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Friday, September 20, 2019

Texas AM anthropology rife with sexual harassment, bullying, unethical behavior--and years of department leaders and deans ignoring or covering up complaints.

TAMU anthropology department chair, Darryl de Ruiter
Note: This post has been updated to include allegations against department member Filipe Castro, and additional details about the graduate student, Debraj Sarkar, who is accused of stalking and harassment of a fellow student.

Earlier this month, I reported that I was beginning an investigation into numerous allegations of misconduct in Texas AM University's (TAMU) anthropology department. Over a period of just 10 days, nearly 20 current and former students, faculty, and staff have provided important input into the investigation. They have provided multiple confirmations of the statements that I will make in the following preliminary progress report. As always, I do not report rumors nor second hand information, but only information from direct witnesses to the behavior I am describing. I want to salute the courage of every source who has chosen to talk with me.

Perhaps most shocking, the chair of the department, Darryl de Ruiter--who has taken on the role of responding to the allegations and trying to assure students and faculty that they will not be retaliated against if they report misconduct--was himself the subject of a recent Title IX investigation. Although the university swept credible allegations of sexual harassment under the rug, it did find de Ruiter guilty of "behavior unbecoming of a faculty member" and sanctioned him with professional retraining and a one year period of monitoring of his conduct. I will go into more detail about this below.

In addition to de Ruiter, multiple sources spoke to me about sexual harassment by now emeritus professors Bruce Dickson and Wayne Smith; severe sexism, demeaning of women, and unethical behavior by Filipe Castro; bullying and unethical behavior by professors Sharon Gursky and Michael Alvard; and stalking and threatening behavior by a graduate student, Debraj Sarkar. Investigation of other individuals and incidents is currently underway and it is likely that I will be naming others as well. Over the past years, all of this misconduct has been made known to department leaders including former department chair Cynthia Werner and graduate studies director Lori Wright, as well as the former Dean of Faculties John August, College of Liberal Arts dean Pamela Matthews, and other university officials. Almost nothing has been done about the misconduct, and complainants say they have been gaslighted at all levels and told that they are better off just letting the misconduct go.

TAMU has a long and well known history of a toxic culture of sexual assault and harassment, which recently has received important publicity in the past year. In response, the university has adopted stronger guidelines and made a lot of public statements about its commitment to fighting abuses and encouraging inclusiveness. How it handles the serious allegations in the anthropology department will be a good test of how serious university officials really are about changing the culture.


A note on reporting methods: Nearly all of the allegations below are based on confidential sources who have asked not to be named. Despite de Ruiter's assurance in a September 12 note to faculty, staff, and graduate students that "We will never retaliate against you," few members of the anthropology department--including former members--are comforted by that promise. Nevertheless, I am aware of the identities of all of the sources used to make the statements below. A few sources approached me anonymously, that is, without revealing their identities; I only used the information they offered as leads for further reporting, and never, anywhere in this report, as primary source information. But the reluctance of sources to publicly reveal themselves is testament to the fears that have allowed the abuses to go for years without being properly adjudicated. In what follows, I have gone into detail about allegations only to the extent that it will not identify specific sources; in other cases, which are more sensitive, I have given the gist of the allegations without details. But the details are there, and they are damning.


The 2015 sexual harassment survey: What did anthro department leaders know and when?

In early 2015, the anthropology department, along with TAMU's ADVANCE Center for Women Faculty, invited University of Illinois anthropologist and #MeTooSTEM researcher Kate Clancy to speak on campus. Clancy was already well known as the lead author of a groundbreaking 2014 study that had found high levels of sexual misconduct in field research situations, such as in anthropology, archaeology, and paleontology. The talk was originally supposed to have taken place on March 3 of that year, but weather conditions prevented Clancy from flying to Texas. Her talk took place later that year, in September.

But in preparation for Clancy's visit, department leaders, including then department chair Cynthia Werner and graduate studies director Lori Wright, prepared an anonymous survey to measure the experiences of students in the department. According to sources in the department, the exact results of the survey were never shared with faculty and students, although some recall terms such as "shocking" and "alarming" being used to describe it. And on April 13, Lori Wright hosted a noon "brown bag" discussion of the survey with the grad students. "Come hear what you and your colleagues said about our department climate and help us to brainstorm about solutions," Wright wrote the students in an email. Also, reportedly, when Clancy did come to speak, there was a subsequent discussion of the survey. As a former student who was present recalls, "The session was super awkward... and just brought up all kinds of divisions in the department with no real resolution."

