Allegations of sexual misconduct have roiled the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Allegations of sexual misconduct have roiled the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

View Press/Corbis

The sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology

On a cold evening last March, as researchers descended upon St. Louis, Missouri, for the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), a dramatic scene unfolded at the rooftop bar of the St. Louis Hilton at the Ballpark, the conference hotel. From here, attendees had spectacular views of the city, including Busch Stadium and the Gateway Arch, but many were riveted by an animated discussion at one table.

Loudly, and apparently without caring who heard her, a research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City charged that her boss—noted paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, the museum’s curator of human origins—had “sexually assaulted” her in his hotel room after a meeting the previous September in Florence, Italy. (She requested that her name not appear in this story to protect her privacy.) Over the next several days, as the 1700 conference attendees presented and discussed the latest research, word of the allegations raced through the meeting.

Richmond, who was also at the meeting, has vigorously denied the accusations in a statement to Science and in email responses. (He declined to be interviewed in person or by telephone.) The encounter in the hotel room, he wrote, was “consensual and reciprocal,” adding that “I never sexually assaulted anyone.”

Although the most recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment in science have arisen in astronomy and biology, many researchers say paleoanthropology also has been rife with sexual misconduct for decades. Fieldwork, often in remote places, can throw senior male faculty and young female students together in situations where the rules about appropriate behavior can be stretched to the breaking point. Senior women report years of unwanted sexual attention in the field, at meetings, and on campus. A widely cited anonymous survey of anthropologists and other field scientists, called the SAFE study and published in July 2014 in PLOS ONE, reported that 64% of the 666 respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment, from comments to physical contact, while doing fieldwork.

Even a few years ago, the research assistant might not even have aired her complaint, as few women—or men—felt emboldened to speak out about harassment. Of the 139 respondents in the SAFE study who said they experienced unwanted physical contact, only 37 had reported it (see graphic, below). Those who remained silent may have feared retaliation. Senior paleoanthropologists control access to field sites and fossils, write letters of recommendation, and might end up as reviewers on papers or grant proposals. “The potential for [senior scientists] to make a phone call and kill a careermaking paper feels very real,” says Leslea Hlusko, a paleontologist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.

This is a tragedy of many dimensions, and contemplating it makes me infinitely sad.

Ian Tattersall

Now, however, the SAFE study, along with a few high-profile cases has spurred a major shift in how some academic communities deal with harassment, says anthropologist Katie Hinde of Arizona State University, Tempe, who co-authored the study. What was once tolerated, overlooked, or kept quiet now may be publicly censured, and institutions are increasingly sensitive to how faculty can—sometimes unwittingly—abuse their power over students and employees. Last month, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena suspended astronomer Christian Ott for a year for allegedly harassing graduate students. Astronomer Geoff Marcy at UC Berkeley was found to have sexually harassed women students for a decade, and when Berkeley did not fire him, the outrage among astronomers forced him to resign late last year. “How the astronomy community responded to [the Marcy case] is a model for every other field,” Hinde says. 

Now, paleoanthropology is responding to its own complex case. Outsiders may never know for sure what happened in that Florence hotel room. But the incident ultimately triggered a cascade of other allegations against Richmond and a resolve by some senior paleoanthropologists to do battle against sexual misconduct, hoping to change the climate of their field. The charges and the community’s response also roiled two leading institutions, which struggled with shifting cultural expectations, inadequate reporting and disciplinary tools, and the challenge of treating all parties fairly.

The sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology

V. ALTOUNIAN/SCIENCE

The research assistant, who still feels that she did not get justice, continues to tell her story. Richmond, who says the museum has asked him to resign and who is the subject of a new investigation, continues to protest his innocence. She no longer reports to him, but until recently they passed each other almost daily in the halls of AMNH. Other paleoanthropologists are working to limit Richmond’s contact with students, and find the current situation distressing for all parties. “This is a tragedy of many dimensions, and contemplating it makes me infinitely sad,” says Ian Tattersall, the former curator of human origins at the museum.

From Florence to St. Louis

In 2010, Tattersall, who had led human origins research at AMNH for more than 30 years, retired, and the search was on for his replacement. It would not be easy, because the personable Tattersall had become a leading voice of paleoanthropology, writing numerous books and making endless public appearances. “He was the spokesperson for our profession,” Hlusko says.

In 2014, after a long search, Richmond, then at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C., was chosen. He began work at the museum in August of that year.

