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."

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