StatCounter

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Bullying, racism, unethical behavior: The long and "successful" career of Australian archaeologist Michael Westaway [Updated Dec 9, 2019]

Michael Westaway
As nearly every archaeologist in Australia must know by now, over the past months I have been investigating a large number of misconduct allegations concerning Michael Westaway, currently at the University of Queensland. As I explain below, the investigation has been long and complicated, and new sources and leads have continued to appear along the way--including some in recent days while I have been writing up my preliminary report. Meanwhile, with several important conferences coming up this month, including the all important annual meeting of the Australian Archaeological Association, many colleagues in Australia have been urging me to get this report published so that it can be discussed openly, instead of in the hallways and behind closed doors, as has been the case with so many cases of bullying, harassment, and unethical behavior in that country. So, I have decided to do something I have not done before during my past four years of reporting on misconduct in the sciences: Publish my investigation of Westaway in installments. This will also have the effect of encouraging other witnesses to Westaway's abusive behavior--whom I know are still out there, trying to decide whether to answer my queries and get in touch--that this long overdue expose really is going to see the light of day. This somewhat unorthodox approach to reporting a story is just another example of the advantages of independent reporting on misconduct, which I discussed in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article.

One final thought: Although Westaway and Cooper have apparently become the poster boys for bullying and other abuses in Australian archaeology, they are far from the only ones. During the course of these investigations, I was given credible evidence for misconduct by a number of other archaeologists, some of whom I may eventually be able to name. We are looking at systemic abuse, the result of a culture of abuse. Rooting that out will take a massive cultural change, which some, fortunately, are already fighting for--including the colleagues whose testimonies form the basis for what follows.


Last spring, after my involvement in a controversy over the Society for American Archaeology's mishandling of a sexual predator who came to its annual meeting, I was approached by several leading archaeologists in Australia about patterns of misconduct in that country. These colleagues mentioned a number of men to me, but two of them stood out for the seriousness of their alleged abuses: Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide; and Michael Westaway, an archaeologist now at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

With the help of researchers in Australia and elsewhere, I began investigating the accusations against both men. In Cooper's case, the reporting was fairly straightforward. Several dozen colleagues came forward to supply testimony about his long pattern of bullying students and postdocs at ACAD, while others talked to me about the earlier unethical behavior which had forced him out of the University of Oxford (Adelaide, eager to host Australia's first major ancient DNA lab, hired him anyway.) This reporting, combined with the prodding of some senior researchers behind the scenes, led Adelaide to begin its own inquiry, which has resulted in Cooper's suspension. His final fate has not yet been determined, but the episode shows that misconduct can be successfully fought, even in Australia, where a culture of toxic masculinity is deeply entrenched.

The case of Michael Westaway proved to be more challenging, and the investigation into his alleged misconduct took much longer. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, over the years, Westaway has made the rounds of many of Australia's most important research institutions, leaving behind a trail of victims (including a suicide) and a nationwide reputation for bad behavior. The accusations against him, which my reporting shows to be well founded, include physical violence and intimidation; chronic bullying of colleagues; racist attitudes towards Aboriginal peoples; and unethical collection of samples for ancient DNA work, including unethical handling of Aboriginal artifacts.

Westaway's bullying behavior is particularly pronounced, and is almost exclusively targeted at two groups: Women, and Aboriginal colleagues (both women and men in the latter case.) "Michael has caused immense pain to almost everyone he has had dealings with," says one researcher who knows him well. Investigating these allegations required talking to dozens of researchers across Australia, some of whom agreed to share their painful experiences only reluctantly.

Another factor complicating the reporting: While Westaway, unlike Cooper, is not himself a senior figure in Australian archaeology, he has been able to attract a significant amount of funding from the Australian Research Council--and also a significant amount of support from senior white male scientists who have served as his protectors, despite complaints against him at nearly every institution he has worked at. This means that most Australian archaeologists and anthropologists, including many whose reputations far exceed those of Westaway himself, are reluctant to publicly accuse him. Australian archaeology is a relatively small scientific community, and the fear of retaliation for speaking out is great, in many cases intense.

Then, of course, there are the highly intimidating effects of Australia's defamation laws, which are some of the most draconian in the world. This was recently demonstrated in the case of the actor Geoffrey Rush, who successfully sued the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph (a Murdoch publication) for publishing allegations of sexual harassment against him. The court's decision has helped put a damper on journalists who might want to publish other claims of sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse.

One important reason that complaints about Westaway's misconduct usually go nowhere is that he is a master of the art of what University of Oregon psychologist Jennifer Freyd has called DARVO: "Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender." We have seen this strategy deployed frequently in the United States of late, in a variety of contexts, by abusers ranging from Harvey Weinstein to President Donald Trump. Westaway, too, routinely plays the victim whenever he is accused; and since most (although not all) of the real victims are women, the largely male Australian establishment has often been quick to accept his excuses.

This strategy worked well for Westaway at Griffith University, for example, where he was employed before coming to the University of Queensland and where his unethical behavior and bullying of colleagues was legendary. There, sources say, his main protector was Rainer Grun, director of the Australian Research Centre of Human Evolution (ARCHE) and an internationally known expert in dating methodologies (Grun is retiring soon, and the search for a new director is currently underway.)