"I never sexually assaulted anyone." — Brian Richmond

"I never sexually assaulted anyone." — Brian Richmond

Described as charming and sociable, Richmond, 47, is best known for the co-discovery of 1.5-million-year-old hominin footprints at the site of Ileret, in Kenya. He has co-authored at least 170 publications and served as principal adviser for several grad students and postdocs. Researchers who know Richmond well say that he was a good mentor and worked hard to give his students both field and laboratory experience.

Richmond also supervised the research assistant, who has a key job in AMNH’s anthropology division. She received a master’s degree in anthropology from New York University (NYU) in New York City, began working at AMNH about a decade ago, and is widely described as hard-working and well-liked.

In late September 2014, less than 2 months after Richmond had begun at AMNH, he and the research assistant attended a meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) in Florence. The research assistant says that on the last night of the meeting, she, Richmond, and several young European researchers were out on the town, visiting bars and drinking red wine and shots of limoncello, an Italian liqueur. She recalls “walking around Florence and realizing that I was way too drunk.” The next thing she remembers, she says, is waking up on the bed in Richmond’s hotel room in the wee hours of the morning with him on top of her, kissing her and groping under her skirt.

The research assistant says that she immediately told Richmond to stop, and left the room. Because she was not a guest at the hotel, the reception desk in the lobby, perhaps concerned that she was not supposed to be there, would not let her leave without authorization. She had to call up to Richmond and get him to vouch for her. Still in shock, she says, she allowed Richmond to accompany her to her Airbnb nearby. With just a couple of hours before her flight back to New York, she quickly packed and made her way to the airport.

Shortly after her return to New York, the research assistant told her story to at least three friends, all of whom report hearing essentially the same version of events that she later told to Science. But she says she delayed officially reporting the incident until sometime in November 2014, fearing that she would not be believed or would be fired. She says she considered making a police report, but doubted that the Italian authorities, who have jurisdiction, would prosecute now that she and Richmond were back in the United States. Finally, after telling her husband, she went to AMNH’s human resources (HR) department.

Richmond tells a different story of that night. Although he confirmed in an email to Science that he made his room “available” to the research assistant when she could not find her Airbnb, in his written statement Richmond says that the encounter was consensual. It “did not progress beyond kissing and embracing,” he wrote, and “ceased the instant my colleague said, ‘This isn’t a good idea.’” Richmond also says that “while we were both drinking, neither of us was incapacitated.”

Back in New York in the late fall, the museum’s human resources staff spoke to both Richmond and the research assistant. An email to her from AMNH’s vice president for HR, Daniel Scheiner, dated 22 July 2015, describes the results of that late 2014 investigation—the first of three initiated by the museum. Scheiner wrote: “We had determined that Brian violated the Museum’s policy prohibiting inappropriate relationships between supervisors” and their subordinates. Scheiner added that “Brian would be held accountable for the violation of the policy” and that the research assistant would report to a different supervisor.

Anne Canty, AMNH’s senior vice president for communications and marketing, clarified that decision in a statement to Science, writing that “a zero tolerance warning was issued to Dr. Richmond.” According to Canty, from then on the only contact allowed between the two was by email.

In his statement, Richmond confirms that AMNH “disciplined me for violating Museum policy against personal activity between supervisors and those who report to them,” and says that he “sincerely apologized to my colleague and the Museum for the breach of that policy.” Richmond adds that during the HR investigation, “I was advised that … my colleague recalled virtually nothing” of the incident. He says that he has “since been informed that my colleague’s stance has changed over time from simply not remembering what took place after a night in which we had both been drinking with other people, to accusing me of taking advantage of her when she was incapable of consent.”

The research assistant vigorously rejects the assertion that she changed her story. She has “no memory of going to Brian’s hotel,” she says, but does recall waking up in his room. “My clearest memory of that night is waking up to being touched below the waist and how shocking and distressing that was.”     

George Washington University responds

Still upset and angry in March 2015, the research assistant headed for the St. Louis meeting. She felt that the museum should have fired Richmond, and she decided to tell her story to everyone who would listen, especially female colleagues.

At the meeting, one person who heard the allegations was Bernard Wood, 70, a senior paleoanthropologist originally from the United Kingdom. Wood is now at GWU, where Richmond was on the faculty for 12 years before moving to AMNH. Widely regarded as one of Richmond’s key mentors, Wood was stunned by the allegations. He says he had no way to know whether they were true. But he was mindful that his recommendations had bolstered Richmond’s career for years, and he wanted to be sure that Richmond’s behavior while on the GWU faculty had been professional. Also, Richmond continued to teach at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, a summer institute that is now co-run by GWU and the National Museums of Kenya and is mainly attended by undergraduates.