I have obtained a copy of the actual numerical results of the survey. Some highlights:

--The participants numbered 103, of which 76 were female and 26 were male (one person declined to state their gender.)
--Twenty-eight were undergraduates, 43 were graduate students, 21 were faculty, seven were staff, and four declined to answer.
--While 77 respondents answered that they had "never" experienced sexual harassment in the TAMU anthropology department or by department members, 22 responded that they had "occasionally" had such experiences (only 99 responded to this question.)
--On the other hand, 48 respondents stated that they had "occasionally" witnessed or been made aware of sexual harassment in the department or by department members, while 51 said they had "never" witnessed such conduct.
--In answer to the question whether they thought sexual harassment "is taken seriously" in the anthropology department, 53 said yes, 17 said no, and 26 had no opinion.

I think that by any measure, the results of the survey indicated a significant problem with sexual harassment in the anthropology department, of which department leaders (having the numerical results in hand) would have been well aware. But as detailed below, they, and the university administration, continued to overlook issues and deflect complaints.


Sexual harassment: Wayne Smith and Bruce Dickson.

Wayne Smith, who is a nautical archaeologist, and Bruce Dickson, a prehistorian, have been notorious among students in the anthropology department for many years. Even though both are emeritus, they continue to have access to students and, reportedly, to harass them given the opportunity. Graduate students in the department have been warning incoming students about both of them for years. Typical behavior includes making open comments on the breasts of women in the department and leering and women's chests.

Many department faculty, including department chairs, have been made aware of this behavior repeatedly but chosen to do nothing. In some cases, faculty have argued that since both men are emeritus, there is no longer a problem, even though both continue to come into the department. Moreover, in some cases, Dickson in particular has mercilessly harassed female members of the department, and this behavior was reported to the department chair and to the Dean of Faculties. As far as colleagues in the department are aware, this led to no more than a warning.

One student, who took a class from Dickson in 2014, recalls three disturbing incidents. On one occasion he called a student an "insolent little shit;" on another, he asked a female student to do a demonstration in front of the class about how invading another's personal space makes them uncomfortable; and on yet another occasion, he told the class that he had several complaints on record against him for inappropriate behavior towards female students and suggested that women were ruining the field of archaeology by complaining.

"The department consistently protected Bruce Dickson, who openly displayed racist and sexist behavior," says one colleague. "He behaved inappropriately in very subtle ways towards female students" and "openly made racist and sexist comments in meetings." According to several sources, the graduate studies director, Lori Wright, and the former department chair, Cynthia Werner, refused or failed to do anything in the face of complaints. The various deans who were made aware of Dickson's behavior, including the Dean of Faculties, likewise failed to take action, sources say.

Wayne Smith has been accused by multiple students of similar behavior, along with visibly having pornography on his computer. "Wayne kept hundreds of pictures of nude young girls on his university computer," says one former student who has seen them personally. Although I am confident of the facts concerning him, to protect current and former students I will have to withhold details at this time because they would tend to identify sources.


Filipe Castro: Extreme sexism, harassment, unethical behavior.

Filipe Castro, a maritime archaeologist at TAMU, is accused by multiple colleagues of some of the most blatantly sexist behavior I have seen in a university professor. Sources say that Castro would make crude anti-Semitic jokes during his lectures, along with sexist remarks. He told some male students that he only hires "hot girls" as research assistants. On another occasion, he declared that "American girls are extremely dumb and only good for blowjobs."

Castro also directed his sexism directly at female students in the department, reportedly telling them that it was a "man's world" and they should just accept it. He often attempted to intimidate, humiliate, and demean female students; his behavior was an open secret in the department.

Multiple sources also attest that Castro attempted on several occasions to appropriate the work of students for his own purposes and credit. He was also extremely abusive to students under his tutelage, especially women. I cannot say more about this, to protect sources, but this behavior has been described to me in detail and there is no ambiguity about its extremely unethical nature.