Grun's protection of Westaway was reportedly regularly backed up by Andrew Smith, Griffith's Pro Vice Chancellor for science. Moreover, Westaway was not the only researcher at Griffith known for bullying and unethical behavior. Several men there, says one colleague, "have a very flexible approach to ethics and morals, and are so self-interested that they don't care who they harm in the process. This in itself is bad enough, but what makes it worse are the Griffith University enablers. They all knew what was happening, yet turned a blind eye."

Indeed, Westaway has long been able to attract the backing of senior male academics. Earlier, when he was curator of archaeology in the Queensland Museum's Cultures and Histories Program, his attempts to undermine other colleagues had the backing of the museum's director at the time, Graeme Potter. And at the University of Queensland, Westaway was hired despite warnings from colleagues familiar with his pattern of misconduct (more on that below.)

What follows is based on interviews with, by last count, 37 researchers, museum curators, heritage authorities, and others with direct experience with Westaway. They include a number of Aborginal colleagues, along with many senior figures in Australian archaeology and anthropology. As always, I rely only on direct witnesses to facts and acts, not on rumors or second hand information. However, due to fears of retaliation, nearly all of these sources asked not to be named, and I have respected their wishes. This also means that I have had to be brief and/or circumspect about some of the episodes I describe, so that the details will not give away the identities of the sources.

I hope that one day soon, Australian researchers will feel that they can speak openly about the abuses they have suffered or witnessed. It is outrageous and unjust that abusers are allowed to live openly in the light of day, while their victims have to hide in the shadows.


PART TWO: Westaway's history of physical violence, bullying and physical intimidation of women, including during his first tenure at the Queensland Museum; the origins and nature of his unethical dealings with Aboriginal communities; and the intensification of his bullying behavior during his second tenure at the Queensland Museum, which played an important role in the suicide of an Aboriginal colleague and led to Westaway's ban from the museum's indigenous collections.


A history of physical violence and physical intimidation of women.

On paper, Michael Westaway might appear to be just the kind of archaeologist any institution would want to hire. And indeed, he has worked at many of Australia's most prestigious institutions, in some cases returning to take up more prestigious positions. Westaway did his undergraduate work at the Australian National University beginning in 1990, an honors year at University of Sydney, and then went on to work with the Heritage Services Branch of Aboriginal Affairs in Victoria; the National Museum of Australia in the repatriation unit; the New South Wales National Parks Service; the Queensland Museum (twice); Flinders University; Griffith University; and finally, the University of Queensland, where he is currently an Australian Research Council Future Fellow.

Westaway's research has focused on bioarchaeological investigations of the origins of Australia's first inhabitants, and he has a long publication history--including papers in prestigious journals such as Nature, Science, and PNAS--which has also made him an apparently attractive candidate for the many jobs he has held.

But there is another, dark side to Westaway's reputation. It's hard to determine exactly how far back that dates, but a key episode took place in early December, 2011. Westaway attended the annual meeting of the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA) in Toowoomba, Queensland, hosted by the University of Southern Queensland. Westaway and an American girlfriend he had lived with for a couple of years had recently broken up, and his ex shortly afterwards began a relationship with another man.

According to witnesses who were present at the meeting, Westaway turned up at the opening welcome event already drunk. After the welcome event, the archaeologists headed to a hotel pub a short distance down the road. As he entered the foyer of the hotel, Westaway spotted an archaeologist whom he mistakenly thought was his ex's new partner. Westaway took a drunken swing at him, although he apparently made minimal contact. But the bouncers at the venue immediately grabbed hold of Westaway and dragged him outside. Westaway fought with the bouncers, as the altercation spilled out onto the road. The bouncers soon subdued Westaway and the police arrived. Westaway ended up spending the night in jail.

The episode even got some media coverage, although the reporter got certain things wrong. The ex-girlfriend was never married to Westaway, although they lived together, and the separation was not due to her having an affair, although he may have thought so at the time. I also suspect that some archaeologists will not appreciate the reference to Indiana Jones, as if this is somehow a model of how archaeologists should act.

I had a long conversation with the ex-girlfriend as part of my reporting for this story, and we agreed that to protect her privacy she would not be named here, although some in Australian archaeology know who she is (she is currently on the faculty of a university in the United States.) She says that while Westaway did not physically abuse her, and that he was "not abusive over the normal course of our relationship," Westaway "did become verbally quite mean as it was clear the relationship was ending. I chalked it up at the time to desperation to keep things together."

While they were together, Westaway's ex says she did witness some of his interactions with Aboriginal Australians in the course of his archaeological work, and that they seemed respectful and even warm and that she did not observe any ethical breaches. These observations will be helpful to understanding some of the allegations that have been made against Westaway in this area, which I will discuss later on.

However, the "dust up" did leave a lasting impression on the archaeological community. A number of archaeologists, mostly men, have told me that one reason they refrained from speaking up publicly about complaints against Westaway was fear that he would physically attack them at a meeting or other venue (Westaway is a regular attendee at meetings, including the AAA meetings. The next one which will be held Dec 10-13, 2019 on the Gold Coast, and Westaway is scheduled to speak; more on this below.)

