For a number of months now, I have been reporting on misconduct committed by University of California, Santa Barbara archaeologist Danielle Kurin. Up to now, my postings have focused on incidents that occurred during Kurin's field schools in Peru, where her ex-husband, Enmanuel Gomez Choque, repeatedly sexually harassed and assaulted female students entrusted to her care as a faculty member. The reporting focused on the events behind a 2016 Title IX proceeding, which lead to the university putting her on three years' administrative leave (she returned to teaching last fall); and sexual assaults that took place at her 2018 field school in Peru, which led to the organization that sponsored the school--the Institute for Field Research--severing all ties with her.
As a result of my reporting, Kurin has now sued me for $10 million in damages for supposedly defaming her. I am defending the lawsuit vigorously.
Up until now, my reporting has focused mainly on events in Peru. However, I had heard about incidents at her home institution of UCSB, and it was inevitable that news of the lawsuit would spread widely and that further victims and survivors would hear about it. That is now happening. The sad truth is that Kurin's misconduct was not restricted to her field schools; she also brought abuses into her own classroom, where she often taught a course in human osteology (basically, the study of the skeleton.)
I have now learned that Kurin abused a number of students in her classes during the period leading up to the administrative leave in 2016. This might seem surprising to some students who have taken her courses, because it is clear that Kurin is capable of being a charismatic and inspiring teacher. Evidence of this can be found in the entries on her Rate My Professors page, for example:
"Professor Kurin is amazing. She's definitely a little disorganized, and it can sometimes be hard to know what she wants from you. But if you go to class, do the readings, and study hard, you will get an A. She's hilarious and a great lecturer, and will do everything in her power to help you with real-life skills too!"
"Dr. Kurin is one of the best professors I have ever had. Her teaching style is laid back but effective and her lectures are always interesting. The course is tough so you have to put the work in, but she is always there to help and is very open to questions. Definitely would recommend if you are prepared to study and will take her classes again."
But I have also uncovered evidence that she sometimes flags and induces the removal of unflattering ratings, although some of them are still slip through:
"Great professor, if she likes you. Many of the students in her class speculate that she grades more based on if she likes you than the assignments. Has some anger issues."
This last comment touches on the dark side of Kurin's classroom conduct, which has included very abusive behavior towards students she takes a dislike to. A number of students complained to anthropology faculty about these abuses, and some of their complaints made it up the chain to university officials--but little or nothing was done about it.
In this post, a former student I shall call Lara tells her story. Let's start with a letter she wrote in May 2016 about her experiences, which took place in Kurin's fall 2015 human osteology class:
Dear Sirs and Madams of the Anthropology Department, Ombudsman’s Office, and College of
Letters and Science at UCSB,
I am writing this letter of complaint to inform you of my deep dismay and anger over the
treatment I received at the hands of my professor, Dr. Danielle Kurin.
In the Fall of 2015, despite being forewarned by one of her colleagues that “she doesn’t like
older students,” I took her Human Osteology class, and in the course of ten weeks found myself
subject to insidious and harmful psychological abuse by her. This abuse took place both in the
classroom, in front of other students; and alone, in her lab, in the form of inappropriate displays
of anger: i.e., yelling, slamming doors in my face, and making me the target of humiliating and
dismissive remarks. In addition to this, there was an almost seductive counter-behavior that
would assert itself, in private, on other occasions.
This bizarre “roller-coaster” dynamic left me completely unmoored, and, despite being among
the most committed students, I was given virtually no indication of what final grade I might
receive. (After week two, I no longer received grades for any of my weekly quizzes.) This left me
fearful over what to expect, and whether I could depend on fairness from her in assessing my
work. (I would like also to point out that she solely recruits undergraduates as TA’s, and it struck
me that her manner with them, as well as with all her young undergrads, is inappropriately
collegial --”seductive” is the word that repeatedly comes to mind, actually. She plies them with
perks and amplifies their sense of self-importance, sometimes harmfully, or so it seemed to me.
Two of her young aides, in particular, exhibited toward me the same hostile behavior as she,
seemingly in imitation of her. All in all, I would say that she appears intent upon cultivating a
group of worshipful young admirers, to the detriment of her teaching.)
Throughout those ten weeks, Kurin repeatedly suggested that I interrupted her class with
irrelevant questions; when, in fact, after a point, I was too nervous to make any inquiry at all,
largely having given up on having any of my queries on osteology clarified. (Never, in my time at
this university, have I ever been treated like that, by anyone . In fact, I do believe that, if you
were to survey my previous mentors’ opinions of me, they would say that I am an enthusiastic
and cheerful student, if perhaps a bit too talkative.)
