Brian Richmond, accused of sexual assault, resigns from AMNH, but still maintains his innocence. The fight against sexual misconduct goes on

Brian Richmond
As many readers of this blog will know, Brian Richmond, the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is resigning his position effective December 31. According to AMNH communications VP Anne Canty, Richmond's resignation ends an investigation that began early this year into various allegations of sexual assault and harassment. But it should be clear to all that it was actually the investigation's findings that led to his resignation, which would not have been voluntary; in my original reporting on this case for Science last February, Richmond told me that he had been asked to resign in early December 2015 but had refused to do so.

I will offer some personal reflections on this news below. But first I want to comment on this ending to Richmond's career at AMNH and his reaction to it.

An important point is that the museum's most recent investigation--the third it has conducted since late 2014--covered all of the allegations concerning Richmond, which include an alleged sexual assault on one of his coworkers and a long series of allegations of sexual harassment that go back at least a decade (the source of that statement is Canty herself, who made that clear to me when the third investigation began.) Some, but not all, of these episodes are detailed in my original Science piece. In addition to what appears there, I heard testimony from numerous other women about inappropriate sexual advances that Richmond had made to them; some of these witnesses also became part of the museum's broader investigation, which was carried out by T&M Protection Resources in New York City. T&M, with the enormous resources made available to it by AMNH (estimates are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) was able to talk to some sources I was not, and by all accounts their inquiry was extremely thorough and professional.

Thus there can be little doubt that Richmond would not be resigning at the end of this month had T&M not confirmed, and expanded on, the incriminating evidence from my original investigation. In other words, the preponderance of the evidence must be that Richmond was guilty of repeated counts of sexual misconduct. In addition, the central charge, of sexual assault on a "research assistant" who worked with him at the museum, must also have been upheld. My own reporting produced very convincing evidence that this episode took place and that it was not consensual, as Richmond has always claimed.

But amazingly, after two years of investigation and negative publicity leading to Richmond's resignation, he still appears unwilling to admit to any wrongdoing. Although I communicated extensively with Richmond during the preparation of the Science story, he has not responded to me for many months now. However, he did provide a statement to my former Science colleague, Ann Gibbons, for the story she did on his resignation. As Ann reports:

This week he told Science that the details of his departure are confidential and stressed that only one formal complaint had been lodged against him. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he wrote in a statement, including “to publish the outstanding discoveries that my colleagues, former students, and I made.”

 In other words, as Richmond (and his attorney) told me nearly a year ago, the fact that none of the other alleged victims of his sexual advances pressed formal charges means that their testimony does not count as evidence against him. But again, many of those alleged victims did talk to T&M. If Richmond was innocent, or if the charges could not be sustained, why is he resigning? That is a question he is apparently not willing to answer.

The fact that Richmond still admits to no wrongdoing will, and should, have a significant negative impact on his future career. After the accusations began to become public, one of his colleagues told me that he had talked to Richmond about how he should handle the negative reaction he was getting from the anthropology community, which tended to believe the research assistant's charges--largely because his prior pattern of behavior was already well known among many of them. This colleague suggested that Richmond should stop denying what everyone knew was true and begin to find a way to apologize for his behavior. But in my Science story, Richmond is quoted as only apologizing for "consensual affairs," and not for any other aspects of his behavior, many of which constitute sexual harassment according to most definitions.

Richmond would have done well to read an excellent piece by Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher of science at San Jose State University, entitled "Advice for the Reformed Harasser on Rejoining the Scientific Community." Stemwedel provides a number of criteria by which we could even think about considering someone found guilty of sexual misconduct to have seen the error of their ways. They include "Own what you did," "Accept the descriptions of the harm you did given by those you harmed," "Have your defenders stand down," and "Don't demand anyone's trust." There are others, but so far it is clear that Brian Richmond has not adopted any of them. (I also cite Stemwedel's brilliant article in my story about sexual misconduct at the Smithsonian Institution and Texas Tech University which appeared in The Verge in October; in that case, at least, the alleged aggressor did admit to two incidents he was involved in, although it did not save his position at the Smithsonian.)

In Richmond's case, many members of the anthropology community tell me that he has virtually no chance of ever finding another job in academia. And while I can't be entirely happy that the career of a talented researcher is now over, it seems clear that he has no one to blame but himself. I see no evidence that the AMNH has ever been out to get him in any way; indeed, the museum has long been criticized for having protected him despite the serious allegations, a subject discussed at length in my original story for Science. And, to paraphrase something Yale astronomer Meg Urry said to me last year, any sympathy that we might be tempted to have for fallen sexual harassers needs to be tempered by our compassion for the hundreds or thousands of women who have left science because they were being harassed by their advisors or other faculty.

I would like to conclude with some brief personal thoughts. I have now spent more than a full year investigating sexual misconduct allegations. My stories have led to real and serious consequences for the alleged perpetrators. For me, they have been draining, depressing, insomnia-producing, not at all fun, and they have occasionally made people mad at me whom I would normally not want to antagonize. Fortunately, I am not the only one doing these stories; as always I want to acknowledge the pioneering role played by Azeen Ghorayshi of Buzzfeed, whose exposure of the Geoff Marcy case at Berkeley opened the doors wide open to this kind of reporting.

They would not have been possible were it not for the courage of researchers, junior and senior, who stepped forward to help with my reporting. I have often had to protect the identities of the junior researchers, who still fear retaliation and other negative consequences for speaking out. I have even had to protect the identities of senior, tenured researchers who have less to fear, but who could still face consequences of various types. And some scientists have been brave enough to come out publicly; by doing so they have made a huge difference. I hope that as time goes on more will find the courage to do so. And I also hope that media outlets, both scientific and general media, will assign more reporters to cover these issues, and make available the resources--time, money, and lawyers--needed to carry out these investigations. Right now, there are too few reporters, and, unfortunately, too many stories yet to be done.

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mrfearless47 said…
I just hope that Richmond's severance package, which I understood to be a year's salary, does not also include fringe benefits and contributions to his pension plan from AMNH. While Richmond probably won't be employable in academia, there is nothing stopping wealthy paleo-patrons from funding a private human evolution think tank, where Richmond can put together his own island of misfit toys. I hope this doesn't happen, but if it does, I hope those in foreign governments responsible for issuing excavation permits are pressured by the law-abiding paleoanthropology community to deny any requests for permits where Richmond might be involved directly or indirectly. Richmond's contributions aren't sufficient enough for the profession to permit him to continue in a private capacity. Also Richmond's arrogance, and his refusal to acknowledge his awful behavior and mistreatment of female colleagues is reprehensible. Keep up the pressure.