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Monday, March 23, 2020

Chief of international archaeology field schools has long history of alleged sexual misconduct, bullying, and racism. [[Updated March 30, 2020]]

IFR executive director Ran Boytner
Archaeologist Ran Boytner is the Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Field Research, based in Los Angeles. The IFR was established in 2011 by Boytner, who previously served as the Director for International Research at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

Boytner came onto my radar earlier this month, when I published two reports on serious misconduct by University of California, Santa Barbara archaeologist Danielle Kurin and her partner, Peruvian archaeologist Enmanuel Gomez Choque. The first report dealt with misconduct at Kurin's 2015 archaeological field school in Peru, and the 2016 Title IX findings against both her and Gomez for retaliation and sexual harassment, respectively.

The second report concerned Kurin's 2018 field school, also in Peru, where Gomez ended up sexually assaulting two female students. The 2018 field school was sponsored by IFR, which conducted an investigation after students complained about the misconduct there. After the investigation, IFR severed its relationship with Kurin. On the face of it, that seemed to shed a good light on IFR's seriousness about misconduct at its field schools. But as it turned out, the only reason Kurin was able to conduct the 2018 field school at all was because Boytner had covered up--and later, blatantly lied--about what he knew about the 2016 Title IX findings. Joining Boytner in the coverup was then UCLA Extension dean Kevin Vaughn, now a dean at UC Riverside and an IFR board member.

As I pointed out in that second report, Vaughn and Boytner were informed right after the June 14, 2016 Title IX findings came down from UCSB that Kurin and Gomez had been found guilty--and they immediately cancelled a Kurin field school in Peru that IFR had sponsored, just about 10 days before it was supposed to begin. The field school students were told only that "health and safety" issues had come up that required the cancellation; some of them were already in Peru, and all of their lives were disrupted seriously.

As I prepared the report about the 2018 field school, I wondered why Boytner had lied about what had happened. Boytner told a number of colleagues that Kurin and Gomez had been cleared by the UCSB investigation, a blatant lie. I could understand that Boytner and the IFR board (or at least those board members who were in the know) might want to protect the institute from legal action from the assaulted 2018 students, who had been courageous in asserting their rights to a safe field school experience. I did not have to wonder for long. Shortly after the second report, sources began to approach me to fill me on Boytner's long history of misconduct.

Here are the results of the latest turn in this investigation. As always, I have relied only on direct witnesses to events or to authenticated documentation, never on rumor or second hand information. To protect sources, many of whom are fearful of retaliation from Boytner and his allies--including some members of the IFR board--I have been circumspect about where the information below came from. But I think readers will quickly see how credible it is.


An accusation of sexual harassment at Boytner's field school in Peru. Did UCLA let him off?

On July 24, 2009, Michael Clark, an equal opportunity consultant in UCLA's Staff Affirmative Action Office, wrote to Boytner to inform him that a student from the University of Southern California (USC) had filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. The allegations, Clark wrote, were that "while in Peru, you engaged in inappropriate and offensive sexual behavior towards her." (Other documents in my possession indicate that the alleged misconduct took place between June 22 and July 3, 2009.) Already, while still in Peru and before the formal complaint had been filed, Boytner had been put on "investigatory leave" from his position and required by UCLA to return to the United States, according to UCLA documents in my possession.

The student's accusations were outlined in a three page document that was provided to Boytner. There were 15 specific allegations. (I am not identifying the student to protect her privacy.) Some of the key charges were:

--That Boytner had extensively photographed the student, many times more than any other field school participant, including several photos of her mounting and dismounting a horse. Some of the photos were allegedly taken directly up the student's skirt.

--That Boytner had taken the student aside telling her that he wanted to talk to her, whereupon he told her that he "had fallen in love" with her and "could not keep quiet about it any longer."

--That Boytner told the student that he didn't "give a shit" about the fact that he was married and that he thought the feelings might be mutual.

--That Boytner told the student he had "an understanding" with his wife and that he did not believe in monogamy.

--That when the student reminded Boytner he had been her professor for a class she had taken at USC, he told her that they were "just a man and woman with desires."

--That Boytner told her he had never felt this way about another student, but that she was "so mature and strong" and that he had never met someone as young as her who was so strong.

--That the student continued to remind Boytner that he was an authority figure and in control of the situation.

--That Boytner took her hand and "creepily started to pet it," whereupon the student got up and left.

--That the next morning, on the pretext of telling her she was not wearing her walkie-talkie properly, he "grabbed her 'ass' and groped her," despite her protests.

--That Boytner repeatedly tried to get her alone after that, despite her resistance.

--That the student reported the conduct to others involved in the UCLA program and was quickly transferred to another field school near Cuzco, Peru.

