Friday, March 29, 2019

University of Alaska, Anchorage administration's slow response to #MeToo charges against an archaeology professor [Updated]

Beatrice McDonald Hall, home of UAA anthropology
Earlier this week I reported on a very egregious case of sexual misconduct at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, involving archaeologist David Yesner. The story was broken by Alaska station KTVA, which did an excellent job of laying out the basic facts of the case. These involved decades of sexual harassment and at least one episode of sexual assault by Yesner against students in the UAA anthropology department.

As a result of a Title IX investigation eventually launched by the university, Yesner, who retired in 2017, did not receive the emeritus status he requested.

The findings against Yesner are detailed in a 30 page investigative report, which both the KTVA reporter and I have obtained. In early December 2017, according to the report, some of Yesner's victims, upon learning that he was about to be honored with emeritus status, wrote to the university administration to object. The initial response from the Chancellor, which I have reproduced below (redacted to protect the identity of the students), indicates that he was not inclined at first to revoke the emeritus status, arguing that, in effect, all the ceremonial arrangements for this had already been made.

"He blew us off," one student told me.

However, given that he had already received several letters from victims, the Chancellor hastily arranged a meeting between the students and the provost, the dean, the Title IX coordinator, and the chair of the department. On April 25, 2018, according to the report, Yesner was informed that he had potentially violated university policy. On March 15 of this year, after nearly a year of investigation --stalled by Yesner's highly questionable claim that he had health problems that prevented him from being interviewed (he eventually declined to be interviewed)-- the investigators found Yesner guilty as charged of a number of allegations.

Indeed, one of the chief frustrations of the students and the faculty supporting them was that the university allowed Yesner to delay the judgement against him for so long, even though there was ample evidence that Yesner was still active and attended at least one conference during that time.

The letters below are reproduced here with the permission of the students involved. I also want to acknowledge the heroic role played by some of the anthropology faculty (whom I hope to be able to name soon), who strongly supported the students and stuck by them during the entire Title IX process (and beyond.)

The first letter is to Chancellor Sam Gingerich from three of the students. His response follows.

          December 7, 2017
Office of the Chancellor
3211 Providence Drive, ADM 216
Anchorage, Alaska 99508
Re: Emeritus Announcement
Chancellor Gingerich,
The purpose of this letter is to request that the University of Alaska Anchorage wait on announcing the award of Professor Emeritus to Dr. David Yesner of the Department of Anthropology, until it can be determined that he meets the requirements of the role. While there has not been an official announcement that he has been awarded Emeritus, we have witnessed Dr. Yesner moving the contents of his office into the emeritus space within the Beatrice McDonald Hall. We have also overheard conversations between Dr. Yesner and another emeritus faculty member concerning sharing the space.
The title and rank of Emeritus is said to be bestowed upon professors who promote student success, advance their department, and represent the ideals of the University. We believe that this title should not be awarded to a professor who does not exemplify these characteristics, and ask that you take this under consideration before awarding Emeritus to Dr. Yesner. It has come to our attention that Dr. David Yesner has had Title IX complaints filed against him by colleagues of ours. While we do not know the status of these investigations, we have heard of the incidents from the individuals who filed them. Additionally, complaints have been made to Dean Petraitis in regards to quality of instruction in the classroom.
Importantly, the University of Alaska Anchorage's 2020 initiative identifies the main goal as to "Advance a culture of institutional excellence that inspires and enables student, faculty, and staff success". Also, UAA's Office of Equity and Compliance website states that their mission is ensuring a climate of equity, respect, and safety. "The UAA Office of Equity and Compliance affirms its commitment to a safe and healthy educational and work environment in which educational programs, employment and activities are free of discrimination and harassment". We question if awarding Emeritus to Dr. Yesner reflects the goals and mission of the University of Alaska Anchorage, and respectfully request that a delay of this announcement be considered.
If you have any questions, or would like to discuss further issues, the signatories of this letter are available to meet in person at your convenience.
Response from the Chancellor, December 8:

I have reviewed this email. 