But the greatest fear is expressed by female colleagues, some of whom have experienced Westaway's anger first hand. Thus I spoke directly to three women who recounted a very similar scenario. In each case, Westaway had become angry with them over an issue, had entered their offices or work spaces, closed the door behind him in such a way that they could not escape, and begun yelling at them in an intimidating and threatening manner. These episodes span multiple years and institutions, and the accounts are not second hand: They were told to me by the victims in each case. And while Westaway did not actually hit the women involved during these incidents, all three told me that they nevertheless felt physically threatened. As one put it, "Men and women might have different takes on how threatening it is to be angrily yelled at in a small confined space without access to an exit."

One concluding remark on this section of the report. This blog post has already received a number of "Anonymous" comments, and I received some anonymous emails, taking Westaway's side and arguing that there is no real evidence for his misconduct--even before that evidence had a chance to be presented here. A common refrain is that Westaway's accusers are acting out of professional jealousy or other petty motives. We are now up to 37 sources in this investigation, including some of Australia's most respected archaeologists. Even if a few might be professionally jealous, it is hard to imagine that all of them are. Moreover, the charge of professional jealousy closely echoes one of the main arguments Westaway has made to his superiors and protectors every time he gets into trouble--which, as will be clear below, has been very often.

On a more positive note, however, the AAA--on Twitter and Facebook--has already invited colleagues attending the Gold Coast meeting to contact officers if they have concerns about anyone who might be attending. Many archaeologists are assuming that this refers to Westaway; although that may or may not be the case, the meeting could turn out to be eventful.


At the Queensland Museum: A pattern of bullying and unethical behavior, allegedly leading to the suicide of an Aboriginal colleague.

(Reporting note: To protect identities, I have not distinguished whether the sources below are current or former members of the museum staff. Both categories of individuals helped with the reporting for this section.)

In 2008, Westaway was hired as curator of archaeology at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. By this point in his career, numerous sources say, he had already gained a negative reputation among colleagues. There was "a pattern of disrespect for colleagues, particularly women," one colleague who knew him well at the time says, and a "poor track record in relation to working with Aboriginal people."

One example, according to multiple colleagues who worked at the museum at the time, concerned Westaway's attitude towards his boss, who was the head of the Cultures and Histories program at the museum from 2008 to 2010.

Westaway began to complain about his supervisor very soon after his arrival at the museum, sources say, taking his issues to her own superior, Graeme Potter, who was at the time reportedly enamored by Westaway. (Westaway was, all agree, capable of being very charming in certain contexts. Potter, who later reportedly became disillusioned with Westaway, was just one in a long line of white males who served as his protector only to regret doing so later.)

Westaway frequently complained that his supervisor was undermining his own research and failing to fund it properly, even though, as was repeatedly explained to him, the museum actually had little money for research.

In 2010, Westaway left the museum for a brief stint at Flinders University in south Australia, but later that same year returned to the museum in his supervisor's old job. Now, as head of the Cultures and Histories program, Westaway had considerable power. He quickly began to create problems for the museum, sources say, especially in his attitudes towards the rights of indigenous people to have control over their own artifacts and human remains. Another attitude which Westaway quickly demonstrated, several colleagues at the museum told me, was his belief that the Aboriginal workers at the museum were lazy and did not want to do any work (this was confirmed even by a colleague who defended Westaway and his behavior to me.)

Around this time, the Queensland Museum Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Consultative Committee (QMATSICC), a group of prominent indigenous community members that met with museum officials regularly to guide them on management of indigenous collections, had become growingly reluctant to give permission for researchers to work on indigenous collections, arguing that the local indigenous groups--often called Traditional Owners--should be making those decisions. But according to colleagues closely familiar with the situation, Westaway strongly resisted this suggestion, arguing that it was too time consuming and that no research would get done if Traditional Owners had to be consulted.

But the most serious episode at the Queensland Museum concerned an Aboriginal curator whom Westaway stands accused of bullying to give him access to Aboriginal collections, actions which allegedly helped trigger that colleague's suicide.

Although I know this curator's name, out of respect for her Aboriginal colleagues, who refer to her after her death as simply T.C., I shall do the same. (Aboriginal traditions prohibit the naming of the dead after they are gone, or require changing the name of the deceased.) T.C. was the museum's senior curator for Cultures, Customs and Country, and in that capacity had a lot of responsibility for indigenous collections that were considered spiritually significant to Aboriginal peoples. These included both artifacts and human remains, many of which were kept in what is called the "Secret Sacred Room" on the fifth floor of the museum.

I have spoken to seven individuals who knew T.C. well. They all describe her as a lovely person, who was very excited when she took on the curator job. However, she was nervous about the responsibility involved and her capacity to handle it. "[T.C.] was a warm and friendly individual," says one colleague, "outwardly cheerful and positive." But, this researcher says, "she clearly voiced how she felt the pressure of representing indigenous interests in a cultural institution dominated by public servants."

