Saturday, April 25, 2020

Field school directors ask why umbrella archaeology group has failed to respond to serious allegations related to sexual assault, coverups, bullying and retaliatory firings [Updated June 9: How grad students were pressured into excavating at IFR field schools.]

Willeke Wendrich
Last month, I reported on a series of very serious allegations concerning the executive director of the Institute for Field Research, Ran Boytner. The IFR is a sort of umbrella organization that sponsors archaeological field schools all around the world, charging students significant amounts of money for living, working, and excavating at sites across the globe. The allegations included a case of sexual assault by Boytner against a field school student; covering up sexual assault allegations against other archaeologists serving as field school directors; lying to colleagues about what he knew about such allegations; bullying and sexually harassing staff members at the IFR's offices in Los Angeles; and firing staff members in retaliation for whistleblowing.

As I pointed out in the original report, some IFR board members, including the immediate former chair of the organization's board of governors, UCLA Cotsen Institute director Willeke Wendrich, have actively worked to cover up this alleged misconduct by Boytner, including lying to me and others about what they knew not only about Boytner's history--but also about a field school director who had been found guilty herself of retaliating against students (Danielle Kurin of UC Santa Barbara.)

The allegations have been greatly disturbing to many field school directors who work under the IFR umbrella, both out of concern for the students they are responsible for, and for their own reputations. Within the past few days, a group of IFR field school directors wrote to the IFR board, as well as their fellow field school directors, to express their concerns. With thanks to the sources who provided me with the text of the email, I am reproducing it here:

Dear IFR field school directors-

You are cc'd and bcc'd on this email because your contact information appears under your respective field school faculty on the IFR website. This may be relevant to all those affiliated with your program, so we encourage you to share this with any instructors who are not listed there.

First and foremost, we sincerely hope that you and your families are healthy and safe wherever you are in the world. Since our collective attention is now focused on other pressing issues, perhaps not all of you are aware of the recent public allegations made against certain IFR staff, board members and field school directors. You can read those here:

These extremely serious allegations seem to be substantiated by official records and corroborating testimonies from multiple sources. Many of us trusted Michael Balter’s reporting in the past, including those IFR board members who took a firm public stance against the SAA mishandling of the Yesner case.

It has been over a month since these allegations were published, but so far not a single statement from the IFR. Several of us are already receiving anxious emails and phone calls from colleagues, administrators, students and their parents. And many of us feel that coronavirus, universities' closure and the IFR summer program cancellation cannot justify this prolonged silence, especially since the IFR keeps announcing to the world that they (i.e.- we) are already working on preparing the 2021 cycle and are asking students to defer their fees to reserve seats on our programs.

Cc’d here are three of our fellow IFR field school directors who are also members of the IFR board of directors. Dr. Willeke Wendrich, Dr. Jason De Leon, and Dr. Emily Lindsey: we implore you to reply directly to with an update on this situation. To protect the privacy of our colleagues, we will then share these updates with all those bcc’d here (unless opted out- see below.)

Primarily, we will appreciate if you can inform us if there has been an internal/external investigation and, if so, what were the conclusions. At the very least, the IFR owes its field school directors a clarification as to the validity of these serious allegations, and why do you think we should continue our affiliation with the organization.

This is not just about yours and the IFR’s reputation. It is also about ours. Our names, faces, and contact information are posted on the website for all to see, so your continuing silence on these allegations may only implicate others by association and further hold us responsible for any future harm that may befall students who come to our programs. Beyond academic reputation, informing your stakeholders of any safety concern is obviously the responsible thing to do.

We believe that all those cc'd and bcc'd here hold great respect to the IFR and the support it has provided our projects over the years. We share the hope that the IFR will emerge from these challenging times a much better organization. But now, at least several of us strongly feel that it will be highly unethical to continue our commitment until these issues are clarified and dealt with. Without a formal response we also won’t be able to recommend the IFR to our students nor would we continue to refer colleagues to its services.

Anyone bcc’d here who wishes to be removed from this list, please hit reply with the word “Remove” in the subject line.

Respectfully submitted-

Your fellow field school directors.

Although the IFR board has been in touch with field school directors about the cancellation of this year's season due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has not yet responded to this email. I should also point out that I have repeatedly asked Ran Boytner, Willeke Wendrich, and others affiliated with IFR to respond to these allegations, but they have declined to do so.