I do want to note that UAA's published procedures and guidelines for review of candidates for emeritus status were followed and the recommendation to award emeritus status that I received showed uniform support throughout the process.  Letters of support from colleagues were included and the file was reviewed by faculty both at the college and at the university level.  Further, this process was completed weeks ago, the Commencement Program has been finalized and the names of those faculty who will be recognized with emeritus status are included.

Third party reports/allegations of Title IX violations that are being raised including by the three of you have been and continue to be forwarded to the Title IX office for review.  Ron Kamahele, UAA's Title IX Coordinator is copied on this message.  encourage you to file reports with him.

Since emeritus status is an academic recognition, I have asked the provost and dean of arts and sciences to meet with you to discuss the concerns you are raising.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Sam Gingerich
Interim Chancellor

The Title IX investigative report makes it clear that Yesner's behavior went on for decades, and also that many in the Anthropology Department knew about it or should have known about it. The report makes clear that at least two chairs of the department were made aware of specific instances of misconduct by Yesner, but nothing came of those complaints. A sense of the hostile atmosphere for women can be had in this segment of the report:

"The complainants’ allegations span a time period of nearly 30 years, from the early 90’s up to [Yesner's] retirement. The complained [sic] of conduct includes [Yesner] staring at women’s breasts when he spoke to them, invading their personal space, rubbing their lower backs, taking and maintaining exploitive photographs of his students, hugging his students, advisees, and coworkers, making sexually explicit comments, and propositioning women for sexual encounters. This behavior was so well known to the female students and staff that each class felt the obligation to warn new students and staff not to be alone with [Yesner]. 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."

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

University of Alaska, Anchorage archaeologist David Yesner found guilty in Title IX investigation of harassment, assault, and other charges.

David Yesner
In a case I have been following for some time, an investigation at the University of Alaska, Anchorage has found UAA archaeologist David Yesner guilty--by a preponderance of the evidence--of sexual harassment, assault, and other charges.

The news was broken last night/this morning by station KTVA ("The Voice of Alaska") in a story which provided many details from the investigative report, dated March 15 of this year.

Yesner, who retired in 2017 and had sought emeritus status at the university, was well known in the archaeological and anthropological community for his work on the Peopling of the Americas (an area which I have covered extensively, as a science writer, for Science and other publications. I had quoted him in some of those stories.)

I recommend reading the KTVA story, which does a pretty good job. This is certainly one of the most grievous cases of misconduct in academia I have come across.

Meanwhile, I have obtained a copy of the 30 page March 15 investigative report. I want to excerpt here the charges which the investigation upheld in their entirely, with the exception of one small detail concerning the transmission of pornography. In this slightly redacted report, R1 is Yesner, and the various individuals represented by the letter "C" are alleged victims and survivors of his behavior. According to the report, Yesner declined numerous invitations to be interviewed by the investigators and tell his side of the story.

Update March 26: According to the investigative report, Yesner asked for delays in being interviewed, citing health problems, the nature of which were redacted in the report. However, I am told by sources in the department that although Yesner stalled the investigation for months on the grounds of health problems, he remained active and visible in the anthropology community, even attending at least one conference during that time. I have contacted Yesner for comment, and I will update this post if he agrees to provide it, along with any other details.

Allegation No. 1: R1 Engaged in Sexual Discrimination/Harassment by Inappropriately Staring at Multiple Students’ and Professional Colleagues’ Breasts and Engaging in Verbal and/or Physical Conduct of a Sexual Nature that Resulted in the Adverse Treatment of Female Students and Employees and Created a Hostile Work Environment.

 Allegation No. 2: R1 Engaged in Sexual Discrimination/Harassment by Conducting Inappropriate and Sexually Suggestive Conversations with C6.

Allegation No. 3: R1 Engaged in Sexual Discrimination/Harassment by Making Sexually Explicit and Suggestive Comments to C7 and Retaliating Against her when she did not Reciprocate his Sexual Advances.

Allegation No. 4: R1 Engaged in Sexual Discrimination and Harassment by Touching C8 on her Breasts, Making Sexually Explicit Comments, and Retaliating Against her Professionally when She Failed to Respond to his Sexual Advances.

