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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

An egregious case of bullying and unethical behavior: TAMU anthropologist Sharon Gursky [Updated Nov 3]

Sharon Gursky
Last month, I reported on a litany of allegations of abuse by some faculty members in the Texas AM anthropology department. They included sexual harassment, bullying, and various kinds of unethical behavior including the stealing of student work and ideas and forcing students to participate in experiments in possible violation of international law. The accused faculty included the current chair of the department.

The response from some department leaders was to tell students and fellow faculty that I had no real sources other than a few disgruntled students who had left the department. And a dean (Pamela Matthews, College of Liberal Arts) reportedly told a meeting of the faculty that they had nothing to worry about because the allegations had been published by just one reporter.

But the current grad students themselves set their faculty straight in a letter urging them to take the allegations seriously. Nevertheless, one accused anthropologist, Sharon Gursky, hired an attorney who threatened to sue me if I did not delete the allegations against her. Of course I have not, for the simple reason that the accusations of bullying and unethical behavior against Gursky are well substantiated via multiple witnesses over a significant period of time.

In this post, I will elaborate on those accusations to make the case clear. As always, I do not report rumors, but information based on actual witnesses to the behavior I am describing. The behavior represents a pattern of bullying, retaliation, pettiness, self-dealing, plagiarism, theft of intellectual property, and other violations of student rights. To quote one faculty member, Gursky has engaged in a "reign of terror" against her own and other students. To make matters worse, much of the anthropology faculty has long been aware of Gursky's misconduct; so has the university administration.


Belittling, bullying and threatening students

The abuses testified to by students include belittling their field skills and their writing; retaliating against students who advise prospective students not to come to TAMU; forcing students to take her classes so she can have a full head count; violating privacy by telling a group of students that she intended to fail one of their colleagues; forcing a student to drop a class taught by another faculty member who had advocated on behalf of abused students; belittling a student who won an award by saying it was not deserved; and intimidating students who complained about the behavior by calling them into her office for interrogations.

To protect the brave students who have shared their stories, I have given just a few examples above out of many, and I have been circumspect with the details. But there are so many episodes along these lines that Gursky is a clear and present danger to the mental health of those junior colleagues the university has entrusted to her care, in a very negligent fashion given TAMU's knowledge of the abuses.



Egregious mocking of a student with a disability

One of the most widely discussed abuses by Gursky involved a student with an eating disorder, a situation described to me by several witnesses. As one put it: "Over the years [Gursky] often made disparaging comments about this student regarding her eating habits (she was aware of the disorder.) She noted that she wouldn't invite her to Thanksgiving because the girl wouldn't eat anything, made a comment following a study on caloric restriction on primates that this student 'would live forever' [see image below], and a number of other things. On Valentine's Day, 2017, she gave all the students in her lab boxes of chocolate...[but] she emptied the box and replaced it with celery sticks" for the student with the eating disorder.

Students reported this abuse to TAMU's human relations department as well as to the then department chair, Cynthia Werner, but nothing was done. Again, this abuse was observed by multiple witnesses.

This image illustrates Gursky's direct naming of the student in reference to the eating disorder. Her name is blacked out here.



Unethical behavior: Misappropriating a student's thesis project, plagiarizing a student's thesis.

In the letter to me threatening a defamation suit if I do not take the allegations down, Gursky's lawyer refers in some detail, using six points, to an allegation that she misappropriated the thesis project of one of her students for her own research. That ethical breach eventually led to the student leaving the TAMU anthropology department, despite entreaties from other faculty who knew he had been wronged and almost begged him to stay.

Let's call this student "Thomas," not his real name, to protect his privacy. Thomas filed an ethics violation report with the university about the stealing, describing it in detail. He had come to TAMU to work with Gursky, and they had agreed ahead of time on a thesis project that involved primate ultrasonic vocalizations. Thomas had many discussions with Gursky about this, along with conversations with other researchers who were advising him and offering help. In the fall of 2017, Thomas proposed a more specific version of his thesis, involving how insects responded to the ultrasonic calls of tarsiers and bats. Thomas was convinced there was convergent evolution at work. Gursky had, in fact, helped Thomas to write grant proposals on this research.

But the following spring, according to Thomas's ethics complaint, he laid out to Gursky the experimental approach he intended to use. "That's when I was told, 'You can't do that,'" Thomas wrote. "Not really understanding why I asked how things had changed, as we had been sharing ideas about this research since I had arrived to the program. Her response was, 'That's what I'm doing.'"

Thomas's relationship with Gursky degenerated after that, as might be expected, and he eventually chose to leave TAMU despite urgings by other faculty that he stay (including offers to pay his tuition.) Before he left, however, Gursky promised to include him as coauthor on a paper she was preparing if he helped her with some of the graphs (a paper that was within Thomas's area of expertise.) But when the paper was published, she was sole author, with no acknowledgement at all of Thomas's role (she did acknowledge others.)

The six points laid out by Gursky's attorney, including the statement that she knew about the ABR (auditory brainstem response) system and how to use it (there is documentation that statement is false), and the statement that "all complaints were found to be unsubstantiated," are not accurate. Gursky was cleared by the university of procedural violations, but not of the actual ethical violations. Even that finding is suspect, given TAMU's long history of sweeping complaints under the rug, as illustrated in my earlier posts.

There is a lot more to this case, and there are witnesses, including former department chair Cynthia Werner and university administrators who were involved in "investigating" the ethics complaint.


