SAA president Joe Watkins answers questions about why the organization's officers did nothing at first about the presence of a sexual predator at #SAA2019 and related matters

SAA president Joe Watkins
As many or most readers of this blog know, last month's meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) turned out to be both momentous and disturbing for many people. That's because the organization's officers were very slow to deal with the presence of a confirmed sexual predator at the meeting, archaeologist David Yesner, formerly of the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Yesner had been found guilty in a Title IX proceeding of some three decades of sexual misconduct; he was denied emeritus status, and banned not only from all UA campuses but also from all activities in which UA students might be involved.

The failure of SAA officials to protect three of Yesner's victims/survivors present at the meeting (all three of whom have since gone public about the distress they were put through) caused a major upheaval in the organization and way beyond, especially as those officials stumbled their way through one excuse after another. The good news is that SAA members and other activists around the world have put huge pressure on the organization to get things right in the future.

The bad news, however, is that SAA officers, including some members of its board, have yet to fully understand what they did wrong. Indeed, SAA's executive director, Oona Schmid, and its president, Joe Watkins, have lurched back and forth between apologizing for not acting sooner and continuing to defend their actions and insisting they could have done nothing differently.

The following email, which was shared with me by a source who will have to remain anonymous, was sent by Joe Watkins to a colleague and takes the form of responses to questions that were posed to him. This email was then shared with what I believe to be a number of other people, and so it has already been seen by at least some SAA board members. Given that it did not remain private between Joe Watkins and his interlocutor, and that it is being used by some to counter criticisms of SAA, I am taking the liberty of pasting it below. I have removed some potentially identifying material, but as far as I know the email's text is complete.

I will make no comment on it myself--I believe the archaeological community will have plenty to say about it--other than to briefly correct several statements that are incorrect. The email (actually a series of responses that Joe made to questions posed to him) follows, stripped of identifying information:

In your last public message to the membership, you asked us to forget past mistakes and move on. Unfortunately such a statement does not restore confidence in the board and administrator it simply sounds like the organization wants to sweep things under the rug. The SAA needs to own, explain and apologize for its actions.

I am not asking ANYONE to forget past mistakes -- I've admitted the SAA made mistakes. What I am asking is that people be civil in their conversations over those mistakes and then to focus on finding the best and strongest ways to move forward. We can't go forward if we forget those mistakes, and we can't go forward if people keep focusing on the mistakes and not the solutions.

Why did no one act on Thursday when Michael [1] informed the communications director that Yesner was at the meeting?
Yes, Balter notified us on Thursday, April 11th, that Yesner was at the meeting. However, based on the policies and procedures we had in place, there was tantamount to reporting a "person of interest", so to speak. There was nothing we could do about Yesner's attendance until a complaint was filed. Tweeting and emails amounts to hearsay, and we could take no action until we provided due process. Once the survivor filed her complaint (with the consent of the two other students), we took immediate action. 

Why did the SAA expel Michael from the meeting for reporting the presence of a sexual predator who had been barred by his own institution?
Balter was NOT expelled for reporting Yesner's presence. He was expelled for shouting "Predator!" at Yesner and (reportedly) grabbing Yesner by the arm and "escorting" him out of the building.[2] Yesner followed our policies and procedures and filed a complaint. No matter how unpalatable it might seem, we afforded Yesner the same rights as everyone else at the meeting, or otherwise we could start selectively enforcing policies without retaliation. That was why Balter was removed -- for harassing a meeting attendee and for physically (according to Yesner's complaint) accosting a meeting attendee.

Why did the SAA then lie by saying that they received first notice about Yesner on Friday?
We first received emails from the UAA graduate adviser Friday morning; we then received an email from the UAA Chancellor Friday afternoon. We have STILL not received notice of final adjudication of Yesner's Title IX case from the UAA as of this morning (that I know of). Balter's tweets, emails, and phone calls [3] cannot be construed as "notice," because we had no "official" notice of any action against Yesner by his home institution. Once the students indicated their concern about Yesner's presence and their discomfort, and once they indicated WHY they were uncomfortable with his presence, we took immediate action.

Why has the SAA tried to blame others, including UAA for the SAA's failure to act in this matter?
We are not trying to blame UAA (although it has been perceived as such). We indicated that, had we been notified by UAA earlier than Friday morning, we could have been prepared to move to expel Yesner immediately. The UAA has indicated that they do not feel it is their responsibility to try to reach out to every association meeting Yesner might have decided to attend. Similarly, it is not the SAA’s responsibility to know whether an action has been taken against him or her outside of our meeting. That's why we are trying to initiate a method whereby, once we receive a complaint about someone on site, we can move forward and prevent someone from attending the meetings. Is this a perfect fix -- no, but we are hoping the task force will come up with more permanent policies and procedures that will address this and other issue they might identify. 