Allegation No. 5: R1 Sexually Assaulted, Harassed, and Discriminated Against C9 by Engaging in Non-Consensual Oral Copulation and Inappropriate Touching without C9’s Consent, Making Sexually Explicit and Suggestive Comments, and Using his Position of Authority as a Means to Procure a Sexual Encounter.


R1’s Conduct Created a Hostile Environment

R1’s Possession of Inappropriate Female Students’ Images Violated University Regulation Regarding Sexual Exploitation

R1’s Possession of Obscene Material on University Information Systems Violated University Regulation R02.07.054(F)

Dated this 15 th day of March, 2019 at Anchorage, Alaska. By: Danée Pontious AK Bar No. 0411076 [This is the private attorney hired by the university to complete the investigation begun by other Title IX investigators]

                                                                      * * *

#MeToo session at the upcoming meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Albuquerque.

Since many reading this are likely to be archaeologists and anthropologists, I wanted to post this session which I hope everyone there will try to attend. It could not be more timely. I am honored to be among the panel participants.

#MeToo in Archaeology at the SAA

Forum Summary

Archaeology has long offered safe harbor to perpetrators of sexual violence, harassment, and misconduct. These individuals have often relied on their positions of power and authority to intimidate or attack students and colleagues. The dynamics of archaeology’s field work settings—where social expectations may feel lax, murky, or seemingly removed from the norms of the “real world”—have also created a problem unique to the discipline. Those who have experienced sexual violence, harassment, and misconduct may feel pressure to keep silent about their experiences for many (valid) reasons. Regardless, what was once anecdote and open secret has been confirmed in recent years by systematic research. With all of this in mind, it is now time for archaeology to enter into the conversation catalyzed by the larger #MeToo movement.

To this end, Heather Thakar, Pamela Geller, and Jason De León have co-organized a forum for the 84th Annual Meeting of the SAA. “#MeToo in Archaeology,” which is sponsored by the SAA Ethics Committee, will provide a platform for people to anonymously share their stories of sexual violence, harassment, and misconduct. Narratives will be submitted prior to the meeting, to then be read aloud by members of a pre-selected panel. The forum’s aims are three-fold: to acknowledge and validate these experiences in a public and safe space; to demonstrate just how prevalent these occurrences are in archaeology’s academic and field settings; and to provide a first step on a much longer path towards structural change. “#MeToo in Archaeology” is scheduled for 13 April 2019 (Saturday) from 1:00-3:00pm. [
room 110 Galisteo in the conference hotel]

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Talking Back to Madness

By French artist Thomas Zapata, who suffers from "paranoid schizophrenia"/WikiMedia Commons

The following story appeared in the March 14, 2014 issue of Science. The text is reproduced here in accordance with the rights I retained as author of the piece. I think readers should still find it timely.


As the search for genes and new drugs stalls, psychotherapies are getting new respect and attention

NEW YORK CITY and NEWCASTLE, U.K.—Terry was 13, a lonely African-American boy growing up in a troubled home in Detroit, when he first heard the voices. They were ugly and mean. The voices said he was no good, that no one loved him, and that he should kill himself. So he tried his best: When he was 15, he took 30 valium pills and had to have his stomach pumped. Then the voices commanded him to kill his father. They told him exactly how to do it—put rat poison in his food. Fortunately, some other, gentler voices intervened and told him not to.

After high school, Terry began attending university in Detroit, but that didn’t last long. Still haunted by the voices, he was soon addicted to heroin, and his marriage ended in divorce. In 1980 he moved to New York, looking for a new start. He got a job at a doughnut shop, then at a community center, but eventually the voices got worse and so did his drug habit. He found another woman to be with, but she was also taking drugs, and eventually abandoned Terry and their two daughters.

Terry (not his real name), now 60, is telling me his story over lunch at a restaurant  on 42nd Street, across  from Grand Central Terminal. He’s tall and stocky, with kind eyes and a gentle sense of humor that mask his tortured soul. But things are better for Terry now. About 14 years ago, he met the psychotherapist he credits with saving his life. During a drug-fueled crisis, with the ugly voices raging in his head, his eldest daughter checked him into the Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, where psychologist Jessica Arenella was working. “I was there six weeks,” Terry says. “She would sit by my bedside, listening to me rambling on.”