Nevertheless, T.C. was an energetic curator, taking on projects designed to educate the public about indigenous issues and struggles. In March 2012, for example, she presented an exhibition called "From Little Things Big Things Grow," an exploration of the fight for indigenous civil rights that took place in Australia between 1920 and 1970. Using photographs, objects, personal stories and protest material, T.C. helped visitors experience this largely forgotten story.

Yet while T.C. "was an inspiration in some many ways," another colleague says, she "also had a complex and difficult life." There was a family history of suicide and violence, a tragic legacy with which T.C. had struggled for many years.

Enter Michael Westaway. Eager to expand his research into Aboriginal origins, and to gain access to samples of human remains for genetic work, Westaway persistently bullied T.C. and other curators at the museum, trying to pressure them into giving him access to the Secret Sacred Room. Sometimes he would simply take action on his own. On one occasion, a colleague says, he examined women's sacred objects that were supposed to go back to Traditional Owners, contending that they were not really sacred; he made similar statements about other artifacts.

But much of Westaway's bullying was directed at T.C., whom he tried to get to intercede with Traditional Owners on his behalf as well as allow him access to the Secret Sacred Room. Says one colleague of T.C., the pressure from Westaway was so great that "T.C. used to come and sit in my office on the floor and cry."

In November 2012, T.C. took her own life. While everyone who knew T.C. well acknowledges that her family history and vulnerability created a background context for her action, many of her colleagues at the museum felt strongly that Westaway's bullying had provided a final trigger that led to her suicide. Even those who are not sure about that say that his bullying of her did not help, given how vulnerable she was. (In fairness, I did talk to one researcher, a man, who knew both T.C. and Westaway and did not feel that he was responsible for her death.)

However, the general feeling against Westaway, especially among Aboriginal colleagues, was so strong that, after he left the museum the following year to take a position at Griffith University, museum management allowed staff to work from home whenever he returned to the building. "Some had adverse physical reactions when they thought he was coming or he wrote to them," one museum colleague says. Soon afterwards, Westaway was banned from having any access at all to the staff and collections areas of the Queensland Museum.


PART THREE: Westaway's tenure at Griffith University, the continuation of his unethical and racist behavior towards Aboriginal peoples, which may have contributed to the death of another Aboriginal colleague (and also led to his removal from the Willandra Lakes scientific advisory group;) his fall from the grace of his protectors at Griffith; and finally, his move to the University of Queensland, which hired him despite numerous warnings from colleagues.


Westaway's long history of questionable relationships with Aboriginal communities.

I referred above to my conversation with Westaway's ex-girlfriend, which included her observations of his interactions with indigenous communities she visited with him. One reason opinion about Westaway in Australia's anthropology and archaeologist community is divided--he has some fierce defenders, as can be seen in the Comments section of this blog post--is that he is widely described as capable of great charm, exuding charisma and great enthusiasm for his work.

I spoke to a large number of Australian researchers about Westaway's relationships with Aboriginal communities, and a common theme emerged: Westaway's modus operandi is to make contact with those members of indigenous communities that he finds easiest to approach, and to make them promises about what he might be able to achieve by sampling their DNA--in many cases, the promise to help them trace their ancestral origins and/or to determine the provenance of ancestral human remains housed in museums and collections, so that they might be eventually repatriated to their communities of origin.

But Westaway's colleagues point out that in doing so, Westaway often bypasses traditional groups of Aboriginals, or organizations of elders that represent Traditional Owners, to make deals with other members of the communities who are not necessarily representative of the entire group. In a number of cases, Westaway's critics say, he took advantage of divisions with indigenous groups to approach those more favorable to DNA sample taking, at the same time generating anger among other parts of the community. Even worse, according to some researchers familiar with Westaway's conduct, Westaway has often misrepresented a number of aspects of the ancient DNA sequencing process to communities, promising quick results that were completely unrealistic. In at least one case, such false promises may have led to tragic consequences, as I describe below.

And this strategy, which in a limited context can make it appear to some that Westaway has warm relationships with indigenous peoples, is behind a number of episodes that have gotten the archaeologist in trouble with colleagues and have caused some of his protectors to eventually tire of defending him. As for indigenous communities, over his career, Westaway's divisive tactics have managed to make him enemies in a number of Australian regions, including the Torres Strait Islands in northern Queensland, Cape York on the mainland just to the south of the islands, the Willandra Lakes in the Far West of New South Wales (where the famous Lake Mungo human remains were found), and among the Mithaka people of southwest Queensland.

Nevertheless, Westaway's approach has helped him to win a great deal of grant funding from the Australian Research Council. That too has made him attractive to his superiors, and often led them to dismiss complaints about unethical behavior and bullying.  Moreover, especially after Westaway moved to Griffith University, his superiors, including David Lambert (who was instrumental in recruiting him to Griffith) and Rainer Grun became increasingly dependent on him for obtaining the human samples that fueled the grant funding machine, according to a number of researchers familiar with the situation.

Since 2010, Westaway was either a principal investigator or co-investigator on ARC grants worth at least $3 million Australian dollars; Westaway's ARC Future Fellowship, which he took with him to the University of Queensland when he left Griffith, is funded at $936,468.00 (an explanation, according to some colleagues, for why UQ ignored warnings about Westaway; more on that below.)