And the thing that concerns me the most: Why has the SAA been blocking from twitter members who are critical of the SAA but who have not been vulgar or offensive?
SAA has been blocking Twitter a few members and nonmembers from its feed because many of the owners of the accounts were being unprofessional and personally attacking people publicly. Each individual has his or her own Twitter accounts and their followers where they are perfectly free to say whatever they feel and to tell everyone in the world who should be fired and what the organization should do. However, it's not up to the SAA to given them a free platform to do so. Personnel issues are NOT within the purview of Twitter users. To call for the firing of someone who is perceived to be "cold" or "insensitive" is unprofessional and irresponsible. And while I have heard students say "Twitter is where they get their news," all too often Twitter is inflammatory and self-serving intended to get more and more followers who listen to a particular viewpoint. Read this for a bit more insight on it:

It’s Not Enough to Be Right—You Also Have to Be Kind. Takedowns and clever quips are easy, but empathy and persuasion are better
I would strongly suggest that that the board embrace the referendum as a member inspired move and that the SAA drop the corporate cover our ass approach to dealing with the membership.
I am not categorically opposed to the referendum, but I do believe (my own personal and professional opinion here, not as SAA President) that it is a knee-jerk reaction to something the SAA needs to craft on its own. The AAA has been working on its policy for two years, and passed it based on the SAA meeting. The SHA also used the SAA meeting as a call to action. We need to NOT react, but to have the time to build something that will anticipate events that might happen in the future. We are also investing power in the task force to look at the policies and procedures and to provide input into the revision of them. Would you trust the AAA to know what the SAA needs? 

This is a brand new board made up of archaeologists like you, who want to see change. Each of us is passionate about seeing SAA make a change. We are committed to making 2019 and 2020 years that usher in change for the society that are long overdue. I hope that you read to the end. Please feel free to ask any other questions or to ask for clarification on any one of them.

I hope I haven't lost you in the beginning of these answers, and that you have read to the end. Please feel free to ask any other questions or to ask for clarification on any one of them.

... their [the students' ]choice to utilize Twitter rather than the policies and procedures the SAA had established to help in these sorts of situations had ramifications that tied the hands of the organization.

I have not been able to share the SAA's side of the story because of the SAA's legal responsibilities to the privacy issues (however unpalatable as it might be) that all the individuals (including Yesner) involved in this situation have. However, I do wnat to respond to some of the partial information you have.

Oona did NOT misinform the Board; Balter was the person at fault for harassing Yesner and either actively or attempting to "escort" him from the venue. Whether it was "assault" as indicated by Yesner or not, the anti-harassment policies required EVERYONE to be treated the same. There weren't two complaints filed by Thursday afternoon -- the second complaint of the entire conference was filed Friday morning at 10:47

Yes, Balter "informed" the SAA about Yesner's presence, but did not do so in a manner that would allow us to operate within existing policies to take action. Balter complained about Yesner's presence, but had no standing or basis to file a complaint, which he NEVER did anyway. [4] Amy's actions were appropriate given the interaction -- she reported what Balter was saying and doing, but had no recourse available to her beyond that. 

I have been concerned for a long time that many people actually do not have the facts straight. I am so sorry that the students had to go through all of this. I have reached out to them and have spoken with two of them -- one has chose not to respond until her lawyer has received her letter. One of the students indicated Balter was working on their behalf, while another indicated he was not. The third has not indicated any positive or negative relation with Balter. [5]

These are just some brief responses to your note. I am ever hopeful to be able to provide these and more details in a more public setting VERY soon.

One final thing -- one of the 9 complainants in the Title IX action said she formally complained about Yesner in 2014, and her report went nowhere. UAA took 5 years to act -- the SAA acted in 5 hours.  



1. This refers to me, Michael Balter.

2. This accusation by Yesner is false. I did not assault him or use physical force to get him to leave. I used the power of embarrassment. It is correct that I raised my voice when he hesitated to leave and called him a "sexual predator." Moreover, I was never told, not then and not since, why I was ejected from the meeting, nor given a chance to tell my side of the story and avoid such action.

3. This is very misleading. I gave communications director Amy Rutledge a detailed, in person account about Yesner, the charges against him, the Title IX findings, his ban from UA, and the presence of the three survivors, about 10 am on Thursday April 11. I offered to go on the internet then and there to show her the media coverage and other materials that would confirm what I was saying. I also told her that I had been invited to the meeting to participate in the #MeToo in Archaeology panel, which should have suggested to her that I had at least some expertise in the topic.

4. I was never offered the opportunity to file a complaint, nor did Amy tell me I did not have standing to do so. I went into the staff office that morning and asked the young colleagues working there (two women and a man) how I went about reporting a "sexual harassment related matter." They went and got Amy who listened to my account without taking any notes. She told me that she would take it from there, but agreed that I could call or email her later that day for an update. She never responded to any of those messages.

5. This is incorrect. Two of the three students have stated publicly that they asked me to help them and I was acting on their behalf. I will give Joe the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps he did not know about the second student who did that.

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