As in almost all the cases described in this post, department leaders, including the department chair, were aware of this abusive behavior but Castro was apparently never sanctioned for it. Says one former student: "Instead of protecting us and punishing illegal behavior, they made him a full professor." And former students who had to endure abuse from Castro say they don't trust the university to do anything about it now; they still fear retaliation even though they have left TAMU. "It is still very painful, and I am still afraid," a former student says.

I don't know how many dozens of times I have heard similar statements from former graduate students from university departments all over the world.


Stalking and threatening behavior by graduate student Debraj Sarkar, lack of action.

Debraj Sarkar is a graduate student in the anthropology department who was originally supervised by faculty member Sheela Athreya. During the fall of 2018, Sarkar developed romantic feelings towards a fellow student that were not reciprocated. He began to engage in behavior that several members of the department, including Athreya, then department chair Cynthia Werner, and graduate studies director Lori Wright considered troubling and inappropriate. The behavior consisted of what under Title IX rules would normally constitute stalking and harassment. At one point, Sarkar even went to the advisor of the student he was interested in to discuss his chances with her, which was deeply upsetting to his victim when she found out about it. On another occasion, Sarkar threatened violence against a fellow student and the police were called.

At first Werner and Wright, as department leaders, appeared to try to manage the situation. But they were reportedly slow to recognize the seriousness of the misconduct, which only continued.

Sarkar was warned again by faculty to stay away from the student, and eventually the Dean of Student Life was informed and Sarkar was required to make an appointment to see the dean. According to sources, even though his advisor, in his annual evaluation, told him he should leave the program, Sarkar was allowed to re-enroll by Lori Wright and Cynthia Werner despite his misconduct. Although Wright sent out a number of emails to graduate students saying Debraj should be reported if he was spotted in the graduate student suite of offices, he reportedly violated that restriction as well, on more than one occasion. So far nothing has been done to remove Sarkar from the department and he is now reportedly running for a graduate student office.


Unethical behavior and bullying: Sharon Gursky and Michael Alvard

Sharon Gursky is a researcher in primate behavior and ecology, and was formerly married to Michael Alvard, an anthropologist whose work focuses on human culture and biology.

Gursky stands accused of some of the most egregious conduct I have reported on outside of sexual assault and harassment. In two cases for which I have been given documented evidence, Gursky either misappropriated or stole outright the research ideas of her students for her own use. In one case, sources and documents attest, she used the dissertation project of one of her students to get grant funding from the university. In another, she used the research of a student for a poster session at a meeting without permission.

Gursky is also a celebrated bully in the department. Her abuses include publicly mocking a student with an eating disorder, publicly discussing the academic struggles of a student in front of others (a possible violation of federal privacy laws), publicly shouting at and attempting to humiliate students, and forcing students to take her classes unnecessarily so they would have sufficient enrollment. Once again, department leaders were fully aware of this behavior but have done nothing effective about it.

Michael Alvard was in the center of a celebrated incident in the department in the spring of 2017. As part of his Culture Method and Theory class (ANTH604-600), Alvard required students to participate as subjects in an experiment that was part of his own research. The study, called "A Naturalistic Study of Norm Conformity and Enforcement," required some students to wear hats in the university's Memorial Student Center, behavior which is severely frowned upon at TAMU. Some subjects objected to participating in the study at the beginning of the semester, arguing that it violated the university's (and universal) policies against forced human participation in research (which must be approved by an Institutional Review Board, IRB.) Indeed, Alvard's syllabus for the class required all students to agree to participate in the study to get class credit for it.

When students objected, Alvard sent out a couple of threatening emails in an apparent effort to gain compliance. One, dated January 25, 2017, was directed at a student who had apparently objected somewhat vociferously. "Per rule 2.1 of the [TAMU] rules," Alvard wrote, "I have the authority to remove you from my class and I will do so if the behavior continues...Demanding that I modify the course work for all students to meet your needs is not appropriate."

Later that same day, upon realizing that the objections were widespread, Alvard wrote to the entire class: "Intellectual give and take is great, but I demand civility in my classroom. If you cannot behave in a manner that allows teaching and learning to happen, I will remove you from the class." However, Alvard offered students who "have a moral or ethical position that precludes you from wearing a hat in the MSC" an alternative assignment, albeit one that took more than ten times as much time.

