to update its protection policies and to ensure that its staff are trained in carrying out those policies, has attracted already over two thousand signatures from all over the world.
One to remember. See you next year! [Maybe?]
While it is clear that the reputation of the Society of American Archaeology has been damaged by the events at its 84th annual meeting, at least in the short term, it is too early to say whether the SAA handling of the presence of Dr Yesner at the Albuquerque Conference Center represents archaeology’s “Weinstein moment”, signalling the instant when archaeology as a sector finally began to address the dirty secret of abuse and exploitation which seems to have been kept for far too long.
However, with the precedent of what happened when the dam of silence and cover up of bullying and sexual abuse broke in Hollywood; with the BBC reporting that UK Universities have spent £87 million on legally binding Non Disclosure Agreements since 2017 at least some of which relate to bullying and abuse; and with UK based Social media carrying reports of similar behaviour, and concerns from survivors of sexual harassment and abuse about the presence of alleged perpetrators at UK conferences, it is all too likely that the events at the SAA annual meeting are indeed a beginning, rather than a botched, one off, attempt by a single organisation to keep the lid on a crisis of confidence and perception. Perhaps because it has been told it faces potentially severe legal risks from both sides of the controversy.
After all, lawyers tried to close down the Weinstein and other similar cases too.
Dr David Yesner has not made any public comment on the Title IX case, nor on events at the SAA annual meeting.
thePipeLine has asked the Society for American Archaeology a series of questions about the events of this weekend in Albuquerque. However, up to the time of publication the SAA has not provided us with any comment.
In earlier comments released on Social Media the SAA stated,
“SAA has been in the forefront in creating an anti-harrassment policy that is designed to make the meeting a safe space for all attendees, which includes SAA staff.
When complaints come in, we investigate immediately. At the 84th Annual Meeting, this process has resulted in SAA having to take appropriate action, including withdrawing multiple meeting registrations.
Our policy is designed to protect all parties’ confidentiality to the largest extent possible and as such we cannot comment on individual circumstances.”
In its most recent comment, issued on Twitter as this article was about to be published [on 16 April 2019], the SAA issued a belated apology stating,
“Apr 16, 2019 SAA apologizes for the unfortunate situation which occurred at the SAA annual meeting and for the delay in issuing this apology. In particular, we apologize for the impact, stress and fear the situation caused to victims of sexual harassment within our field.
The SAA Board of Directors and staff are in the process of setting up a member-lead, independent committee to address member concerns now and in the future in order to improve our meeting.
We have already begun to implement members’ suggestions including adding a counselor onsite at the meeting should an incident occur, board and staff training on sexual harassment, and additional policies to safeguard the integrity of our meeting. We welcome your continued feedback throughout the process – please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. “
However, if the ongoing critical comments in Social Media are anything to go by, the SAA has a long way to go to win back the trust of those who feel their own safety and well being was compromised by the fact that Dr Yesner was able to attend the annual meeting. A situation compounded by what appears to a series of further miscalls which have continued after the 84th annual meeting ended.
For a start, at least two of the survivors reported that, while the SAA had issued a general apology, they still had not received any personal communication, let alone apology over the way the issue had been handled.
There has also been much criticism of the SAA’s repeated use of the word “victim” rather than “survivor” with regard to those subjected to bullying and abuse.
While as if to prove Dr Killgrove right in her criticism of the SAA’s tin eared messaging, the SAA Tweeted this jolly goodbye to annual meeting attendees as though l’affair Yesner had never happened,
” Thanks to all #SAA2019 presenters, volunteers, attendees & exhibitors for making the Annual Meeting one to remember! See you next year! ”
The management of the SAA may yet decide that the Society’s 84th annual meeting is better described as one to forget.
While not a few of its members seem to be deciding that, unless the SAA can actually deliver on the promises set out in that apology, for them there might not be a “next year” at all.
If you have experienced bullying or abuse in education or at work in there are many organisations which can supply advice and support.
In the UK Victim Support, offers advice to the victims of many types of crime.
thePipeLine would also like to continue to cover this story and would welcome both ideas for Op-Ed articles and accounts of your experiences.
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