Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Texas A&M has known about sexual harassment and bullying in its anthropology department for years. Will it exercise its duty of care to vulnerable students and staff now that the problem is public?

Over the past few days, I have reported on social media a number of allegations of sexual harassment and bullying in the Texas A & M University (TAMU) anthropology department, based on multiple direct and highly credible sources. I will publish a more complete report soon, but in the Tweets I have sent about this I have named emeritus professors Bruce Dickson and Wayne Smith in connection with serial sexual harassment, and current faculty member Sharon Gursky in connection with bullying and unethical behavior. I expect to name others as well.

This matter has attracted a lot of attention, especially of course at TAMU. As some sources put it to me, the university so far has been "circling the wagons" about the accusations, including the current anthropology chair, Darryl De Ruiter.  In meetings with both faculty and students, De Ruiter sought to downplay the situation in a "nothing to see here manner," according to sources.

In the meantime, today I received an email from a case manager at TAMU's civil rights and equity investigations department. Her email, and my response, are reproduced below. As you can see from my response, the university--or at least, certainly, the anthropology department--have been aware of the sexual harassment problem for some time now.

Good afternoon Mr. Balter,

My name is Gretchen Philipp. I am a Case Manager for the Department of Civil Rights & Equity Investigations for Texas A& M. I have been informed of the posts you have made on Twitter regarding allegations against faculty members in the Department of Anthropology.

I would like to meet with you to discuss these allegations and identify any potential complainants who have discussed the allegations with you. You may bring someone with you as an advisor if you would like. An advisor can be anyone, such as a family member, friend, mentor, or even an attorney. Our only request is that your advisor not be a potential witness or another party.

I am available to connect with you over the phone or in person. Please let me know what your availability is for this week and the next at your earliest convenience.  

Gretchen R. Philipp | Case Manager
Department of Civil Rights and Equity Investigations (CREI)
Texas A&M University | Medical Sciences Library, Suite 007
1268 TAMU | College Station, TX 77843-1268
ph: 979.458.8189 |
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My response:

Dear Ms. Philipp,

Thank you for your email.

I'm afraid that I cannot follow your suggestion that I help you identify complainants against individuals in the TAMU anthropology department. My sources for these allegations are colleagues who wish to remain anonymous because they live in fear of retaliation if they speak out about the abuses they have suffered. It would be entirely unethical for me as a journalist to break faith with their wishes in this matter.

I also find it odd that you suggest I bring an "advisor" to any discussion we might have, including possibly a lawyer. There seems to be an implication that I am somehow subject to a process or procedure by the university, or that I am subject to its jurisdiction in some way. I most certainly am not. Rather, I am a reporter investigating the matter according to the dictates of my profession.

I might, however, be able to be helpful in a more general way. Your email reads as if the university is just now becoming aware of harassment and bullying in the anthropology department. But in fact leaders of that department have been aware of such problems for a number of years.

For example, in early 2015, the anthropology department invited anthropologist Kate Clancy of the University of Illinois, a noted researcher and advocate in the #MeTooSTEM area, to give a talk about her work. Although the visit was ultimately delayed until later in the year, in preparation for it, an anonymous survey was conducted of everyone in the department to see what levels of sexual harassment existed. The then department chair, Cynthia Werner, along with Lori Wright, who is still head of graduate studies, were directly involved in this.

It turned out that the level of harassment reported in the survey was so high that it came as an apparent surprise to department leaders. Terms such as "shocking" and "alarming" were used at the time to describe the findings. However, the exact findings were never reported to faculty, staff, and students, for reasons that are not at all clear.

I am told that in meetings with faculty and students yesterday, the current department chair, Darryl De Ruiter, minimized the allegations that I have reported. This hardly seems in the spirit of taking the matter seriously, but rather appears to prejudge the situation entirely--even before you have had a chance to carry out your own investigation.

It is no surprise that colleagues in anthropology department live in fear of retaliation. Nevertheless, an increasing number of them have overcome those fears to talk to a reporter. I hope that you will see that TAMU's best interests, and certainly those of its students, faculty, and staff, lie in demonstrating that the university really is serious about ferreting out misconduct.

Best regards,

Michael Balter

In addition to the survey I mention above, while the department was waiting for Kate Clancy to visit, the following event took place. It provides proof positive that the department and its leadership have been fully aware that there is a serious problem of sexual harassment for some years. Whether or not the department, and the university administration, will exercise its duty of care for vulnerable students and staff remains to be seen.