Four years later he was hospitalized again, just when Arenella was about to go into private practice. She suggested that he start seeing her. “I said, you’re a white bitch, how the hell can you help me?” Terry recalls. “She said, I may be a white bitch, but I can back my play with you. She was tough.”

Terry has been seeing Arenella for psychotherapy sessions for the past decade. The voices haven’t entirely gone away, he says, but she has taught him how to live with them, and how to follow the gentle voices and ignore the nasty ones. “Without Jessica, I wouldn’t have made it,” Terry says.

Terry is suffering from schizoaffective disorder, one of a number of  so-called schizophrenia spectrum disorders. By treating his psychosis with “talk” psychotherapy, Arenella, along with a small number of other psychologists and psychiatrists, is bucking a decades-old trend, in which anti-psychotic drugs have long been seen as the first line of defense against the illnesses. In a radical departure, Arenella and other advocates of psychological approaches are engaging with the patient’s symptoms, such as hearing voices, hallucinations, or paranoid fantasies, and taking them seriously rather than dismissing them or relying entirely on medication to stamp them out.

A number of clinical trials have shown modest but measurable effects on symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions. One of these techniques, a short-term approach called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), has been recommended since 2002 by health authorities in the UK for all new cases of schizophrenia, and long-term psychotherapy has been adopted as standard treatment in a number of Scandinavian communities. It’s generally combined with traditional drug treatment , but one study, published earlier this year, even suggests that CBT could substitute for anti-psychotic drugs in some cases. “There is a strong possibility that psychological treatments are likely to be at least as effective as drugs, and they are certainly preferred by patients,” says Peter Tyrer, a psychiatrist at Imperial College in London.

Nevertheless, the idea that schizophrenia, long regarded as a disease of the brain, can be treated psychologically remains very controversial. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) are of psychological approaches are difficult to carry out, and most trials show only modest effectiveness at best.“These studies have no more credibility than studies of homeopathy,” says Keith Laws, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK, and coauthor of a recent meta-analysis concluding that CBT has only a very small effect on psychotic symptoms.

Stress and vulnerability

About 1% of people worldwide fall victim to schizophrenia or a related disorder over their lifetimes. They may suffer both “positive” symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions; and “negative” symptoms, such as emotional withdrawal and severe inability to focus on daily tasks.

Most schizophrenia experts subscribe to the “stress-vulnerability model” of the disorder, in which some individuals have a greater predisposition—either because of genes, childhood trauma, or environmental factors--to psychosis than others. In vulnerable people, psychotic episodes are often set off by some sort of stressful event, usually in late teens or early adulthood.

But past psychological approaches, such as psychoanalysis, have shown limited success in treating the disease. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, eventually gave up on using it to treat psychotic patients, although a number of later post-Freudian psychiatrists continued to use it with sporadic success. When anti-psychotic drugs arrived beginning in the 1950s, with their clear ability to dampen the worst psychotic symptoms, psychotherapy became increasingly marginalized.

But drugs have serious side effects, and at least 50% of patients either refuse or fail to take them, according to recent studies. Moreover, the search for genes behind schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, which might lead to new drug therapies, has failed to produce any smoking guns and has led only to the discovery of a large number of genetic variants, each conferring a very small additional risk. “We’re trying to fix something, but we don’t know what’s broken,” says Brian Koehler, a psychologist at New York University who also sees schizophrenia patients in private practice.

That is slowly pushing the pendulum back toward psychological treatments. Most advocates of psychotherapies insist that they are not claiming that schizophrenia is purely a psychological malady caused by a dysfunctional family background. “We’re looking for a much more nuanced form of psychiatry that doesn’t reject biology, but that is able to situate the biology within the realm of lived human experience, which is socially and culturally determined,” says psychiatrist Pat Bracken, director of mental health at Bantry General Hospital in Bantry, Ireland.