The episode resulted in the convening of a committee composed department members to adjudicate the matter, which met on February 13, 2017. The committee recommended that the requirement to wear a hat in the MSC should be removed from the syllabus; that Alvard did not have proper IRB approval to use students as active participants; that Alvard had engaged in "an inappropriate use of the power of a professor;" that Alvard had set a "hostile tone" in his class and that he needed to apologize to the students.

Alvard refused to apologize, and in a very recent email to the department (written after I first named him in my reporting) he attempted to defend himself. See this earlier blog post for his comments.

Update: A former member of the department, upon reading this, comments:

I was seriously appalled at the information about Michael Alvard's class assignment about wearing hats in the Memorial Student Center.  The "rule" against wearing hats is in honor of all Aggies who have served in the US military, and the tower at the MSC is called Rudder Tower, after Earl Rudder, who led one of the main assaults on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.  Texas A&M has a lot of unusual traditions and rules that they perhaps take a bit too seriously, but no way should a faculty member ever ask a student to dishonor US military service people.



The department chair, Darryl de Ruiter, was accused of sexual harassment by a former grad student. He was found guilty of "behavior unbecoming of a faculty member" in a Title IX procedure last year.

On June 25, 2018, then then Dean of Faculties and Associate Provost, John August, published his decision on a Title IX complaint brought against Darryl de Ruiter by a former graduate student at another institution. I and others have known about these and other allegations of sexual harassment and bullying for some time, but am only able to report on them now.

De Ruiter is a paleoanthropologist who has worked in South Africa for many years. He is a prominent member of the Rising Star team which has uncovered a large number of hominin remains from a cave in South Africa in recent years. In the summer of 2010, a graduate student went to work at a field site in South Africa where de Ruiter had an important leadership role. In her complaint to TAMU, the former student described how she had been repeatedly harassed by de Ruiter during her time there, both by straight out bullying and harassment that took an openly sexual content. When other researchers were around, the student told TAMU, the harassment would sometimes stop, but would pick up again as soon as they left.

One one occasion, the survivor says, the research team was going to a party and she told de Ruiter that she had nothing appropriate to wear. "You could go topless," de Ruiter allegedly told her. On another occasion, she says, de Ruiter spent ten minutes graphically describing Japanese torture pornography to her and another student.

The student confided in a small number of colleagues, some of whom have told me that they were also aware of harassment by de Ruiter. Among her confidantes were a very senior, well respected anthropologist, who told me: "I can say with absolute confidence that I believed ______ when she told me about the bullying, and I believe her now."

In spring of 2018, tired of having to keep her story to herself, the now former student filed at Title IX complaint at TAMU. In his decision of June 25, 2018, August, despite clear evidence of sexual harassment and several corroborating witnesses, ruled that "the overall allegation of sexual harassment brought by the Complainant against the Respondent is unsubstantiated. However, in light of the testimony of the witnesses and conclusion of the [Investigative Authority], it appears that the Respondent 's behavior towards the students was out of context and unprofessional." (Note that the investigators heard evidence of harassment from other students as well.)

August concluded that de Ruiter was guilty of "behavior unbecoming a faculty member," in violation of university rules. His sanctions were being referred to "professional training" for a minimum of five hours and to be "monitored for a period of one year from the date the sanctions become final." De Ruiter was also required to meet with the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts every three months to monitor progress.

Despite this clear evidence of misconduct, de Ruiter has continued as department chair. Moreover, it appears that he has misled some colleagues, at TAMU and elsewhere, about the outcome of this Title IX case.

There will be much more to report about the situation in the anthropology department as things unfold in the coming days and weeks. For example, de Ruiter has called a faculty meeting for September 30 to discuss the climate in the department and how it can be improved. Is he the right one to do it? Is there anyone currently at TAMU willing and able to put a stop to the kind of sexual misconduct, bullying, and unethical behavior that has made students and many faculty members miserable for years? Time will tell.

Update Sept 22: It turns out that when the anthropology department voted last March to make Darryl de Ruiter chair as of this July, the faculty were not told that he was still, at that time, under monitoring from the Title IX case. It appears that his predecessor, Cynthia Werner, did know. Why was this information withheld from the department, given its potential to cause embarrassment (let alone the more important moral and ethical issues)? The deans certainly must have known, and yet they apparently signed off on it.























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