In conclusion, the student wrote in her complaint that an "acceptable resolution" would be an apology from Boytner, and that while she did not want him to be fired for the offenses, "I also do not believe that he should be allowed back in the field with female students who are unaware of his prior inappropriate behavior."


On November 22, 2009, Charles Stanish, then director of the Cotsen Institute, wrote to Boytner to discuss the findings of the Staff Affirmative Action Office's investigation. This letter (which came from sources other than Stanish himself) confirms the "inappropriate" behavior. Remarkably, however, UCLA did not find Boytner guilty of sexual harassment, which normally would have required his immediate termination.

The office "found that you did not violate the University's policy, but that you engaged in inappropriate conduct in your interaction with" the student, Stanish wrote, adding that "This incident is very disturbing." Stanish pointed out that while Boytner's formal position was director of international programs, he also had an appointment as a Research Associate which sometimes involved teaching students (such as the class at USC.) "Consequently the students perceive you as a professor, and that perception places an extra burden on you to maintain a professional relationship with the students..."

After citing the relevant provisions of the faculty code of conduct, Stanish went on:

"By your own admission, you discussed matters of a very personal nature with Ms. ___________, and told her that you loved her. Although you were found not to have violated the sexual harassment policy related to your appointment as Director, I agree with the findings that your behavior was entirely inappropriate and must not be repeated." Stanish concluded by telling Boytner that he could not act as an instructor in the program "for the indefinite future, and you are not to have contact with undergraduate students without a third party present." Boytner was also instructed to attend sexual harassment training "at the earliest opportunity."

Contacted for comment on these events, Stanish told me that he was instructed by UCLA at the time to keep the matter confidential, and that "university policy demanded that I not say anything." Nevertheless, Stanish says, "I did not do anything wrong."

Nevertheless, rumors have continued to swirl about this episode in the archaeology community over the years, in part because the student told other participants at the 2009 field school parts of what she alleges happened, including the allegation that Boytner had told her that he was in love with her (which he later admitted, according to Stanish's letter.)

Moreover, sources reliably inform me that the student eventually sued both Boytner and UCLA, but the suit was settled quietly for an undisclosed amount of money. Several witnesses associated with the case were required to sign nondisclosure agreements. Either just before or after the settlement--the timing is not entirely clear--Boytner was obliged to leave UCLA. The story at the time was that there was a funding issue with the field programs, although some sources insist that Boytner was fired.

A couple of editorial comments here. First, I think many would agree that had this misconduct occurred today, in the so-called "#MeToo era," Boytner would have been found guilty of sexual harassment. It does not even seem like a borderline case of any kind. Second, if he was not guilty of sexual harassment, then why did the university require that he take sexual harassment training?

The facts of the case could, indeed, support the feeling of many with knowledge of these events that UCLA covered them up at the time. Whatever the case, Boytner would go on to found the IFR, which put him in the position of damaging many students and staff both directly and indirectly.


Boytner at IFR: Sexual harassment, bullying, racism, and attempts to debunk misconduct research.

The following is based on a large number of sources who have worked with Boytner over the years in various ways, including former IFR employees. As brave as these sources are, archaeology is a small world, and most of them fear retaliation.

All of the sources, however, described a routine pattern of blatant sexism on Boytner's part. He would comment openly and critically on the role of women in archaeology, telling female archaeologists repeatedly that they had to choose between having a family and having a career. Boytner also habitually tried to corner women into discussing sexual subjects, a behavior that was described to me by a number of colleagues. He also routinely bullied employees,  often yelling and screaming at them if he thought they were not doing their jobs properly, or even if something went wrong that they could not reasonably be responsible for, sources say.

I spoke at length with a woman I shall call IFR Employee No. 1. She worked at IFR during 2014 and part of 2015. One hot day, Employee No. 1 was wearing a sleeveless shirt with a shawl around her shoulders. She says Boytner asked her why she was wearing the shawl, to which she responded that she was just trying to be professional. "He demanded that I take my shawl off," the employee recalls. Boytner then started talking about the "open relationship" he and his wife had. "He asked me about my partner and did we have an open relationship."

Employee No. 1 says that she was "desperate for this job" and tried to keep her distance from Boytner, to no avail--the harassment, along with severe bullying, continued. Finally the employee made a complaint to Willeke Wendrich, current director of the Cotsen Institute and chair of the IFR board of governors (Wendrich's behavior is a subject of my second report on the Danielle Kurin matters.) Employee No. 1 and other sources say that Wendrich attempted to "mediate" between her and Boytner, despite clear evidence of abuse. Wendrich suggested that the employees have a "safe word"--which they could use if Boytner went too far--and that was agreed to. The safe word was "motorcyle," the sources say, and in one case it actually had to be employed. Again, to no avail.