In St. Louis, Wood canvassed younger researchers about their experiences with Richmond. He asked everyone the same question: “Does this alleged behavior come as any surprise to you?” But he didn’t get the “yes” he was expecting. Nearly all said that they were not surprised, and two individuals told Wood that they had been the direct subjects of unwanted sexual advances by Richmond. “It was clear that there was a pattern of behavior,” Wood says. He continued his efforts once he returned to GWU, speaking to present and former members of the multidisciplinary program he leads, the Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP). “As I talked to more and more current and former students at GWU, I became more concerned and alarmed about what I heard,” he says.

"As I talked to more and more current and former students at GWU, I became more concerned and alarmed about what I heard." — Bernard Wood

"As I talked to more and more current and former students at GWU, I became more concerned and alarmed about what I heard." — Bernard Wood

Sergio Almécija

In important ways, the ground had been prepared at GWU to deal with such allegations. Hinde had spoken to CASHP members about the SAFE study in March 2014, and GWU archaeologist David Braun, co-director of the Koobi Fora Field School, had asked her to help create a policy document about sexual harassment for field school staff to sign. “I have been doing fieldwork in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa for the past 20 years and I have definitely observed these kinds of problems,” Braun wrote Hinde, adding that he wanted there to be “no question about our policy.”

Now, CASHP responded quickly to the allegations concerning Richmond. Just a few days after the St. Louis meeting ended, program members contacted GWU’s coordinator for enforcement of Title IX, a 1972 education law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational institutions that receive federal funds. (Most early claims of Title IX violations focused on discrimination in athletics, but today sexual harassment and misconduct are the No. 2 cause of claims.) On 3 April 2015, the coordinator wrote to all members of GWU’s anthropology department, soliciting “any knowledge about specific incidents” of sexual harassment.

Despite his association with Koobi Fora, Richmond was no longer a GWU employee, so the university could not launch a formal investigation, Wood says. So, according to Wood and three others in the meetings, the CASHP faculty decided in early April 2015 to use their discretion to remove Richmond from teaching at the field school.

Braun then communicated this decision to Richmond, according to sources at the meetings. On 6 April 2015, Richmond responded to Braun in an email saying that he was “writing to indicate my willingness to resign my role in the Koobi Fora Field School.” On 13 April 2015, CASHP faculty removed Richmond’s name and photo from the faculty list on the field school’s website. The CASHP faculty also asked the university administration to send Richmond a letter formally confirming that his ties to the field school had been severed. “I urged the university to make it clear that Brian Richmond was no longer welcome at the Koobi Fora Field School and was no longer part of it,” Wood says. The university reportedly did so about a month later.

Wood also signaled his growing vigilance about harassment in other ways. He called for zero tolerance for sexual misconduct in two blog posts on the CASHP website, on 21 April 2015 and 9 September 2015, and in a Science editorial in October 2015. He timed his 9 September blog, posted the day before the 2015 ESHE meeting opened in London, to head off Richmond’s candidacy for a seat on the organization’s governing council. (Richmond did not receive enough votes to be elected.) At the meeting, Wood also resigned as chair of a session just before Richmond spoke in it.

Richmond notes in his statement to Science that before the incident in Italy, “there had never been a complaint or report against me throughout my career,” including from students at the field school. He stresses that he “voluntarily resigned my affiliation” with the field school, and explained in an email that he hoped his resignation “would help address the anger Wood reported to me” from those accusing him of inappropriate behavior.

Richmond also says that his relationships with female researchers were consensual. Nevertheless, he says in his statement, “I take full responsibility for exercising poor judgment in the past by mixing my professional and personal lives, including having consensual affairs, and I have changed my thinking and my behavior. I am deeply distressed to learn that I have upset the women involved and colleagues in my field. I regret that I was not sensitive to how my academic position could impact the dynamics of consensual relationships.”

The American Museum of Natural History responds

Word quickly reached AMHN officials about the events in St. Louis. Although HR chief Scheiner, who is also the museum’s Title IX coordinator, had completed his investigation, the museum soon assigned in-house attorney Rhea Gordon to conduct a second investigation. The research assistant gave Gordon several people to talk to about Richmond’s alleged past actions, including Rebecca Ackermann, 46, a U.S. physical anthropologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

On 14 April 2015, Gordon emailed Ackermann to ask for her help with investigating “instances of misconduct in the field in connection with Brian Richmond.” Gordon told Ackermann that she was “particularly interested in hearing from any individuals who can speak first-hand about their experiences.”