From: Lori Wright
Date: Mon, Apr 13, 2015 at 10:39 AM
Subject: Freebirds at Noon --Anth 237--come and get it!

Today's brown bag will be a healthy (if calorie laden) discussion about the results of the 2015 departmental survey on sexual harassment.
Come hear what you and your colleagues said about our departmental climate and help us to brainstorm about solutions.  
Despite the image below, this will not be a finger pointing session!  We all have a roll to play in shaping our departmental culture and climate.  

Also don't hesitate to come in late if we have already started when you arrive! 

Lori Wright, Ph.D.
Professor of Anthropology,
Cornerstone Faculty Fellow in Liberal Arts,
Texas A&M University,
College Station, TX 77843-4352

Update Sept 15

On September 12, the following note was sent to faculty and staff by the anthropology chair, Darryl de Ruiter. A similar note was sent to graduate students. I will be publishing a fuller report on the allegations against anthropology faculty in the coming days. I will note for now, however, that I currently have 17 sources attesting to the history of misconduct in the department, consisting of both current and former department colleagues. They are afraid to be identified precisely because they fear the retaliation that department leaders are assuring them will not happen.  Can these promises be kept, when the accused researchers are still on the faculty (or have emeritus status) and still have the power to make or break careers of younger colleagues?

Department of Anthropology

Sent on behalf of Darryl de Ruiter, Professor and Department Head
Dear Anthropology Faculty and Staff:

We wanted to provide you with more information concerning public allegations of bullying and sexual harassment that have been posted on Twitter from the journalist Michael Balter. We discussed this in our faculty meeting on Monday, but we wanted to make sure everyone is aware of the situation and to update everyone on the process.

Last week, we were first made aware of tweets by Mr. Balter alleging harassment in the Anthropology department. Subsequent tweets and a blog post included specific allegations of bullying and unethical behavior by Dr. Sharon Gursky, as well as sexual harassment by retired, emeritus professors Dr. Bruce Dickson and Dr. Wayne Smith. They also included allegations that Drs. Cynthia Werner and Lori Wright protected Dr. Dickson. Most recently, Mr. Balter has alleged unethical behavior on the part of Dr. Mike Alvard. Finally, Mr. Balter has alleged that Dr. Darryl de Ruiter has been dismissive of the current situation and that university officials have launched an intimidation campaign against witnesses.

We want to reiterate that this has been, and continues to be, taken very seriously. Reports have been filed with the Title IX Office and the Dean of Faculties Office as per University policy in accordance with Texas law. In this process, we have been guided by the University policy that was put in place specifically to address such issues (a policy which was revamped and strengthened last year). These offices are charged with investigating allegations, and are currently in the process of doing so. Any allegations that were made in the past were similarly forwarded to the appropriate university offices, where they were investigated and adjudicated by those offices.

We want to emphasize in the strongest terms possible that it is entirely your decision if or how you wish to engage with Mr. Balter, or anyone else, about these allegations. We will never retaliate against you. We will do everything in our power to protect you from intimidation and/or retaliation from anywhere within the university community. Of foremost importance in this matter is that you feel safe and protected in a healthy environment, and that you feel safe to bring reports of any misconduct or climate problems to whomever you wish.

We have also attached a Statement on Harassment, providing information on your rights, university policies, and individuals to whom you can report problems. We will be sure to keep you more informed of the process going forward. Please feel safe in reaching out to any of us for further clarification. 

We have reached out to the Title IX Office, and they have indicated that they would be willing to speak with us as a department if we would like as we are working to coordinate this right now.

Yours sincerely, 
Darryl de Ruiter 
Department Head 

Lori Wright
Director of Graduate Studies 

Jeff Winking 
Associate Director of Graduate Studies 

Heather Thakar 
Chair of the Climate and Inclusion Committee

Cynthia Werner, 
Director of ADVANCE

A bit later the same day, Sept 12, department faculty member Michael Alvard sent the following note to department colleagues about allegations I reported on social media that he had engaged in unethical practices. The allegations concern his requiring students in a class he taught to be subjects in a research project he directed, which on the face of it violates ethical norms for human experimentation. I will include the details of this affair in the report I am preparing--and I stand by my reporting on what happened--but this gives Alvard a chance to air his views for the time being.

 Dear Anthropology Faculty, Staff, and others

Just a short note concerning the Balter affair. As Darryl, Lori, Jeff, Heather and Cynthia mention in their letter below, Balter has now reported on allegations of unethical behavior on my part concerning an incident that occurred in ANTH604 in SPR17.  Since much of the information he reports is inaccurate, I encourage each of you to come to discuss the matter with me.  