I will update this blog post as soon as it is merited by further developments.

Update May 5, 2020: Ran Boytner has just been removed from the IFR's staff page. The other staff members were furloughed last month and removed from the site then. Interesting, his name has also been removed from the "Our Story" page, where he was previously named as a founder of the organization. Seems quite possible Boytner has now been fired. Updates as they become available.

Update May 7, 2020: While IFR field school directors are still waiting for the institute's board to explain why executive director and co-founder Ran Boytner is no longer listed on the IFR Web page (he has been erased from its online memory, it appears, even from the "Our Story" page), former board of governors chair (and current board member) Willeke Wendrich has taken the moral high road on education secretary Betsy DeVos's terrible changes to Title IX procedures. Wendrich, who is also the director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, issued a statement yesterday decrying the changes, which in the guise of protecting the rights of the accused put victims of abuse in peril of being retraumatized via cross examination by their abusers.

Wendrich's "Director's Message" includes the following very apt passage:

Archaeology has a checkered past in which the perceived freedom of being in a remote field camp, far away from the normal social standards, in 24/7 proximity, has led to life-long friendships as well as egregious abuse. As a discipline we are slowly coming to terms with the shadow sides of that history and the long shadows it throws into the present. We do so by being explicit, by naming the gains and the problems of our situation in academia and in the field, and by offering open ears and arms to those who either have suffered sexual violence, or those who ‘merely’ have an uneasy feeling that something is not right in a certain relationship, second guessing themselves until it is too late.

To many IFR field school directors and other archaeologists, Wendrich's statement, while true to the spirit of the #MeToo movement in the sciences, smacks of serious hypocrisy given IFR's failure to be transparent about the allegations against its executive director. As a group of field school directors wrote me today:

While we fully agree with the spirit of the statement, we also find this to be extremely hypocritical and self-righteous that she finds the time and words to react to UCLA's Chancellors, but not to the IFR community when it comes to its "shadowy history" of sexual assault and harassment. Many of us are still waiting for a formal statement that we can take back to OUR respective administrations, colleagues, and students. This is outrageous.

As it stands now, we feel that Wendrich's words equally apply to the allegations and coverups within her own organization.

It is well past time for the IFR board to come clean with its field directors, its students, and other interested parties about any investigations it is conducting into Boytner's conduct and the findings--including just why he has been "disappeared" from the Web site. As always, I will report any updates in this matter.

Update May 11: Ran Boytner speaks.

Below is an email that Boytner sent to a large number of recipients. It is full of lies and distortions, but I will respond to it in detail tomorrow in a new post. Interesting, Boytner doees not address the question of why his name has been completely removed from the IFR Web page and whether or not he is still the executive director of the organization. Since he states clearly that he is speaking for himself and not the IFR board of governors, it remains very puzzling that the board has been entirely silent on the matter (Boytner's statement at the end of this letter that the board has been in touch with all the field directors is another lie.)

From: Ran Boytner <>
Date: Mon, May 11, 2020 at 2:07 PM  
Subject: Cyberbullying and the IFR

In the past couple of months, the IFR have been the subject of a cyberbullying and disinformation campaign. In a classic disinformation campaign, attacks are based on partial truths, spins and lies. The story is manipulated, self-cited and then presented as new facts. It is time to inform the community and provide facts on this serious matter. Please note that this comes from my personal email and therefore, represent my position only. I intend to first address the accusations and then discuss the credibility of the attackers. This email is a bit long but I am trying to address the main issues raised.

The IFR had been accused of covering up accusations against Danielle Kurin. A blogger suggested that Willeke Wendrich, Kevin Vaughn and myself should have known about accusations and Title IX investigation against her. Here are the facts: Ten days before the field school directed by Kurin in Peru for summer 2016 was to begin, UCLA legal department contacted the IFR and asked for the program to be canceled. Health and safety issues were cited as reason and no other information was provided. UCLA went out of its way to support the students, and together with the IFR, students were either placed at other field schools or received full refunds. These included all airfare costs. There was no threat of legal action as the above refund policy was implemented immediately.