In discussions with a large number of researchers based in Australia, it seems clear that Westaway's ethically questionable methods of gathering and handling human samples dates back at least from when he was a graduate student at the Australian National University, and continued at Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, the National Museum of Australia, in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, and at the Queensland Museum, as previously discussed. But this behavior appears to intensified as he found protection from powerful men at Griffith University; during his tenure there, a number of episodes well known to the Australian archaeological community took place.


The tragic death of Tapij Wales
Tapij Wales

According to a number of sources familiar with the situation, Griffith University evolutionary biologist David Lambert was instrumental in recruiting Michael Westaway to the university and helping him obtain the grant funding that allowed him to move there from the Queensland Museum. "Much of the archaeological community were absolutely astounded that it happened," says one leading Australian archaeologist who asked not to be identified. "We couldn't understand why anyone would give him another chance given all his history, which was common knowledge in the archaeological community."

But Westaway had the one thing that Lambert, always eager for human and ancient samples for his ancient DNA work, found very valuable: Connections with the indigenous communities that could supply them (although Lambert had connections of his own, they were not nearly as extensive as Westaway's. Lambert did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this report.)

Yet during his time at Griffith, Westaway managed to alienate a number of Aborginal communities and individuals, which soon made him a liability for Lambert and for the university. Moreover, some sources familiar with Westaway's strategy for getting Aborginal samples say, he often misrepresented or exaggerated the benefits the research could bring to indigenous communities. "He would make comments about the research that were unethical or untrue," says one colleague who witnessed this behavior. "He will say to an Aboriginal group, if you let us do research, we may find a cure for early onset diabetes or kidney failure. People had the impression that if they did not approve the study, they were interfering with a possible cure. But it's a very remote possibility, if not entirely fabricated."

Tapij Wales was an elder of the Thaynakwith people of Cape York. Wales had long been concerned that the remains of members of his ancestral homeland were housed in museum collections, and that, according to Aboriginal traditions, they could not fully rest until they were repatriated and reburied. During the early 2010s, members of Lambert's research team, including Westaway, had met Wales during their research work; other archaeologists in Australia came to know him as well.

What follows is based on the accounts of several researchers who knew Wales well, and others who knew him more casually.

Wales had asked members of the Lambert team if their ancient DNA work might help identify which communities and regions human remains in museums had originally belonged to. Some members of the team agreed to test the idea, although they made clear to Wales that the project would be a challenge and there was no guarantee of success.

By that time Westaway himself had known Wales for several years, dating from the time when Wales' community group had found the ancient remains of an Aboriginal women on a dirt road in far north Queensland. The finds, according to an archaeologist who asked not to be identified, were presented at the 2012 meeting of the AAA in Wollongong, New South Wales, by a team consisting of Wales, Westaway, and a member of the local police force. "The police representative spoke dispassionately on the legal twists and turns," the archaeologist told me, and "Westaway spoke in academic manner of the research methodology and the potential" of using the data to repatriate the remains and give them a proper burial.

"Tapij, however, was the only person to speak with any humanitarian imperative and passion," the achaeologist said. "He said, 'This poor old lady, here she is lying in the road, we have to do something to help her.'" The archaeologist says he went up and introduced himself to Wales, and there began the kind of warm friendship that several colleagues have also described to me. "Tapij possessed a startling and immediate genuineness that permeated whatever he said."

But by late 2016, colleagues who knew him say, Wales had become increasingly frustrated with Westaway, who had made all kinds of promises about the DNA sequencing work. Westaway had reportedly told Wales that the sequencing could be completed in a couple of months and, he oversold the likelihood of success. Moreover, in meetings with Wales and other Thaynakwith community members, sources say, he displayed considerable ignorance of ancient DNA research. "Westaway spoke on behalf [of the Lambert group] regularly, promising indigenous groups a quick turnaround in sequencing, while not having a clue how we did things, the nature of ancient DNA, or even the fundamental basics of DNA analyses," says one researcher familiar with events.

To make matters worse, Wales told two archaeologists (that I am aware of) that Westaway was flirting with young Aboriginal women during his visits to the Thaynakwith community. "He asked if I knew Michael Westaway and what my thoughts were on him," says one archaeologist. "I told him that yes I knew him but I didn't have a high opinion of him, and why. He then told me that he and some of his fellow elders wanted a complaint to be put in against Michael as he was working in their community and was getting 'too close' to some of the Aboriginal girls."

Finally, Wales decided that he was going to travel to the 2017 AAA meeting in Melbourne, which was held December 6-8 of that year. He told several people that he was fed up with Westaway's apparent refusal to respond to his queries about the DNA results, the return of certain human samples, and the issues with the young Aboriginal women. Wales said he was going to confront Westaway at the meeting, and all agree that he was greatly upset and stressed.

Wales arrived at the meeting before Westaway, along with several other Aboriginal representatives. But late that night, Wales suffered a massive heart attack, and died. And while he had a history of previous heart attacks, those who were present and saw his level of his anger and distress over the Westaway situation are convinced that this played a major role in his death. Wales, who was very poor, "remained in Melbourne for nearly a month while we crowdfunded for his body to be transported back to his country and for a funeral service, according to one source who was involved.