One of the reasons there is misinformation is because of the way the matter was mishandled by the department. Werner asked the Diversity and Inclusion Committee to investigate and adjudicate the complaint; the committee indeed concluded that I should apologize; I did not. Whoever is feeding information to Balter failed to mention to him that the committee never asked me what happened.  The committee did not allow me to respond to the complaints. There was no due process; it was done in secret and I knew little about the issue until frog marched into Werner’s office, told that there had been a complaint and a verdict.  The bylaws say the “Results of the (Climate and Inclusion) Committee’s deliberations are normally presented to the Faculty at Departmental Faculty Meetings for further discussion, debate, and decision.”  That did not happen; the bulk of the faculty were kept in the dark.  One result is  that Balter is now spreading misinformation and half-truths, and my reputation (such that it is 😊) is besmirched.  The process was not transparent.  I absolutely did have Texas A&M IRB approval for the research.  In terms of what happened in the classroom, I followed Rule 21

I note that students absolutely have the right to bring issues of perceived unethical behavior to the attention of University without fear of retaliation. I want to stress this point. ANTH604 was designed to take students outside their comfort zone and if students felt that ethical standards were breached in the process they were entitled to complain.   The process, however, should be transparent and fair. In my case, it was not.

I encourage each of you to  speak to me about the matter in more detail.

Michael Alvard, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Anthropology
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843

Update Sept 18: Another exchange between Gretchen Philipps of the TAMU civil rights/equity office and myself.

Sept 17

Dear Mr. Balter,

Thank you for your prompt response. I understand your dedication to maintaining the anonymity of your sources.  We asked for the names of your sources because we would like to offer supportive resources to any persons affected by discrimination or harassment.  We would also like to invite people to file a formal complaint with the Civil Rights and Equity Investigations office if they desire to do so.  Should any of your sources wish to speak with us, please give them our contact information.  We would also request that you share the attached Rights, Resources, and Options (RRO) document with any interested sources. 

When the University becomes aware that someone may have information about discrimination or harassment, our process is to reach out and invite that person to tell us more.  As you are neither an employee nor a student at Texas A&M, you are not required to participate in our process and you are not subject to our jurisdiction.  We advised you of your right to bring an Advisor to any meetings with us because we notify all Complainants and Respondents of their right to an Advisor.   The Advisor’s primary role is to support and guide the party, but not to actively participate in the investigation and resolution process.  Since our policy allows the party to pick their own advisor -- including a friend, family member, or attorney-- we specifically point out that right to avoid confusion  

Thank you for the information about the survey.  If you have any other information about a specific instance of sexual harassment, please let me know.


Gretchen R. Philipp | Case Manager
Department of Civil Rights and Equity Investigations (CREI)
Texas A&M University | Medical Sciences Library, Suite 007
1268 TAMU | College Station, TX 77843-1268
ph: 979.458.8189 |
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My response Sept 18:

Dear Ms. Philipp,

Thank you for your latest email.

As I explained to you previously, victims of misconduct are very reluctant to make complaints because they have no faith in the process. In some cases they have made valid complaints before and the administration found in favor of the abuser; and they have little trust in senior members of their department, because complaints raised internally (eg against Bruce Dickson and Wayne Smith) were dismissed out of hand by senior faculty who told them just to put up with the behavior (eg in the case of emeritus professors who would "soon be gone.")

So your process is missing the big picture, which is that some faculty in anthropology and I am sure other departments at TAMU are actively protecting abusers and taking their side against the students. This is a cultural issue which cannot be solved by requiring individual, and very vulnerable, students to put themselves forward and participate in a process they feel is stacked against them. The burden is on the university, and not those individual students, to change things.

Under these circumstances, I cannot in good conscience encourage victims of abuse to go through your process. Rather, in many cases, they have decided to approach a reporter and use the power of publicity to foster changes that the university is solely responsible for making.

Best regards,


Friday, September 6, 2019

It's not where #MeToo allegations are published that counts, but the weight of the evidence behind them: The cases of Jean-Jacques Hublin and ESHE, and David Lordkipanidze and IPHES.

Earlier this week, I published a commentary in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled "I now publish #MeToo stories on my blog, for free. Here's why." I explain why, after investigating several cases of sexual misconduct for Science and The Verge, I decided to strike out on my own, without editors or lawyers involved in my reporting. I hope you will read it if you have not already. One reason I wrote it was to address a recurrent excuse for inaction in the face of clear abuses by many institutions, in situations where the allegations have not have adjudicated in a formal manner (such as a court of law, a US Title IX procedure, etc.)