The blogger then accused the IFR for a cover up of Kurin’s transactions, although he does not explain why so many people engaged is such activity and what was their gain (there are 19 members at the IFR Board of Governors and Academic Board). He wrote that Wendrich “must have known” and therefore did know but did not share. Kevin Vaughn – then UCLA Extension Associate Dean and the then IFR academic partner – also must have known. And I knew just because, well, because I am a bad person and bad people know bad things. Here are the facts: As the blogger contacted the IFR about our relationships with Kurin, Wendrich was appointed to act as the IFR spokesperson. She then issued a number of statements over the course of a week to the blogger. The blogger did not line the statements and became rude and aggressive. On March 12 at 4:17pm, Wendrich sent an email to the blogger, writing she is no longer interested in interacting with him. By 4:28pm of that day, the blogger twitted: “I now have reason to believe that the chair of @IFRArchaeology's board of governors, Willeke Wendrich of UCLA, is lying about what IFR knew and when it knew it. This means the top leadership of the organization is involved in a #MeToo coverup.” What new information became available to the blogger in the 11 minutes between the email and the twit is unclear and unstated.

Whether Kevin Vaughn knew about the investigation is irrelevant. Vaughn worked at the time for UCLA and his duties were to his employer, not IFR. The investigation was confidential, and Vaughn was bound by both law and ethics to keep it as such – until told otherwise. To discuss a confidential investigation with anyone outside UCLA would have exposed Vaughn to serious legal ramification. The blogger suggest that Vaughn should have spread rumors and inform the IFR Board of the investigation that way. Making decisions by rumors is not an advisable way for any organization to take decisions.
There is no explanation why I should have known about the investigation, why I wanted to cover up or what I gained from such behavior. I am, therefore, unable to provide any rational explanation to the blogger’s accusation.

During summer 2017, the IFR sent two archaeologists to visit with Kurin’s field school at two separate occasions. Their reports and the evaluations of over 35 students were highly positive and the IFR Board decided to continue and to work with Kurin. By 2018, events at the Peru-Wari program caused the IFR to stop working with Kurin and her team.
The blogger accused the IFR in general, and myself specifically, of racism. In 2014/15, the IFR enrollment system came under attack from hackers with Nigerian email addresses. Security systems put in place flagged those attacks and each application was checked manually for authenticity and then removed from the system. The fact that these group of hackers came with Nigerian email addresses does not mean that they were unique or special because they came from Africa. In fact, hacking attacks on the IFR are ongoing and as the IFR Executive Director, I invested heavily in cyber security systems. I think that I am strongly anti-hackers – whether from Africa or anywhere else.

The Blogger accused me of sexual harassment while at the IFR. In early 2015, I had a difficult exchange of words with an IFR employee. To ensure fairness, I asked the IFR Board to conduct an investigation. Three board members were appointed (two female and one male) and engaged with all IFR employees and an HR specialist. On March 3, 2015, the committee wrote to me: “You asked that we form an ad hoc committee to conduct this investigation and take such action as deemed prudent……The committee’s investigation and subsequent deliberation lead us to the following conclusions: (1) No claim of harassment or discrimination has been made against you as the Executive Director or against the IFR; (2) The committee found no evidence of harassment or discrimination having occurred”. There was no whistle blower complaint, nor was there any harassment or inappropriate behavior. That employee was later let go. But not because of the event mentioned above. As the chart below shows, enrollment for the IFR 2016 summer programs was declining. Because the IFR funds its own operation from student fees, it was necessary to cut staff members. Given there were only two people working for the IFR at the time (one more person was an outside contractor), that employee was laid off.

The blogger discussed a 2009 Title IX investigation against me while I was at UCLA. Due to legal restriction, I am unable to discuss the details. I wish I would have been released from this obligation, but such a release was not granted. So all I can do is refer to the blogger’s text. The blogger wrote that I was accused of serious violations and sexual assault and harassment. He also wrote that none was substantiated, and that UCLA investigation found I did not violate university policy. Again, I wish I could comment beyond this, but I cannot. All I can say is that UCLA investigation was as thorough and conducted by a professional.
It is important to note that the IFR was the first ever organization to create and enforce a sexual harassment and discrimination policy for field work. Unlike any organization I know of, the IFR sends senior staff or board members to investigate such complains in the field – usually within 24 hours of the time such complaint is made. The IFR has a long record of discussing harassment and discrimination issues during orientation with students, during site visits with faculty and establishing a hotline for anyone to contact the organization with complaints. To make sure the policy is enforced, mandatory student evaluations includes several questions asking about that issue. All of the above were my initiatives so I believe the facts demonstrate I care deeply about the issue.