Today’s psychotherapists use two main approaches to treat schizophrenia. The first, called psychodynamic therapy, is derived from earlier psychoanalytic techniques but discards older Freudian ideas that sexual repression is behind psychosis. Instead it focuses on both childhood experiences and the way that psychotic symptoms serve a useful function for the patient, for example by masking unbearably painful thoughts and feelings.

Psychodynamic sessions typically go on for many years, as in Terry’s case, and scientific evidence for their benefits is limited—although a number of practitioners told Science about anecdotal success stories. The gold standard for medical evidence is the RCT, and these have been difficult to design for psychodynamic treatment. For one, the treatment is lengthy and costly, and few patients receive it—thus making adequate sample sizes difficult to assemble. Nevertheless, advocates of psychodynamic therapy increasingly recognize their importance. “We live in an evidence-based era, we can’t duck out of that,” says Brian Martindale, a UK-based psychiatrist and chair of the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis (ISPS).

And one influential study, led by psychiatrist Bent Rosenbaum of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and published in the journal Psychiatry in 2012, did find signs that it is effective.

Rosenbaum’s study compared 150 patients receiving what is often called “treatment as usual” (TAU)--including meetings, education about their condition, and low doses of anti-psychotic medication--with 119 patients who also received intense psychodynamic therapy. After 2 years both groups had improved, but the psychodynamic cohort achieved markedly greater reductions in psychotic symptoms. Still, questions remain about whether such improvements last after the treatment ends, and whether they are really due to the treatment rather than,  psychiatrist Richard Warner of the University of Colorado puts it, “because they had contact with a human being who was kind and interested in them.”

The second approach, CBT, is a shorter, more pragmatic method that takes patients through a series of guided steps designed to explore alternative interpretations of what he or she is experiencing, with the goal of changing both outlook and behavior. CBT, which has proven effective for depression and anxiety disorders, typically takes months rather than years, and it has shown more clear cut effectiveness.

“There’s always a little bit of truth at the heart of the delusion,” explains Douglas Turkington, a CBT pioneer at the University of Newcastle in the UK. “If someone has a funny idea we call a delusion, you have to talk about it and put it on the table,” says Ross Tappen, a psychologist at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center in New York City.

And if delusions are taken seriously, Tappen adds, they can often be treated. “A delusion is the psychological equivalent of an inoperable tumor that is out of control and takes over your normal functioning,” he says. “What therapy does, at its best, is to shrink the psychological tumor.”

Sandy’s CBT

An invisible companion, named “John,” had been tormenting Sandy (a pseudonym) since he was 10. John would talk and sing loudly, often during the night, keeping him awake. Once John told Sandy to put the wrong answer on a school exam, and he obeyed. When Sandy, who lives in Newcastle, was 18, doctors referred him to the Psychosis Research Unit in Manchester, a joint program of the University of Manchester and local mental health services. There he came under the care of psychologist Paul Hutton.

Sandy was convinced that John was real and had nearly complete control over his life. He declined to take medication, but did agree to undergo a series of CBT sessions. Hutton was able to figure out that John made Sandy feel less lonely, and also that John was helpful in some situations, taking his side during Sandy’s frequent arguments with his parents. But having John in his life convinced Sandy that he was “weird.”

Hutton encouraged Sandy to avoid trying to push John away and instead let him come and go as he pleased. Sandy was also taught to test how much control John really had over him with so-called mindfulness exercises in which he remained detached during John’s exhortations. Meanwhile, Hutton gave Sandy educational materials indicating that having invisible friends was normal, and that he was not really weird at all. Each week, Sandy was asked to rate how convinced he was that John was real, how often John appeared, and for how long.

With these numbers steadily dropping, by week 4 Sandy agreed to get rid of John entirely. After week 11 he had done so, and the psychotic episode seemed to be over—at least for the time being. And Sandy agreed to have his case published, which it was in 2011 in Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy.

Hutton concedes that Sandy is “at the positive end of the spectrum” of CBT successes, because he was fairly young and his hallucinations were “very amenable… to the sort of well-tested approaches we use.” But he adds that he often sees “fairly dramatic responses” to CBT even in the absence of anti-psychotic drugs.