Eventually, I was made to feel quite ostracized--a class pariah , if you will. Peers who formerly
sat by and conversed with me convivially before and after class gradually moved away from me,
seating themselves elsewhere. But the end of the course, I was excluded from class discussion
altogether (on the last class session before finals week, when only a fraction of the students
showed up, she humiliated me verbally, then convened a group of students to lecture on the
subject of teeth, while I sat outside of it, quite awkwardly. Needless to say, I left her class that
day feeling utterly distraught).
I become indignant still at the thought of having my education--which I work and pay for,
DEARLY--intentionally thwarted in such a way. Just prior to the end of that quarter, largely as a
consequence of Dr. Kurin’s behavior, I withdrew from school, completely. In the time since, I
have learned that she has a history of such complaints filed against her, and that little to nothing
has been done, by either the Anthropology Department or UCSB, to address this deeply
troubling situation. This, as you can imagine, upsets me very much, for things such as
discrimination, exclusion, and bullying run absolutely counter to the ethos of public education,
liberal education, and fair and equal education--the purported mission of the University of
Having said all that, and in the interest of fairness, I will attest to the fact that Danielle Kurin is
an engaging and inspired teacher, whose talents and abilities are admirably on display, when at
her best. I can well see precisely why she is so popular with so many students, and why so
much has been invested in her by the University. Nonetheless, she is alarmingly inconsistent in
many ways, undisciplined, and immature. These characteristics must certainly be cause for
concern. More important, still, is the fact that her abusive tendencies are simply unacceptable,
by any metric.
As the result of my treatment by Kurin, the psychologically disordered behavior I have suffered
from in the past has resurfaced (ten years ago, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality
Disorder, as well as clinical depression and anxiety), and I can no longer cope with the stress of
school. I have also begun to self-harm: a behavior I had not engaged in for more than a decade.
(If any doubt the severity of my claims of being traumatized, I am willing to make privy my health
records. Indeed, there is already a long trail of documentation to provide as proof of my mental
pain and suffering, accrued even before the official submission of this complaint.)
Very recently, I discovered that Dr. Kurin has perhaps been placed on involuntary leave (for
reasons that of course remain undisclosed to me). I also learned that, just prior to her
leave-taking, she distributed materials using my photograph. (Considering the history between
us, I find this unnerving and request that my image be removed by any and all of her course
material, immediately.) Her treatment of me haunts me daily, and, for a while, I confess, I was
even given over to suicidal ideation, though I believe I am now largely recovered from such
I have taken so very long to write a letter of complaint for the simple fact that I was too
emotionally unwell, after that experience, to do it. I seethed for months with overwhelming rage,
but knew from experience that the worst time to lodge a grievance is when one is in such a
state. I therefore waited until my anger dissipated, but during that time I suffered a period of
severe mental and emotional decline. My once impressive academic record fell apart, and now
is marked by a diffusion of withdrawals and “incompletes”; indeed, it has a rather “cratered”
appearance, as though a bomb had dropped upon it. (What an irony, that someone who has
made her reputation as a preserver of culture has so acted like a vandal upon me and my own
I have also waited upon it out of fear for my own academic prospects, as it is quite a
frightening position to feel so very powerless at the hands of institutional abuse. But most of all,
despite my deep disdain for Dr. Kurin, I actually have empathy for her, and never wish to see
anyone’s hard-earned career derailed. Nonetheless, I feel it incumbent upon me, in the interests
of not only myself but those who are to follow, that I speak out about and seek swift amendment
of this intolerable situation.
In short, I believe the treatment I received, not only from her but from the department in
general, to be discriminatory. I consider myself the victim of sexism and ageism, and I do not
say that lightly: I am one of those students who, owing to a history of psychiatric disorders,
genuinely is triggered by such ill-treatment. Which actions I take to redress this awful unfairness,
I have not yet decided, though I’ve not discounted legal recourse.
I would prefer some form of mediation, censure, or intervention to take place--lest this happen
again, with even more catastrophic results, to another vulnerable student. In truth, I believe Dr.
Kurin to be mentally unwell, and it is, ultimately, those who have shielded her and turned a blind
eye to her repeat transgressions who are responsible for this crisis; it is they, as well as the
University, whom I hold to account.