The blogger accused me of bullying staff members. Since inception, the IFR grew – on average – 22% each year. That means that the only constant at the IFR was change. Change is difficult for any employee to manage but it is especially true with nonprofits, where funding is limited and everyone are asked to multi task and work hard. A Wall Street Journal article published today discuss this and similar issues (see attached). A good read that provides some interesting context. By early 2019, the IFR hired a consulting firm to help manage HR and employee expectations and major improvements were made and implemented since.

The blogger accused me of greed. As I mentioned to anyone I met, the IFR model is designed to create an alternative funding stream for scholars to conduct research. Furthermore, it is designed to establish strong and positive incentives for scholars to excel in both research and teaching. No more field schools as labor camps but places of real teaching and real engagement with students and the public. By 2019, the IFR became the fourth largest funder of academic archaeology research in the US (behind NSF, NEH and National Geographic). For that aggressive growth, I am very proud as I think both scholars and student benefited tremendously. Did I benefit personally? IFR tax records are public document. Anyone can check those and evaluate for themselves. After 10 year of work at the IFR, my annual salary was only slightly over an entry level Assistant Professor salary, and with significantly less benefits. But don’t take my word for it. Check it for yourself (for your convenience, Part VII Section A list my salary).

It is time to discuss the accuser himself. Michael Balter calls himself a blogger and a journalist, advocating against harassment and bullying. As demonstrated above, he cares little about facts, checking the record or doing any footwork – as any decent journalist must do. Balter calls for a financial audit of the IFR but never read the IFR annual tax filing – all public record available online. Balter calls for a Registrar of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) investigation into my ethical behavior, but is not a member himself and did not bring any charges – as required by RPA Code of Conduct – against me. I attempted to file a complaint against Balter under Section 2.2(i) for that conduct (“falsely or maliciously attempt to injure the reputation of another archaeologist”) but cannot do that until he becomes a member. Maybe most important is the fact that Balter himself is a serious bully. During the 2019 Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Albuquerque (NW), Balter was eject from the meeting by the SAA board for bullying behavior. I have been a member of the SAA for almost 30 years and never heard of such ejection in the past. I am not sure Balter is allowed back to the SAA but given his cyberbullying activity, I venture to guess that he may not be allowed to come back.

The only thing Balter craves is attention. I think it is best to give him none.
There have been anonymous emails from people suggesting they are field school directors, parents or students making a range of demands. It is difficult to address anonymous complaints that are vague, quote the blogger as a reliable source and provide no additional details. Given that the board spoke with all field school directors and none indicate they have specific concerns, it is difficult to believe any of these anonymous emails are authentic.


Ran Boytner

Update May 12: Boytner's response features lies of commission and lies of omission.

I've given a lot of thought overnight about how best to respond to Boytner's email, reproduced above, which purports to be a response to the many allegations against him. I do want to point out that I asked Boytner many times to respond to the accusations before publishing my original blog post about them, but he never responded (neither did other members of the board when asked to comment on the Boytner allegations specifically.)

I want to spare readers a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal to his lies, other than to say that I stand by all statements made in the original post.

I will, however, comment very briefly on some of the assertions he makes above:

--Both Boytner and Vaughn did know, in 2016, about the Title IX findings against Danielle Kurin. That is supported by both documents and witness evidence. Later, in 2018, when Boytner and IFR allowed Kurin to hold her field school in Peru under IFR sponsorship, Boytner lied to colleagues and told them that Kurin had been exonerated by the UC Santa Barbara Title IX process. He knew was a lie when he said it (and it contradicts his insistence that he had no way of knowing that there was a Title IX case in the first place.)

--I refer readers back to the original post for the details of Boytner's racism. Note that his explanation above is completely at odd with those multiply sourced facts. Even Willeke Wendrich had to ask why a student from Ethiopia she knew (not Nigeria) was denied a field school slot.

--Boytner is essentially accusing former members of staff of lying about the sexual harassment and bullying they suffered while under his supervision. Again, there are multiple witnesses to these detailed allegations, as outlined in the original post.