For a number of archaeologists I talked to about this sad affair, the episode "displays the gap between what ancestral remains mean to their traditional descendants, and what they signify to those who treat them as objects of study," as one put it, "useful footholds on the ladder of academic achievement." Another colleague adds: "And, that perhaps the more genuine the traditional owner is in their commitment to the rights of the deceased, the more susceptible they are to the charismatic, articulate, and empowered statements of academics with ready smiles and ambitious plans."

There is a sad irony to this story, one that Tapij Wales of course did not live to appreciate nor benefit from. Based on the research that Wales had helped and supported, the Lambert team did in the end demonstrate that it might be possible to use DNA from ancient remains to repatriate them to their original homelands. In a paper published in Science Advances in December 2018, on which Lambert's former graduate student Joanne Wright was the first author, the team presented data that at least proved the concept.* How likely it is that the methodology will be successful in many other cases remains to be seen, researchers I talked to say, because it can be very difficult to extract enough ancient DNA from human remains to perform precise analyses. Yet Wales was included as a posthumous author of the paper, and he was also named in some of the media coverage, including a story in Archaeology magazine, The Smithsonian, and in the New York Times by the well-known science writer Carl Zimmer.

* I want to make clear that no impropriety by any member of the Science Advances team is implied by this citing of their peer reviewed paper.


Westaway insults an Aborginal heritage worker in a racist manner, action is taken, and his star begins to fall at Griffith University.


As mentioned earlier, Westaway had done a lot of work in the Willandra Lakes area, where the oldest uncontested human remains in Australia had been found at Lake Mungo.* Once again, he had polarized the Aboriginal communities there by befriending some groups and individuals while alienating others. Thus many colleagues critical of Westaway did not know whether to laugh or cry when, in early 2017, The Sydney Morning Herald published a positive piece about Westaway: "Dr Michael Westaway: sensitive role in Australian archaeology." In the article, Westaway is quoted about the need for "excellent communication skills" and "deft communication" at conferences.

For many years, Aborginal elders in the Willandra Lakes region had been lobbying for the return of the Mungo human remains (mainly one man and one woman) so that they could be reburied according to indigenous customs. The remains have now returned to their home, although as of this writing they have not yet been reburied. But Westaway was among those Australian archaeologists opposed to the repatriation, arguing that there was still much to be learned from the remains. (The debate has close parallels with that over Kennewick Man in the United States, whose reburial was resisted heavily by many anthropologists. Ironically, analysis of ancient DNA from Kennewick Man ultimately undermined the main arguments the anthropologists had made.)

In a Facebook post on September 27, 2016 (reproduced above), Westaway, with by now typical lack of tact, criticized Rob Kelly, a senior heritage officer in the Willandra Lakes region (and an Aboriginal) for his advocacy of repatriation and reburial. "Yes Rob wants to see it all destroyed," Westaway wrote. Westaway also referred to Kelly as a "bloke from coastal NSW [New South Wales]," a reference to his Aboriginal heritage, and the fact that while Kelly's background was from the Australian interior he himself had been born on the coast.

Westaway's post also mentioned Steve Meredith, a regional manager for Heritage New South Wales; Richard Mintern, former executive officer of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area; Dan Rosendahl, current executive officer of the Willandra heritage area; and Leanne Mitchell, an Aboriginal heritage programs officer and a Paakantyi Traditional Owner. I cannot say too much more about the contents of the apparently now deleted Facebook post to protect sources, other than that it included several factual errors.

"Westaway built his career on research on these bones," says one heritage expert who asked not to be identified. "He sees reburial of the remains as destroying them, and yet he wants to do destructive research on them [by taking DNA samples]. Aboriginal people are not happy with Mungo Man [and Mungo Woman] being kept in a box on the shelf, they [want to] return their dead to the ground."

This time, Westaway's actions had consequences. Not long afterwards, Robert Quirk, acting executive director of park programs for Australia's National Parks and Wildlife Service, wrote to Westaway explaining that he had been removed from the Willandra Lakes Region Temporary Scientific Advisory Group. In other communications from parks officials, Westaway's superiors were also notified about the park and wildlife service's unhappiness about Westaway's statements, and, according to sources familiar with the situation, Westaway was told that he was no longer welcome in the Willandra Lakes area, and particularly Lake Mungo.

Despite this clear admonition not to go to Lake Mungo, which Willandra Lakes elders were no longer giving him permission to visit, Westaway did make at least one visit there, in the company of Nature editor Henry Gee, who was visiting Australia in April 2017. Although I am told Westaway was not authorized to visit the area, and Gee did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Nature communications director Alice Henchley told me that Gee "was accompanied by a park ranger from the traditional owners at all times and understood that the visit was approved by the traditional owners."

* For an interesting account of the history of the Mungo finds, put into the historical context of anthropological scavenging of human remains and disregard for Aboriginal rights and feelings, see this story in The Guardian.