In a second case of alleged theft of intellectual property, a student turned in chapters of her dissertation to Gursky, only to see them written up verbatim in a poster Gursky presented at a meeting months later. I will not provide further details to protect the privacy of this student, but the lawyer's letter clearly includes a retaliatory warning to all such witnesses (he makes the statement that Gursky is "well aware" of the identity of my sources.)



As I mentioned repeatedly above, Gursky's abuse of students is well known within the department and by the university administration. Yet she continues to terrorize students without restraint. The threat of a lawsuit against me is just another aspect of that bullying behavior, because ultimately the intent of such a threat is to further intimidate students into being silent. But it's not working.

Amazingly, in January 2018, during a search for a new department chair to replace Cynthia Werner, Gursky submitted a letter nominating herself for the role. "My vision for the department is for it to become a more collegial environment," she wrote without apparent irony, "where all individuals feel welcome and can thrive."

Gursky did not get the job. Instead it went to anthropologist Darryl de Ruiter, who, at the time he accepted it, had been found guilty in a Title IX proceeding of conduct unbecoming a faculty member in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint who alleged misconduct during field work in South Africa. Most of the faculty did not know this when they voted for him--the findings were kept secret, although Werner reportedly knew all about them.

Thus does the toxic culture in the TAMU anthropology department get perpetuated, with some of its leading faculty fully complicit in the abuses. Perhaps Gursky's attorney should get to know his client better before he issues any more threats against the reporter who has, with the help of numerous brave current and former members of the anthropology department, revealed the truth about her.


Addendum: As I mentioned in my original post about Gursky's legal threats, her lawyer, Daniel R. Warner, is serving two years' probation in a plea bargain with the Arizona bar over serious allegations of fraud.


Update Nov 3: After a number of anthropologists shared this post on Facebook and social media, Gursky began commenting on their posts and denying the accusation that she stole a graduate student's dissertation. That is her right, but in doing so, she has deliberately outed the student who was forced to leave the anthropology department as a result of her unethical behavior (I stand by my reporting on that.) This appears to be an attempt to get revenge on his whistleblowing by trying to wreck his career. Also, Gursky refers to the university's inquiry into the matter as having cleared her; this is not at all true. In fact, TAMU, as in so many cases of alleged misconduct, failed to conduct a serious inquiry and did not deal with the ethical issues.

This Twitter thread includes a screen shot of one of Gursky's Facebook comments.



Further update: An interesting Facebook exchange between Gursky and me:


  • Sharon Gursky He signed his name on the complaint. It was never confidential.
    • Michael Balter Is this seriously your excuse for outing him? Every complainant is known to the administration and often to the abuser. He did not ask to be outed to the entire anthropology community in which he must now work. You are really something.
    Write a reply...

  • Sharon Gursky I was cleared of EVERYTHING. All allegations occurred as a bullying attempt on me within 6 week period. I did tell a student she could not have someone on her committee if she wanted me to chair it. We have different perspectives on evolution. I didSee More
    • Michael Balter First you were not cleared of ethics violations. A letter from a TAMU dean is worthless given how long the administration has covered for you and other abusers in your department. Second, I have a pile of witnesses about your bullying and unethical behavior. Sharon, you hired a lawyer accused of fraud and on probation with the Arizona bar to threaten to sue me if I did not take the allegations down. So I did not, now go ahead and sue and let's take depositions and do legal discovery and see how you fare. I'm very happy to debate your behavior in a court of law if that's what you want. But those in your department who know all about your behavior and have helped cover it up, and members of the administration, will all be part of that process.
    • Sharon Gursky If it would not cost me 200K I would sue your ass. But since you have no assets from which I could recoup the costs...i have to let you use your first amendment rights.
      1
    • Sharon Gursky Please note all this happened Fall 2018
    • Michael Balter Sharon Gursky That's great, sorry you had to waste your money on a lawyer accused of fraud. Did he tell you he was on probation with the bar when you hired him?
    • Michael Balter Talking about Daniel R. Warner, Arizona attorney, for those who are curious.
    • Michael Balter Sharon Gursky Relevance of when it happened? Your misconduct goes back years.




6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does Prof. Gursky exploiting a student's mental health struggles violate FERPA? Poor girl.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that FERPA applies only to educational records, so might if Gursky got the information from medical info in the student's educational file, but not if she got it in any other way. And that HIPAA wouldn't apply because Gursky isn't a medical professional. Therefore an extraordinary breach of ethics and the bare minimum of acceptable behaviour, but probably not punishable under FERPA or HIPAA.

One hopes punishable under some A&M policy of "you will not strive to be a world class asshole to the people over whom you have power", but I confess I'm not feeling enormously confident about that.

Caveat: not a lawyer, just repeating things my university has told me.

Anonymous said...

As a university administrator elsewhere, discussion of a student in terms of the instructor’s plans to fail them blatantly violates ferpa. There is no way that is ever acceptable.

Allegra said...

Glad I read this, although I'm not impressed with Prof Gursky's bullying of someone with an eating disorder.

I found her comments about how it's not 'worth it' to sue you, or that she would need 200K to do it, quite interesting. If her main motivation in life is not money but prestige and she's blameless of all the shameful naughty things you are so cruelllly accusing her of, then money would be no object, and her supporters would help her raise the funds.

but no. It's about the cash as much as the prestige.

She's wrong and she knows it. It's all bluster and bullying and bs.

Anonymous said...

Since you haven’t spoken with her current students how can you be sure the accusations about her bullying students are true?

Michael Balter said...

In response to the last comment:

1. You are making assumptions about whom I have talked to that are not necessary true, and that you could not know for sure except in your own case, whoever you are.

2. I have talked to enough students about Sharon Gursky to be quite sure that accusations are true. That goes for the allegations concerning the entire department as well.