Of course, if these criteria were applied universally, Harvey Weinstein (whose indictment on charges of rape has yet to be tried in a court) would still be a Hollywood producer, and many other abusers who have been forced to resign their positions under public or community pressure would still be in power. As is clearly recognized in Title IX cases, a "preponderance of the evidence" is enough to find that an alleged abuser is likely to be guilty in situations where he or she is not in danger of being deprived of life or liberty. No one has an absolute right to be a Hollywood producer, president of the United States, or, in the cases I usually deal with, head of a lab.

Nevertheless, in the cases I have reported of two alleged abusers in Europe--Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and David Lordkipanidze, director general of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia--organizations they are affiliated with have chosen to ignore the serious charges against them on the flimsy grounds that they were published online. The organizations in question are the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution (ESHE), of which Hublin is president, and the IPHES human evolution institute in Tarragona, Spain.

Let me take each in turn.

Even before I published the allegations against Hublin in January 2019, a number of anthropologists and archaeologists had begun to question his suitability as president of ESHE, as some of the allegations against him were fairly well known in that scientific community. The board of ESHE was definitely aware as well. But Hublin was able to squelch the movement to remove him, in part because he had obtained a court gag order against the principal alleged victim of his misconduct. That gag order also allowed Hublin to gaslight his friends and colleagues into thinking that an inappropriate relationship between a senior scientist and a student had been a purely private affair that turned bad. That went on for 18 months.

More recently, Tanya Smith, a highly accomplished and respected anthropologist at Griffith University in Australia, published a blog post detailing Hublin's attempts, some years ago, to wreck her career. This gave added impetus to a longstanding attempt to organize a boycott of ESHE's annual meeting later this month in Liege, Belgium, which received some important news coverage in The Scientist after Oxford University radiocarbon expert Tom Higham (another highly respected scientist) came out publicly in support of the boycott.

The ESHE board felt compelled to issue a statement to the entire membership (full disclosure: I am a member myself) justifying why they were taking no action. As you can see from the text below, the fact that the allegations have been published "on the internet" is the key excuse for not taking action. But this might not be the end of it, as the issue is likely to come up at the annual meeting.

To the members of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution,
The ESHE Board takes the issue of scientific misconduct, including sexual harassment and bullying, very seriously. As expressed in an email to our membership in May this year, we are of course fully aware of issues at recent conferences in our field (the SAA in particular) and of some concerns about ESHE. In light of these, we added to our Statement on creating a safe and open working environment ( that individuals who are currently sanctioned for assault or any form of harassment by an adjudicating institution will be barred from taking part in ESHE events.
We are also aware of the allegations about the current ESHE president that have been published online and have discussed these with the board. ESHE has not received any formal complaints or accusations to act on and following a detailed investigation the Max Planck Gesellschaft confirmed to ESHE that J.-J. Hublin has never been sanctioned for any form of professional misconduct. We feel strongly that ESHE cannot act based only on reports circulated on the Internet. Hence, we see no grounds to initiate a process that could change the current leadership of ESHE. Note that ESHE is a democratic society, with board members, including the President - elected by the members of the Society at the general assembly. The current President was re-elected during our September 2017 meeting and his term finishes September 2020.
One positive outcome of the debates of the last years about misconduct in the sciences is a strong awareness of the need for us all to create better, safer and healthier working environments in our field. ESHE remains fully committed to providing such an environment. Like other societies, we are not an adjudicating body and rely on the findings of institutional and criminal investigations, and we have in place a system for reporting concerns or accusations by our members that can lead to these investigations.
This is where we are now, and we will continue to discuss how best to handle scientific misconduct. We consider this a work in progress and something to be discussed at the next general assembly of ESHE.
We look forward to see you in Liège!
The ESHE Board

In many ways, the case against David Lordkipanidze, which is air tight and has none of the ambiguities that some might see in the Hublin affair, has generated a more decisive response. As I describe in the story, the German national academy of sciences cancelled an entire human evolution meeting after protests from other participants that Lordkipanidze had been invited; and more recently the Humboldt Foundation disinvited him as keynote speaker at an event after his reputation was pointed out to them.