Westaway's support at Griffith crumbles; University of Queensland welcomes him and his grant money with open arms

While Lambert and university officials at Griffith had been eager for Westaway to come to the university, after several years they were having second thoughts. The Willandra Lakes episode was embarrassing to say the least, although the death of Tapij Wales was not well known and was soon forgotten (except for those friends and colleagues, several of whom I have talked to, who still mourn him.)

 In another episode in early 2017, Griffith officials had to scramble to save a research project when Westaway managed to alienate the leaders of the Mithaka people of southwest Queensland. And beginning in 2016, Lambert and Westaway had a major falling out, over a number of issues including a fight over authorship of key papers and other matters. "Michael had everyone convinced that he was the most ethical person working with indigenous folks," says one archaeologist who knows both Westaway and Lambert. "He would insist that he be high on the publication author lists because he made the connections."

(Although Lambert has not responded to requests for comment, these days he tells almost anyone who will listen about his disillusionment with Westaway. Rainer Grun, too, has reportedly told colleagues that he finally got fed up with him.)

"At first there's a honeymoon period," says a colleague who has known Westaway for many years. "Then he sets the place on fire and jumps ship, that's his M.O. He will do that at University of Queensland, it might take five years, but he will leave a pile of wreckage there too."

But if that does happen, it won't be because UQ, where Westaway moved last May, was not warned. In fact, sources tell me, several researchers told Andrew Fairbairn, head of archaeology at the university, about Westaway's past conduct, although it is not clear how many details they gave him. But Fairbairn denies getting the warnings. "I was not aware of the allegations about DNA samples, bullying etc. and cannot make a comment about them as I have no way of evaluating them," Fairbairn wrote in an email. (Full disclosure: I have known Fairbairn well for more than 20 years, dating back to my coverage of the excavations at Neolithic Catalhoyuk in Turkey.)

"Most people are at a loss to explain how Westaway scored that gig," says one archaeologist. "My own guess is that they were greedy for his fellowship [nearly $1 million Australian] and the funding the federal government gives universities with successful research grants."


Where do we go from here?

This report has been long in the making and long coming. During its preparation, I often heard from Australian researchers who--despite their antipathy towards Westaway--might have preferred that I investigate other, more senior colleagues allegedly guilty of bullying, unethical behavior, sexual misconduct, and other abuses. They have supplied me with a long list of names; some of those individuals claim to be opposed to bullying and abuse, even very vocally, at the same time their colleagues have accused them.

And it is true that Westaway, despite all of his academic and research successes, is still a middle level player in Australian archaeology, although it is unclear at this point how much higher he is likely to rise. (Ancient DNA expert Alan Cooper, who is currently suspended from the University of Adelaide over allegations of severe bullying, is a much more senior figure.)

I think the best way to look at this and similar investigations is as proofs of principle--the principle being that it is possible to expose abusers, and even bring about consequences for their abuse, without their colleagues having to live in fear of retaliation for participating in that process. As I mentioned at the beginning, 37 sources (and counting) helped me with this inquiry, and while nearly all remain anonymous at the moment, even doing that much required considerable bravery. That is especially true for the women who were subject to abuse by Westaway.

"Amongst the women, we talk about how the policies for dealing with bullying and harassment are there--but they don't work," comments one archaeologist. "Men in charge don't seem to realize that even making a formal complaint puts a big target on our back as a troublemaker, someone to be run out. And even if we do, nothing happens. The offender is put on X months leave, which effectively gives them X months to focus on their research without having to worry about teaching or administration. It's a reward..."

If past experience is a guide, however, the first reaction of university officials and department heads is likely to be to launch a search for sources, as a way of spreading even more fear and deflecting the actual content of this report. To those hunting for sources, I will say this: Nearly everyone talked to me, which is a pretty clear indication of the amount of antipathy Westaway has generated by his own conduct. So don't bother trying to figure out who they are.

Journalists can open the door to the truth, but the victims, survivors, and their allies are the ones who have to walk through that door and seize the day. They are the ones who can make a better life for academics and other researchers, for students, and staff, and for the indigenous communities that want to collaborate with scientists and not be exploited by them. It has begun, let it begin.











































17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael B,

I'm skeptical - I've known Michael W professionally and personally for more than 20 years, and you are not describing the person I know very well.

It would be good to see some evidence to back up your serious allegations. I think your readers would expect that.

I'm also interested to see if you permit this comment to remain on your blog.

Michael Balter said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your comment, which I have no problem publishing.

I'm afraid you have fallen into the logical fallacy of judging the credibility of the experiences of others by your own personal experiences. Abusers and bullies pick their victims carefully, as you must know, and can often be very charming in circumstances where they have every reason to be. To put it another way, abusers do not abuse everyone, and so a positive experience has little bearing on the validity of the overall evidence. That evidence will be presented in Parts Two and Three of this blog post, and is based on interviews with (as of this date) 36 direct witnesses to Westaway's behavior.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael Balter,

I don't know Michael W very well, but your unsubstantiated allegations against Michael W and others seem to be little more than attempts at self-promotion and personal aggrandizement by an unsuccessful 'journalist' at the expense of others. You're riding the coat-tails of the me-too movement for personal gain. Either that or its a bizarre personal crusade or vendetta. Your months and months of unsubstantiated allegations and tabloid, yellow journalism approach have undermined your credibility and the credibility of anyone who is associated with you.

