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Friday, October 11, 2019

TAMU anthropology students call upon faculty to take misconduct allegations seriously, and work with them to improve the culture in the department

Over the past weeks, I have reported in detail allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, and unethical behavior on the part of faculty (and one student) in the Texas AM University anthropology department. The charges, based on nearly 20 direct witnesses to the abusive behavior, have sparked a series of meetings in the department of both faculty and students, and reactions ranging from serious concern and outrage to panicky attempts to hunt down my sources--possibly for the purpose of retaliating against them (that, at least, is the fear of many current and former students in the department who have talked to me.)

Last Monday, October 7, the faculty met to discuss the allegations and the appropriate response to them. The Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Pamela Matthews, was also reportedly in attendance. The faculty were presented with a statement approved by a vote of 85% of responding anthropology graduate students. The letter calls upon the department to take the allegations seriously, and that department faculty exercise their duty of care to the students under their tutelage.

I am in possession of the letter, which is quite eloquent. I am reproducing it in its entirely.


 10/7/2019


Dear Faculty Members:


The acting Climate and Inclusion Committee of the Association of Anthropology Graduate Students (AAGS) would like to make the following statement on behalf of the graduate students in our department. This statement has been voted on in favor by 85% of responding graduate students:

As graduate students at Texas A&M, we love our department, we love our jobs, and we love the many opportunities given to us to spend our days in the pursuit of knowledge. While we recognize, embrace, and appreciate the many qualities of the department of Anthropology, we also recognize that there is a need for improvement, and that it is time for change. As graduate students we have come together and are committed to working towards the change that we seek, and we are asking that the faculty join us to do the same.



AAGS and the graduate student body take the recent allegations involving the department seriously and recognize that they reflect the negative climate that permeates our department. We recognize that there are major issues in our department, including, but not limited to, these publicized statements. These issues include harassment (sexual or otherwise), bullying, and otherwise non-professional behavior and ethical violations. It is not the purpose of this statement to address the public allegations, nor is it our responsibility or our role to respond to each individual allegation. However, we refuse to dismiss these allegations out of hand, and are using this opportunity to express our firm belief that improvement is needed within the department. The gravity of this situation is extreme. When faculty members trivialize this matter and describe all allegations as fraudulent, they are trivializing their own students and dismissing the serious and detrimental experiences of members of the departmental community, many of which have been open secrets for years. Every faculty member serves as a mentor to each graduate student in this department, and these relationships are fundamental to our graduate experience. This situation is an opportunity for each faculty member to critically assess the well-being of those under their charge, yet every time these serious accusations are dismissed without reflection, that opportunity is lost, and students feel more alone. We value and respect our faculty members and the role that you play in our graduate careers, yet this situation and the way it has been handled is causing undue harm within the graduate student community. We need your help and mentorship moving forward.

To begin this process, the graduate student body needs to hear an official statement of our departmental values, and a condemnation of harassment, bullying, and unprofessional behavior. Regardless of the degree of accuracy of each individual accusation, it is important that we define the values we stand for as anthropologists, and as members of this departmental community. 


We also implore the faculty to work with us to ensure the long-term health of our community. The current climate in the department is negatively impacting our learning and research environment and we must see a change moving forward. We are not a healthy community; the department is broken into factions that are passed from faculty to student and these factions are so impermeable, that graduate students feel isolated, alone, and unable to cross party lines for assistance, even when it is in their best interest. During the best of times, these factions create an atmosphere of unhealthy competition, derogatory commentary, and snide gossip. This is not the atmosphere in which we want to work, and this is an atmosphere we now clearly state we refuse to propagate. While we recognize the historical roots of these factions, they have no bearing on how the department must come together and move forward as a whole to establish a welcoming, professional community for the benefit of all future Texas A&M anthropologists. The culture must be changed from the top down so that we may create a safe community for all members moving forward. AAGS takes this very seriously, and we recognize that graduate students must take an active role in improving our own climate, as well as that of the larger department. We cannot do it alone, and we need faculty members to make a commitment to work with us. 


Beyond changing the departmental culture, AAGS is firmly requesting additional changes in order to advocate for, and protect, the graduate student body. These requests are the result of the immediate fallout of this situation, but we believe these changes will help improve the graduate environment moving forward. In this vein, AAGS requests that the communication from department leadership and faculty immediately improve. While we recognize that it is not always possible to share everything that occurs with all members of the department community, communication must be transparent and frequent. We request that during crisis periods, like the one we are currently in, communication between departmental leadership and AAGS occurs at least twice a month, so that we may keep the graduate student body accurately informed. The stress felt by graduate students stemming from this situation has been greatly exacerbated by the lack of official communication. Honesty and transparency are crucial to build and maintain trust, and at this juncture, the graduate students feel that our trust has been violated. Regular communications regarding developments, plans of action, and potential impact, etc., from a dedicated and specified faculty member who has not been named in the ongoing crisis will do a great deal towards healing this breach, and ensuring the mental and emotional well-being of the graduate community. 


We also request that AAGS and the graduate student body be given a permanent seat at the table moving forward, and that our experiences and ideas are taken into account as the department works to improve itself. Academia, by nature, is made up of extreme power imbalances, which often impact graduate students, international, and minority members of departments the most. The Anthropology department could not survive without its talented faculty, nor could it survive without its talented and hardworking graduate students. We are losing accomplished and gifted graduate students, including potential students, due to the climate in the department. Permanent representation among the faculty will help in protecting graduate rights and well-being, so that we as a department can continue attracting the best prospective students.

We recognize that graduate students constitute a significant portion of our department, and that we represent the future of our field; thus, we feel it is important that graduate students take an active role in improving the department for current and future generations of scholars. To further these goals, AAGS is in the process of creating a Climate and Inclusion Committee by and for graduate students. It is the stated mission of this committee to work with the larger department to implement direct action items for improving departmental conduct and climate. After surveying the graduate student body, we believe these action items should at minimum include explicit codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies (in part tailored towards field work), and continued education (via flyers, trainings etc.) on individual’s rights, mental health support, as well as management and bystander trainings. To begin this process, we request that a faculty representative be present at the next AAGS meeting, on October 14th. 

We strongly believe that these changes are necessary for the betterment of the Anthropology department. While the graduate community has an important role to play, we cannot do it alone, and we need to work together with the faculty to create a stronger, healthier, and happier departmental community. 



Sincerely, 

The acting AAGS Climate and Inclusion Committee 

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