But the accusations against Lordkipanidze have not stopped IPHES from naming him as president of its Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) (Lordkipanidze had previously served as a member of the board.) That decision led to the resignation of one board member, but one only. I think it is fair to speculate that the leaders of IPHES appointed Lordkipanidze to the SAB originally because there is an important Spanish team working at Dmanisi, the famous hominin site that he directs, and that to force him off the board would almost surely cut off that team's access to the site, its spectacular fossils, and the data from them. But why they needed to go one step further and appoint him president of the board, only they can answer.

Although the director of IPHES has declined to discuss the matter with me, I did have an exchange with one newly named board member, Erella Hovers, an paleoanthropologist at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I have known Erella for a long time, so I thought that it might be possible to at least present the case that the allegations against Lordkipanidze were solid. I am reproducing our exchange below, because I think it demonstrates the problem I am writing about in this post. (Although Erella's response to me was on the record, I offered in a followup email, not reproduced here to put it off the record if she asked me to do so. She did not, and thus I am ethically free to reproduce it.) Again, the same logic--or, in my opinion, illogic--is used to justify doing nothing in the face of clear evidence of misconduct.

Hello Michael

thank you for all the messages regarding the  IPHES  SAB and the participation of David Lordkipanidze. I trust that you shared similar emails with all members of the committee (males and females alike, and I cc all of them to this letter).

I read (again) your blog on this issue and gave it a lot of thought.

Yes, I am aware of the rumors regarding Lordkipanidze’s behavior. I am not aware of "strong evidence" - if it exists, it does not seem to be shared openly and transparently. So you are asking me to act on the basis of YOUR knowledge and judgement, not mine. I do not KNOW if David is or is not guilty of all that you accuse him of (keeping your sources anonymous). In my role on  the SAB I was asked to comment on the science of IPHES,  not the morality or lack thereof of David Lordkipanidze. I don’t think the pressure on me to resign from the committee because of his presence makes is justified. Or, in fact, yours to make in the first place.

If there were victims, that is terrible, and their case should be heard, their concerns treated,  but it cannot be anonymously and on the basis of what are (to me) rumors. You are conducting a public lynching in the digital town square. Even if The German Academy of Science, to whom you referred in your emails, feels comfortable acting as if Vox Populi, Vox Dei when they caved to the protestors - I personally am not comfortable with this way of action.

I regret that you ended your email with : "This is getting wide attention in the anthropology community and I think colleagues will have much more to say about it. I’m trying to keep you well informed as it will not reflect well on anyone who accepts his presence on the board.”  Frankly, i find this non-too-subtle threat also a type of harassment. 


My response:

Hi Erella,

Thanks for getting back to me on this.

Should I consider your response on the record or confidential? I am happy to accommodate your preferences on the content of the letter, although the choices of the individual board members to stay on the board or resign obviously are a matter of public record since all of you are listed on the IPHES Web site.

There are so many things both factually and interpretively wrong with what you have you written that there is probably little sense in pointing them out to you. But let me try briefly on a few issues.

1. Most of the sources are anonymous, but not all. The identity of "Diane" is well known because she publicly accused DL of assault as I point out in the story, and gave me permission to name her. I only did not do so in an effort to spare her further pain.

2. There are named witnesses who corroborate Diane's story in a contemporaneous way. The anonymous witnesses are all respected colleagues in anthropology and archaeology, and as the reporter on the story I can vouch for that. Unless you want to call me a liar, I would call upon you to believe me on that score.

3. There has, of course, been no official adjudication of these allegations because there is no judicial body that would hear them. Which one would you suggest--the court system of Georgia? Dmanisi is a source of national pride for Georgia and the nation is not likely to put the director of its national museum on trial.

4. Finally, I need to be just as harsh with you as you are being with me. In my opinion, your apparent moral outrage at what you call "harassment" is, in my opinion, a smokescreen for your own moral failure to do what is right in this situation. The allegations against DL are based on multiple victims, a large number of witnesses, and he has not chosen to bring legal action against me for them--even though he has a very competent attorney here in the United States and could easily do so.

In closing, I think, and I hope, that pressure will be brought to bear upon IPHES to do the right thing in this situation. It won't be me who will boycott events in Tarragona, meetings etc, but members of the anthropology community who believe the accusations against DL because they themselves know his victims and consider them to be credible.

Please let me know your decision on the status of your email.

best wishes,


[As I stated above, despite an additional email to Erella asking if she wanted to put her note to me off the record, she did not respond.]

Fortunately, in many cases, my reporting--whether for mainstream publications or for my blog--has led to concrete results. I hope that ultimately ESHE, IPHES, and other organizations will realize that it's not where the evidence is published, but how strong the evidence actually is, that really counts.