Michael Balter said...

So we've got another "Anonymous" writing in to say what they have said above. This is a moderated blog, but I usually allow such comments because they help illustrate the kinds of challenges that #MeToo advocates and the journalists who help victims and survivors tell their stories are up against. Anonymous can't figure out what my motivation is--personal gain or a vendetta--but he/she is sure it must be one or the other. Of course, my work speaks for itself, which is why victims and survivors continue to come to me and other journalists for help. Perhaps it is that which most rankles people who don't have the courage to put their names on blog comments.

Anonymous said...

I have worked alongside Michael Westaway for a number of years and he has always been decent and respectful to myself and to my colleagues, and I am too a woman. There is unfortunately much conflict within archaeology in Australia as there is worldwide though more so here due to our colonial history and if this is an attempt to bring down a decent scientist due to professional jealousy and personal beliefs targeting DNA practitioners that would be a tragedy.

Michael Balter said...

In response to the latest "Anonymous" comment:

I have said repeatedly that the positive experiences of one individual do not negate the negative experiences of others, since bullies (and also sexual predators) pick and choose their victims.

The line that all of the accusations against Westaway are due to "professional jealousy" is exactly the one that Westaway himself has taken to defend himself to his own superiors, always white men who have believed him and not the women and the indigenous people who have made the complaints. My report will give them voices too, and readers can judge for themselves.

Paul Turnbull said...

A decent and respectful scientist? Well, that's certainly not the impression I've ben left with. Dr Westaway had no hesitation about publicly accusing me of incompetence as a historian of colonial anthropology in the national press in 2014, and a year or so later in a scholarly journal. I was able to refute his claims on both occasions, but have been left wondering what on earth his rationale was for calling my expertise into question on the most flimsy of grounds in such an aggressive manner.

Michael Balter said...

What I find odd is that Westaway's anonymous defenders are questioning the evidence for his misconduct before that evidence has even been presented in detail (ie in Parts Two and Three, which I am working on now.) I think most colleagues are waiting to see that before drawing firm conclusions (except for those who claim to have been abused by Westaway, of course, who already have formed opinions as might be expected.)

Anonymous said...

Part 2...As expected, lots of bluster but what you ultimately serve up is one-sided salacious storytelling. And shame on you for using someone's suicide to try to support your own dubious conclusions and distorted narrative.

People are remaining anonymous because you've turned this into a witch hunt. If you were a true journalist and were actually interested in producing a true and accurate examination, then people might actually comment openly.

You even screen dissenting voices commenting on your blog...clearly you are not trying to encourage a truthful, balanced discourse on this.

Joanne Wright said...

While I understand the context in which I was named, in my opinion it leaves a lot open to interpretation. At the very least a disclaimer should have been included indicating that there is no suggestion of impropriety on my part.

Anonymous said...

Lambert's behaviour is as bad as Westaway's. Griffith is aware of the bullying & unethical behaviour but will not support action against him no matter the proof offered or the number of complaints made. He is a poisonous man who uses and emotionally damages those who work under him.

Michael Balter said...

Joanne, thanks for writing.

Let me make it clear that I cited the Sciences Advances paper, on which Tapij Wales is also listed as a coauthor, strictly in the interests of reporting the scientific results of the team. There is no implication intended of impropriety on Joanne's part nor any other coauthor other than Westaway himself.

Michael Balter said...

PS re Joanne Wright: My main reason for naming her in the story was to make sure that she, as first author, got proper credit for her work.

Joanne Wright said...

Thank you for responding so quickly. I appreciate the clarification and the credit.

Anonymous said...

There is something so toxically biased about an article quoting Lambert's opinions of anyone as a reputable source. I cannot help but wonder if as a journalist have you read your article impartially? While I do not know Michael Westaway, I have read and been impressed by his his work and also do know communities that are happy with his work completed with them. Can't help but wonder what your motivation is targeting one person in Australia as a representative of all that is wrong in Australian archaeology, and he seems from this targeted for things outside his control. He is not responsible for someone's heartache or decision to take their own life. What happens Balter if it is you listening to the wrong people?

Michael Balter said...

In reference to the last comment, from Anonymous, a clarification:

Dave Lambert is not quoted in this report, nor did he serve as a source for it. I reported that he and Westaway had a falling out, which is true. Nothing about Lambert's own virtues should be inferred from that.

Over the past months I have reported on allegations concerning two Australian researchers, Alan Cooper of U of Adelaide and Michael Westaway, currently at U of Queensland. During that time I have been told about misconduct and other bad behavior by many others in positions of power. Some of those individuals may end up being named, either by me or by others. Ultimately, however, it's the entire abusive culture that needs changing, and in my opinion that should now be the main focus.

Michael Balter said...

Dec 14: I normally reject comments that attack me personally or which raise issues not relevant to the topic of this post and which are clearly designed to deflect from it. Such anonymous commenters might consider expressing their views on their own social media pages.