In the end, Boytner fired Employee No. 1, as he had done with other staff members during the years who would no longer put up with his abuse.

Former employees also described Boytner's reaction when, in 2014, a group of anthropologists published a pivotal study demonstrating an alarming degree of sexual misconduct at field schools. The Study of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE), which appeared in the scientific journal PLOS ONE in July of that year, found that 64% of survey respondents had experienced sexual harassment, and that over 20% had been subjected to sexual assault. But according to Employee No. 1 and other witnesses, Boytner did not believe these results. He told everyone that he was going to disprove them, and assigned Employee No. 1 to design a new survey that could be used in the IFR field schools. But Boytner, unhappy with the survey questions, made changes which several sources told me seriously biased the questionnaire. After he consulted an expert on the methodology who tried to set him straight, sources say, he dropped the whole idea.

Finally, there is the issue of Boytner's blatant racism. Former IFR employees say that Boytner routinely rejected students from Africa. "Why would someone from Africa want to go to a field school?" he would ask. One source says that Boytner seemed to be concerned, in part, that African applicants were really hackers trying to get into IFR's servers. As with many aspects of Boytner's misconduct, Wendrich was aware of the discrimination as well: When an Ethiopian student she had discussed the field schools with was rejected, she wanted to know why.


The consequences of Boytner's behavior, over many years, has been in some cases severe in its effects on other people. He sexually harassed a female student at his field school in 2009 (despite UCLA's determination, there is no question that his behavior as described would today be found in violation of Title IX); he harassed and bullied IFR employees and fired them without just cause; his lies about the Title IX charges against Kurin and Gomez allowed the couple to host a 2018 field school at which students were sexually assaulted, causing trauma they are still suffering from; and he has actively engaged in sexist and racist behavior according to numerous sources.

Wendrich, and possibly some other IFR board members as well, have been aware of this behavior for a long time. Boytner did not respond to several requests for comment on these accusations, and Wendrich--who sources tell me has been aware of Boytner's misconduct going all the way back to the 2009 sexual harassment case--has declined to comment as well.

But it seems that a reckoning by IFR board members about the suitability of their executive director to continue in his job--one that affects the well being of hundreds of students each year--is long, long overdue.


Update March 25, 2020: There's been a lot of discussion of these revelations on Instagram and other private chat venues. Some of the comments are not very complimentary to IFR. Some examples:

"I did an IFR field school and the leader was highly abusive. This does not surprise me in the least."

"I was in Peru. There wasn't any sexual misconduct, but the lead was verbally abusive to the point where some of the students would cry in their bunks." 

"Any time one of us got injured or felt unwell, the lead would tell us to suck it up 'because it's a major pain to get to a hospital from here.'"

"To add insult to injury, nobody learned anything because we were treated as grunt labor rather than students. One of the worst experiences of my life."


I also hear that some of the IFR field schools have been excellent, so it obviously depends on the director a great deal. But the quality control is clearly poor. Sources say that both Boytner and IFR board chair Willeke Wendrich have limited sympathy about complaints. And former employees have talked to me at length about Boytner's obsession with how much money IFR is making through its running of the field schools. "We want to make a million dollars!" he reportedly said, repeatedly.


Update March 30, 2020:  IFR has now cancelled its summer field schools, a sensible move announced on its Web site. This may buy its governing board some time to deal with the serious accusations against its executive director, and to repair the damage that his long-known, serious abuses of students and staff has done to the institute's reputation.


















4 comments:

Pat Shipman said...

What is the evidence that sexual harrassment training actually alters an abuser's behavior? In the training I have received, as a faculty member not as someone against whom a complaint was made, the biggest takehome message was that I was a mandatory reporter -- i.e., I HAD to report anything I saw -- and to whom I should report. Otherwise, I was not impressed by the training.

Michael Balter said...

Pat, that’s a good question. I have not researched the subject myself but I have seen some studies that raised the same question and came up with the same answer. Mandatory reporting is probably a more powerful weapon against misconduct, and, as you know, severe consequences for abusers which I have always advocated as the first step towards changing the culture. You can’t change the culture in the abstract, at least not in this phase we are still in.

Anonymous said...

It took the IFR a really long time to actually close the field schools even after a number of faculty (who have projects in countries that are COVID-19 hotspots) explicitly asked to have their projects shut down. Part of the reason it took them so long to shut the programs down was because the IFR tried to convince faculty and students to instead do ONLINE "FIELD RESEARCH".

Michael Balter said...

This last comment is consistent with information from sources that Ran Boytner was obsessed with how much money IFR was making and repeatedly stated that the institute was going for “a million dollars” in revenue. An independent audit of IFR’s finances might be in order once life gets back to normal and the board has to face the allegations against its executive director.