--The evidence concerning Boytner's sexual harassment case at UCLA is clear, well documented, and the subject of a number of direct witnesses. The fact that UCLA gave him a pass is not surprising for that pre #MeToo era and is irrelevant to the actual facts.

--Boytner's statement about the events at the 2019 SAA meeting really give the game away. It is widely acknowledged in the archaeology community that the SAA leadership failed to protect victims of a sexual predator (David Yesner, formerly of the U of Alaska) who was present at the meeting, and whom I escorted out of the building. In essence, Boytner sympathizes with the sexual predator and refers to him as a victim of my "bullying."

--Finally, Boytner states that the IFR board of governors has spoken with all the field directors. That is not true. I won't call it a lie right now, because perhaps someone on the board has told him that. If so, it raises the question of exactly what the board is doing and why it will not clarify Boytner's status with the organization (the removal of his name completely from the IFR Web site suggests he is no longer employed by the institute, but that's for the board to say.)

I will continue to report on these matters as new updates are available. My thanks to the many honest colleagues who have helped with this investigation despite risks to their careers.

Update: I am bringing up, from the Comments section below, the posting of one colleague on the Danielle Kurin matter. This is consistent with what others have told me, and provides further evidence that Boytner is lying now, and was lying in 2016 and in 2018, about what he knew about the Title IX investigation of Kurin. The question remains why Boytner was so keen to have Kurin's field school go ahead in 2018 despite what he knew; at that field school, Kurin's partner sexually assaulted one and possibly two female students. I have long wondered if the IFR board's silence has been dictated by lawyers who want to protect the institute from lawsuits.

I can confirm, albeit anonymously for now, that Boytner told me in 2016 that Kurin’s case at UCSB was related to an ongoing Title IX investigation. He also later claimed that she was exonerated of all charges. The IFR board should have dealt with this a long time ago, before it got out of hand. For various reasons I cannot go on record at this time, but will definitely cooperate fully with any formal investigation launched into this matter.

Update June 9, 2020:

An colleague very familiar with UCLA archaeology and anthropology writes about the questionable relationship between Ran Boytner, UCLA, and IFR, and the pressures put on UCLA grad students to keep their dissertation research within that tight network:

"[Re:] IFR and BoytnerGate. The thing that gets us is that we were basically required to work with IFR and Boytner in order to conduct our dissertation research and, later on, to stay in the game if desired. The combination of less available funding and an increase in size of PhD cohorts narrowed our options for financing excavation. The Cotsen Institute was supposed to be somewhat independently supported by a large donation from the Neutrogena cosmetics mogul, but it seemed to have dried up by the time my cohort was dissertating. (The way that Chip [Charles Stanish] managed the institute is probably a story on its own.) We could get plane tickets purchased by the Cotsen, but that was it. When Boytner started IFR, it was presented to us as "take or leave it - this is how you're going to excavate for the data required for your PhD. And, yes, I was already aware by then that Boytner had issues with sexual misconduct.

"Anyhow, doing a dissertation at UCLA w/out freshly excavated data was not an option. [The colleague gives an example of how they were forced to excavate at IFR sites even when they could get better or more easily obtained data elsewhere.] "So, most of us used IFR field schools to get our dissertation data. Then, for those who wanted to stay, IFR was pushed as a way to keep excavating and stay involved in the field. Again, the university and Cotsen used to offer mechanisms to bridge postdoctoral years until the person finds a job, but those dried up. Each person I know from UCLA/Cotsen who now has a [tenure track] job had to collaborate with Boytner and IFR. Despite knowing all these things you've presented." [The colleague adds that there might have been some who did not have to do this, but they were rare]

"It did strike me as odd at the time that they were essentially transplanting the field school system from a university (with Title IX reporting obligations??) to a private system."

MB: The most likely explanation for this is that UCLA needed the grad students to make sure IFR was a viable, money making concern, especially in its early days. I have suggested elsewhere that IFR's finances need an outside audit going back to the beginning, because many questions about possible corruption have been raised (I am not claiming they are proven, but the question is there to be answered.) As this colleague summarizes the situation:

"Boytner would not have been able to get IFR off the ground w/out the free labor of UCLA PIs and grad students, and without Chip elevating it. That's the bottom line. And the grad students and some [principle investigators] were stuck in a hard place w/ no other options."