I should like to close with this: there is something terrible about feeling powerless and preyed
upon within the halls of one’s “Alma Mater.” Of course, I have been fearful to put all this into
writing, as I expect my honesty over my own psychological battles may expose me to an attempt
to discredit me. (David vs. Goliath it may be, but, to quote Shakespeare, the truth will out.) Most
importantly, if UCSB continues to advertise itself as a place free from institutional racism,
sexism, or any form of “othering,” the situation, as it currently exists, cannot, must not, be
allowed to continue.
I look forward to your response, and toward some sort of genuine resolution of this issue.
Undergraduate in Biological Anthropology"
As Lara narrates in her letter, the bullying abuse by Kurin was very triggering to her psychologically, and she suffered greatly from it. Nevertheless, she told me, she thought she might be able to struggle through it and stay in school. Lara stayed at UCSB until the summer of 2016, she says, and then just could not go on. She left the university only two courses short of graduation.
Before that, Lara says, "I was doing well in school. I had gone back as an older student, I was getting all A's, nothing went wrong until Kurin messed with me."
Now, Lara says, "I am not the same person anymore. I was damaged by the Kurin episode."
Lara says that before she took Kurin's human osteology class, she was warned by a colleague that Kurin did not like older students, and often abused them. Lara was just turning 40 at the time, but she brushed off the advice and took the class anyway. Lara found the abuse inexplicable, and never understood why it had happened. She recalls that one day she went to see Kurin in her lab to ask her a question. "I knocked on the door, and Kurin popped up. "You? No!" she said, and slammed the door.
Lara says she told seven different professors and graduate students that Kurin had abused her, and her letter of May 2, 2016 was addressed to the department, the Ombudsman's Office, and the College of Letters and Sciences. Some faculty she talked to were sympathetic, she says, but when she talked to the Ombudsmen's Office [ck] she was told that if she moved forward with a complaint Kurin would have to be notified that she had done it. (This was actually not true under Title IX regulations, but students are often told this by administrators who are trying to bury misconduct under the rug and protect the reputations of the institutions they work for.)
Lara says that word was circulating in the department that Kurin had retaliated against some students (those who complained about sexual harassment by Gomez), and she was afraid of being retaliated against herself, so she dropped it.
I want to draw the attention of anyone reading this to a very salient fact. At the time Lara wrote her letter seeking help with her complaint, May 2016, Kurin was under investigation for Title IX violations for the retaliation against students at her field school in Peru, a charge that was upheld the following month. In other words, UCSB officials knew that Kurin had been accused of misconduct, and they knew that the Title IX investigation was well along.
So pardon my emphasis here, but I am going to put on my hat as an advocacy journalist--a proud tradition in American journalism--and say, what right on God's Earth did UCSB have to discourage a student from making an abuse complaint when it knew full well that the accused faculty member had already been accused of abuses by other students?
Now, back to the facts. I have been told by numerous sources that Kurin had a pronounced tendency to say clearly inappropriate things in class. Here are some that Lara remembers from the human osteology class:
"Kurin one day ended her lecture early, and proceeded to sit atop her desk and regale the class with talk of her sex life, mentioning her breasts, and talking about them at some length. All the students chuckled sort of awkwardly, as I recall. I remember I was fuming because she refused to answer a question I had, saying out loud something to the effect that she didn’t have time for my inquiries (she said it really mockingly), and then she proceeded to waste about 15 minutes at the end of the class to go into some wildly inappropriate story involving her sex life while on expedition in Peru. I’m surprised that no students mention anything to the chair about this stuff, but, then, it isn’t altogether out of place at the anth Department there, and they’re also kids who don’t know what’s acceptable. It’s an uncomfortable, often very sexist environment, misogynistic, and hostile remarks flow from more than one professor there."
"...once I was studying samples in her lab and she had two of her young female assistants in there, working on something for her, and I recall she ordered them food (sushi), and then broke out a bottle of red wine for them all to share (I wasn’t offered anything). She then looked at me and said, ‘This never happened.’ I believe both assistants were underage (though I don’t remember for certain), but in any case, I was really surprised that she thought it okay to ply these undergrads with alcohol. Surely it goes against the rules, whatever their age. It struck me as part of her little game where she tries to get extra chummy with certain students—almost grooming them, if you will. She uses a lot of manipulation to charm younger students, but if she’s aware that a student—a FEMALE student—is older, she becomes abusive, as she was toward me (and, I’m told, toward another female student who ended up scuppering her dream of attending grad school because of Kurin)."
I am currently talking to other former students who suffered very similar abuses to those that Lara says caused her to put aside her career as a researcher. They are likely to be telling their stories too, very soon. Lara is hoping that she will be able to pick up her studies again, finish those two courses, and get back on the track she started out on. "But I will never go back to UCSB," she says.