As early as 2000, for example, Turkington and others published a study of 90 patients in the Archives of General Psychiatry showing that while 9 months of either CBT or a sympathetic support technique called “befriending” could improve both positive and negative schizophrenia symptoms, only the CBT group maintained its improvement at the end of another 9 months after the trial period had ended.

In 2012, another team demonstrated that CBT could be effective for so-called “negative” symptoms of schizophrenia, such as emotional distance, apathy, and social withdrawal, which are usually much harder to treat. And the most recent CBT trial, published last month in The Lancet, concludes that CBT might serve as a substitute for anti-psychotic drugs in some cases, rather than just an adjunct to it as in most clinical studies.

In this study, 74 schizophrenia spectrum patients being treated in Manchester and Newcastle, and who had declined to take drugs, were randomized by computer into two groups, one receiving TAU and the other TAU plus CBT. After 18 months the CBT group showed moderately better scores on various tests for psychotic symptoms, equivalent to the advantages of taking anti-psychotic drugs over placebos.

Clinical psychologist Anthony Morrison of the University of Manchester, who led the study, stresses that a drug-free approach might only be appropriate for patients who are relatively high-functioning and have not shown any risk to themselves or others. Nevertheless, the results are “utterly convincing,” says Max Birchwood, a psychologist at the University of Warwick in Conventry, UK.

Other researchers, however, are deeply skeptical of the claims for CBT. In January, a team led by Keith Laws and psychiatrist Peter McKenna, now at the University of Barcelona, published their meta-analysis in the British Journal of Psychiatry, concluding that past trials of CBT for schizophrenia were seriously flawed. The study found that  the differences between treatment and control groups were very small, and that these were reduced further when sources of bias—such as inadequate blinding or masking—were controlled for.

The authors wrote that “the UK government’s continued vigorous advocacy of this form of treatment… might be considered puzzling,” and that “claims that CBT is effective against these symptoms of the disorder are no longer tenable.”

Laws attributes the strong CBT advocacy in the UK to “the intellectual and emotional investment” by clinicians. Rather than “investing money and time in a false hope, [clinicians] could be looking for psychological interventions that could work,” adds Laws.

Arenella, who treats Terry and some of her other patients with a combination of psychodynamic and CBT approaches, says that in the end it doesn’t matter whether talk therapies work because of the theory behind them or just because someone is taking the patient and their symptoms seriously. “It may be a placebo effect, but I will go for all the placebo effect I can get,” she says. “I’ll take it.”

In the end what limits the spread of talk therapies for psychosis could be a scarcity of resources, and of therapists willing to try them. Treating such clients is very stressful and seldom financially rewarding. Government agencies and insurance companies need to cover such treatments, even though they are more expensive in the long run than drugs. “A lot of people don’t want to take these patients,” Arenella says. “Working with them is scary. People get violent, people get hurt, computers get thrown to the ground, ceiling tiles get pulled out.” And Martindale says that “contact with madness is very disturbing, it conjures up all sorts of feelings.”

Yet advocates of psychological approaches say that they often see them working in the people they treat. “I have a lot of patients whom I would say recovered from psychosis,” says Pat Bracken. “I see people who move on with their lives, get their quality of life back, are able to live independently.” Indeed, the popular notion that a schizophrenia diagnosis is a life sentence of mental illness is not born out by the statistics: In one typical study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2004, researchers found that nearly 50% of first-episode schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder patients were symptom free after 5 years.

 “But many people don’t get there no matter what we do,” says Bracken, “until that spark in them finally says, I want my life back.”

My lunch with Terry was coming to an end, so I pulled out my American Express card to pay the bill. Terry was still smiling, although he looked very tired from telling me his story over the previous two hours. As I paid up, I told him about an ISPS meeting in San Francisco I had recently attended, as part of my reporting for this story.

“I’d like to fly to San Francisco and take people out to lunch with my own American Express card,” Terry said. “I’d like to get married again, or have a girlfriend. I’m going to get all that. It’s going to happen because, like I told Jessica, I’m not going to settle for anything less.”