Ackermann agreed to help. She says she had been the object of sexual harassment from high school through graduate school but always felt she had limited power to do anything about it. For her, the Richmond allegations set off alarm bells, because some of her own students had reported that he had made sexual advances to them at Koobi Fora.

Back home in Cape Town, she spoke with two former undergraduates at the field school who had previously told her that Richmond had engaged in inappropriate behavior with them, as well as a third person whose experiences she had heard about. All three agreed to provide written testimony that Ackermann could transmit to Gordon. They asked not to be named but said they were willing to provide their names in case of formal proceedings at the museum.

 On 30 April 2015, Ackermann began to send the written accounts and vouched for the former students’ identities. Science interviewed the three women, two by phone and one by email.

"This is the classic thing that happens when women report [sexual misconduct] ... They go through the trauma of doing it and then nothing happens." — Rebecca Ackermann

"This is the classic thing that happens when women report [sexual misconduct] ... They go through the trauma of doing it and then nothing happens." — Rebecca Ackermann

K. Warren

One account, written together by two former students who identify themselves as P1 and P2, describes events that allegedly took place late in the evening of 4 July 2007 at the field school, which at that time was run jointly by Rutgers University, New Brunswick, in New Jersey, and the National Museums of Kenya. During a celebration of U.S. Independence Day, the pair related that people were dancing and socializing. P1 was dancing when she “felt someone come up behind her, startling her,” according to the account. She turned around and saw that it was Richmond. “Dr. Richmond smiled and grabbed P1[’s] breast,” the account relates. “P1 removed herself from the situation as soon as she could.” P1 told P2 what had happened.

Later that night, the testimonial relates, while P1 and P2 were sitting together around the fire, Richmond sat down next to P2, “and subtly moved his hand to P2[’s] leg” while continuing to converse with someone else. The testimonial concludes that “Neither P1 nor P2 reported these incidents to senior members of the staff of the Koobi Fora Field School as it was generally accepted that this was part of the field school experience.” P1, interviewed by email, elaborated: “There was an atmosphere of tolerance or at least a ‘what happens in the field stays in the field’ mentality.”

In the third account provided to Gordon, a former Koobi Fora undergraduate related that one evening in July 2012 she and Richmond were part of a group standing around a bonfire. “Brian put his arm around me, and plunged his hand down the back of my skirt all the way to my thighs, and forcefully grabbed my posterior,” she wrote. This witness, who admits that she was “properly drunk,” wrote that she put her hand around Richmond’s waist while he “continued to fondle my bottom.” Shortly afterwards, she related, Richmond “pulled me away from the circle” and “kissed me quite passionately,” asking her to go to a more remote spot and have sex with him. But she was not interested and declined, slipping away to her friends.

Richmond in an email declined to make a “point-by-point response” to these incidents, “except to say that I strongly disagree with the central salacious details.” He added that it is “unfair” for Science to “publish and confront me with anonymous complaints.” Richmond noted that the incidents “would have occurred before the Koobi Fora Field School became affiliated with GWU” and did not involve GWU students or students whom he graded or supervised.

Ackermann argues that all three accounts represent examples of an abuse of power. “With undergraduates especially, there can be no consensual acts on the part of the women, who have no power.” For a young student approached by a senior figure, as that third undergraduate explained to Science, “it is so hard to understand what is appropriate or not appropriate.”

A growing number of university campuses in the United States now acknowledge that the power imbalance between professors and students makes sexual relationships problematic. In February 2015, for example, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) formally banned sexual relationships between professors and undergraduates, and Yale University and the University of Connecticut have adopted similar policies in recent years. “We were trying to avoid situations where one party might think a relationship was consensual and another party might not feel safe expressing that it wasn’t,” explains Alison Johnson, a historian at Harvard who chaired the panel that wrote the new policy.

Harvard allows relationships between faculty and graduate students only if the student is not under the professor’s supervision or otherwise linked to them. GWU’s current guidelines do not go as far, but consider it “inappropriate” for a faculty member to have such a relationship with a student in their class or whose work they are currently evaluating. They also proscribe “unwelcome sexual advances” and “unwelcome physical contact of a sexual nature.”

All three of the Koobi Fora incidents were part of Gordon’s broader investigation, which she finished by June 2015. Gordon wrote to sources to thank them for their help, but according to both Canty and Richmond, the museum took no further action against him at the time. Richmond says that sometime after this second investigation he received a raise and a positive job evaluation. (Canty declined to comment on this.)

