Should Title IX investigations be kept secret? The case of anthropologist William Hylander at Duke University

Duke University/WikiMedia Commons
In recent days I have put it out on social media that Duke University is investigating one of its anthropology faculty for allegations of sexual harassment. This particular individual has been the subject of conversation within the anthropology community for many years, but he became particularly high profile after verbally harassing colleagues at a 2015 anthropology meeting. His remarks to them, extremely sexist in nature and made in front of numerous witnesses, were reported on social media very shortly afterwards. Unfortunately for this harasser, he chose to target women who were actively researching sexual misconduct in their field. The incidents prompted the organizers of the meeting to make a statement to its members that this kind of conduct would not be tolerated, and to take further laudable action to develop strengthened guidelines for members of their professional association.

I became aware of these and other allegations concerning this anthropologist at the time I was reporting on the Brian Richmond case for Science, the story of the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I did not write about them at the time. But according to sources I consider reliable, the Duke administration was made aware of their faculty member's behavior at the meeting, and was reminded about this the following year when my Richmond story was published. According to those sources, no action was taken.

It would appear that this anthropologist's alleged behavior has finally caught up with him, as evidenced by the current investigation at Duke. Some colleagues in anthropology have raised questions about my looking into this case, out of concern that the Title IX process could be compromised. I responded to one of these colleagues yesterday, and I wanted to share my thinking about this here. Without identifying this colleague, and with editing to remove certain references, I am reproducing what I said here over the course of two email exchanges. I will come back with some additional thoughts at the bottom.

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Dear ____________

You raise an important question, but I think there is a good answer to it.

Let's go back to the Brian Richmond case for a moment. The third investigation, the one the museum contracted with T&M resources to carry out, was a formal Title IX investigation (since the museum gets federal funds they are subject to Title IX, as I pointed out in my Science story.) That Title IX investigation would never had taken place were it not for the impending publication of my Science story, and by keeping tabs on it while it was going on there was some insurance that it would have some integrity and be serious. Indeed, Brian was forced to resign, and the museum did not sweep things under the rug as they had done twice before.

Now back to [the anthropologist.] Duke administrators have known for several years that there was a problem with [him], but did nothing. Anthropology faculty went to the Provost and to the deans after the and asked that his travel funds be cut off, but they were ignored. So there is no reason to think that the current Title IX procedure, which they seem to have been forced into because it reportedly came from outside the university, will be honest unless it is closely watched and there is transparency. Secrecy only helps the institutions to protect themselves, and does nothing for the victim.

There is no question of "outing" the victim in this case. A few, including Duke administrators, have accused me of wanting to do that, but it is not true. My interest is in the process and in Duke stopping [the anthropologist] from going to meetings and continuing his harassment...

I hope this helps you understand why I am pursuing this journalistically, even if you still do not agree...

My purpose is to keep on top of the situation and to publicize, mostly via social media, the fact that the Title IX investigation is actually going on. I think, given Duke's history of ignoring the problem, that spotlight of attention needs to be kept on the university so they will do the right thing. Too many Title IX investigations have been conducted in total secrecy and led to exoneration of harassers who were clearly guilty according to the evidence...

In other words, in my experience, the university cannot be trusted to carry out a serious Title IX investigation without being watched carefully by the community, and by journalists. That there is an investigation going on is a fact, and one worthy of notice, even if the process is still going on.

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Additional thoughts: In fact it is not unusual for journalists and the publications they work for to report on Title IX investigations while they are still taking place. The Brian Richmond case is an example, as discussed above, and so is another recent case published by Science while the investigation was ongoing (that of Dave Marchant at Boston University.)

I would argue that coverage of these ongoing cases is critical to insuring their integrity, given the long, long history of universities and other institutions covering up even the most egregious and longstanding patterns of sexual misconduct. There are so many examples of this that I do not need to list them here. At the same time, alleged victims can be protected, and neither I nor any other journalist I know has identified victims unless they wanted to be. In keeping with longstanding practice in reporting on rape, assault, and other sexual misconduct cases, journalists name the accused but not the accusers.

Perhaps the day will come when institutions can be counted on to privilege the alleged victims rather than their own reputations. But that day has not yet come, and so investigative journalism into these matters if still necessary and desired.

Update 28 February: Further investigation of this case only adds to the evidence that this particular individual has harassed women, especially students, over the past two decades at least, and his reputation has spread widely. In other venues, and in keeping with the principles I outline above, I have named the anthropologist under investigation on social media. For completeness I will name him here:

William Hylander, emeritus professor, Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University

I should add that I never name accused individuals unless I am quite sure of the facts. In this case there is ample and highly credible evidence that the individual has engaged in past harassment behavior, and that the investigation I refer to is actually taking place. I am making no comments about the validity of the accusations currently being investigated by the Duke administration.

Additional thoughts March 6, 2018:  Since preparing this blog post, something came along to remind me of one of the most egregious examples of the weaknesses in the Title IX process--Michigan State University's investigation of the sexual misconduct charges against Larry Nassar. The university is now facing an investigation by the Department of Education into how and why it dismissed charges brought by Amanda Thomashow, who was subjected to horrendous violation by the good doctor. The Detroit News has kept abreast of this story, and the serious conflicts of interest demonstrated in the "investigation" of the matter by Title IX investigator Kristine Moore. The Atlantic has also covered this well. Moore prepared two reports on the matter, one for Thomashow that cleared Nassar, and the other a confidential document for the university, which also cleared Nassar but warned about its potential liability. Moore consulted "experts" with clear ties to Nassar in reaching her conclusions. Moore was later promoted to be MSU's assistant general counsel.

Update April 9, 2018: Hylander's name has now been deleted from the Duke evolutionary anthropology faculty page. He had been in the "emeritus" section of that page for many years, but has now vanished. I will provide more details as they emerge.

Update April 10, 2018: I now have it confirmed that the university has forced Bill Hylander to resign his emeritus status as a result of the sexual harassment investigation against him. The Duke administration will not comment on that decision publicly, however, according to its chief spokesperson with whom I was in touch yesterday. That's unfortunate, for the reasons I outline above. And there's another very sad aspect of this. Hylander was a talented researcher in the evolution of the primate face, both human and non-human. I have been told by former students in the evolutionary anthropology department that many women would have wanted to either study with him, be mentored by him, or otherwise take collegial advantage of his expertise. But given his longstanding reputation for harassment, they avoided him instead. That's bad for them and their careers, and it's bad for the science.

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Anonymous said…
I worked as a female undergrad in evolutionary research with Professor Hylander and he was nothing but professional and a complete gentleman, a dignified and caring professor and scholar. Without question.
Michael Balter said…
I’m glad to hear you had good experiences with Hylander. But some others did not, and your experiences do not negate theirs.