Ackermann, for one, says she “was shocked and deeply disappointed” that the museum apparently did nothing further. “This is the classic thing that happens when women report” sexual misconduct, she says. “They go through the trauma of doing it and then nothing happens.”

According to sources at the museum, the ultimate decision about disciplining Richmond was made by paleontologist Michael Novacek, AMNH’s provost of science, who also convened the lengthy search for Richmond’s position. (Canty, citing “the confidentiality of the information involved,” declined Science’s request for an interview with Novacek.) But Canty’s statement helps explain the museum’s response: “Those reporting misconduct requested anonymity and none had filed complaints at the institutions where this occurred, thus inhibiting further action.”

Richmond argues that the museum’s protracted investigation process has been unfair to him. He wrote in an email that “on or about the first days of December 2015, I was informed by the Museum that if I did not voluntarily resign, [it] would launch a new investigation.” (Canty declined to confirm or deny this, again citing confidentiality.) Richmond says that the new investigation constitutes double jeopardy and that its timing, after he was asked to resign and shortly after Science began investigating the case, “would seem to speak for itself.”

As they pay more attention to allegations of sexual misconduct, institutions around the United States are struggling to balance the rights of victims and accused. Unlike in a criminal trial, which requires certainty beyond a reasonable doubt to convict, current Title IX guidelines require only a “preponderance of the evidence” for faculty or students to be found guilty of misconduct. “Universities have to be the prosecutor and the defense attorney and the judge and the jury,” says Billie Dziech, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio known for her work on sexual harassment in academia. “It’s a very difficult position to be in.” Some, for example, have criticized Harvard’s new FAS guidelines for insufficient due process to the accused, and Harvard Law School has adopted different procedures.

What can be done?

AMNH has launched its third investigation, which deals with “all allegations” concerning Richmond, Canty says, and is conducted by an outside firm, T&M Protection Resources in New York. Richmond is still employed by AMNH although working offsite during this investigation, Canty says. There are signs that the museum is taking the episode as a broader wakeup call. On 22 December 2015, Scheiner sent a memo to all staff announcing that the museum had asked T&M to review its sexual harassment policies and to institute training.

For many researchers and activists, the growing institutional sensitivity to alleged sexual misconduct has been a long time coming, and reflects changing societal views. Evolving interpretations of Title IX have also played a part, in particular a 2011 letter released by the Office for Civil Rights reminding educational institutions of their obligations to both prevent and respond to sexual misconduct, including sexual violence. “Title IX makes it very clear that a beautiful 19-year-old female wearing a halter top and a miniskirt can go check on her fruit flies at night without being touched or made uncomfortable by her professor,” Harvard’s Johnson says.

Last November AAPA released a new nine-page statement on sexual harassment and assault. AAPA President Susan Antón of NYU says that for years the organization has had a code of ethics that prohibits sexual harassment, but that after the SAFE study, she and other AAPA leaders realized that it needed a separate, more detailed statement focusing specifically on this issue. The new guidelines do not have a provision for investigating complaints, unlike guidelines adopted by the American Astronomical Society. But Antón agrees with other advocates that going beyond rules on paper and changing the culture of the field is the only real way to stop sexual misconduct. “Changing each individual institutional environment is the only answer to that,” she says.

One way to go about it, Ackermann suggests, is to create a network of mentors, senior scientists “who have the power to do something about it. … If you have a famous field school, you could have people outside the field school who could be reported to, a formal structure with real people attached to it rather than just a document.”

Others insist that science needs policies to encourage witnesses to speak out. “By turning a blind eye, senior colleagues are accessories to what is happening,” Hinde says. “We need to hold colleagues accountable who violate professionally accepted norms of sexual conduct.” She praises the examples set by Wood and Ackermann, who used their power and experience to act and speak on behalf of younger and vulnerable researchers. “Leaders in my field are saying we won’t accept this anymore,” Hinde says. “I am incredibly hopeful. We are seeing the culture change in real ways in real time. We are seeing it now.”

*Update: 11 February, 6:20 p.m.: In the paragraph that mentions Christian Ott, “sexual misconduct” was changed to “harassment” to more precisely describe the allegations against him.

Related content:
Survey of peers in fieldwork highlights an unspoken risk
Caltech suspends professor for harassment
Shining a light on sexual harassment in astronomy
Zero tolerance. Period
Geoffrey Marcy, prominent Berkeley astronomer, resigns after sexual harassment judgement