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Archaeological society tries to stem continuing controversy over #MeToo scandal

The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) continues to battle fallout for the way it handled a #MeToo scandal at its annual meeting last week. The organization faced a firestorm of criticism on social media for not immediately ejecting an alleged harasser from the meeting after being informed about his presence and a university investigation that found accusations against him credible. Today, as archaeologists continued to vent at their own society, it published an open letter and video from President Joe Watkins personally apologizing for not taking action and laying out actions SAA will take, including updating its sexual harassment policy and providing training to staff on its “effective and compassionate implementation.”

“Finally, the start of a sincere response from the SAA,” tweeted Stephanie Halmhofer, a cultural resources management archaeologist with In Situ Archaeological Consulting in Roberts Creek, Canada. But it remains to be seen whether the latest apology will be enough to staunch the flow of archaeologists pledging to leave SAA. Meanwhile, other societies have announced plans to revamp their harassment policies to handle similar situations.

Two days ago, SAA apologized for “the impact, stress, and fear the situation caused to victims of sexual harassment within our field,” as well as for its own delay in issuing an apology. But on 17 April, it published a controversial timeline of events that sparked another social media row.

The trouble began when David Yesner, an archaeologist who retired from the University of Alaska in Anchorage (UAA) in 2017 showed up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for SAA’s annual meeting, which ran from 10–14 April. Yesner had been banned from UAA’s campus and events 2 days before the meeting began, after a Title IX investigation found nine women’s accusations of sexual harassment and assault to be credible. Three claimants in the investigation were also at the SAA meeting and reported Yesner’s presence to the organization. But during the meeting, SAA did not reveal to them or others whether it had ejected Yesner.

Yesner did not respond to Science’s requests for comment and has not publicly commented on the accusations.

On 16 April, SAA said it would be adding an on-site counselor to future meetings and instituting board and staff training on sexual harassment, as well as a “member-led, independent committee to address member concerns,” all steps that Watkins highlighted again in today’s open letter and video. But Tuesday’s statement wasn’t enough to calm the growing outrage. “An apology without more concrete steps and/or changes is not enough,” tweeted Sara Gonzalez, an archaeologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Your apology should be directed at the brave women who reported … abuse and assaults.”

Then, on 17 April, SAA clarified that it had in fact ejected Yesner from the meeting on the afternoon of Friday, 12 April, hours after two official complaints were filed. (One was filed by Norma Johnson, a graduate student in archaeology at UAA and a claimant in the Title IX investigation.) “At no time before Friday, April 12, 2019 did SAA receive any information regarding Mr. Yesner which would have precluded his attendance at the meeting,” SAA said in its statement.

But many archaeologists say that ignores actions taken by freelance journalist (and former Science correspondent) Michael Balter, who says he notified SAA staff about Yesner’s presence and the results of the Title IX investigation on Thursday morning. Balter escorted Yesner out of the meeting that afternoon, but Yesner apparently returned. Balter reported being banned from the SAA meeting on Friday morning.

Multiple lawyers and consultants specializing in sexual harassment have confirmed to Science that SAA could have removed Yesner from the meeting before official reports were filed, as the meeting was a private event.

Today, Watkins attempted to repair the damage with his open letter. “I want to apologize for the events that happened last week in Albuquerque under my watch,” he wrote. “I failed to take the kind of action we should have taken to address the distress of the attendees at our meeting. I allowed myself to be convinced that our harassment policy was more important than the feelings of our members.”

Early reaction was positive. “The president’s statement echoes many of the frustrations that we have felt in the past week. I was impressed” with how he took responsibility for placing policy over members’ experiences, says Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who resigned as chair of SAA’s media relations committee because of the scandal. But she would like more clarity on how the SAA board will work with organization’s staff to make sure these changes are made, as well as precisely how SAA plans to improve its communications with membership and the public. “SAA membership both at and away from this year’s conference were shocked that their voices on Twitter and Facebook were insufficient to catch the board’s attention in real time. I hope that the SAA’s plan to revamp its communication processes includes more than lip service to the power of social media,” she says.

Meanwhile, other societies are taking a lesson from the firestorm. On 16 April, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in Arlington, Virginia, offered a clear solution to situations like this, in an updated policy on sexual harassment and assault. “Individuals who are currently sanctioned for assault or harassment by an adjudicating institution (e.g., a university) will be barred from taking part in AAA events,” the policy reads. “Appeals may be requested in the case of advance registration; on-site registration for such individuals will not be permitted.”

AAA Executive Director Edward Liebow told Science the organization had already been working on enacting “an enhanced policy” for its upcoming annual meeting but that the SAA incident “certainly hastened along our procedural discussion.”

The American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) in Herndon, Virginia, is also considering updating its policies in response. “As events at the SAA [meeting] unfolded, we began taking notes,” says AAPA President Anne Grauer. “We will be discussing these issues in detail at a Board of Directors meeting shortly.”

Others have urged the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in Washington, D.C., to revoke the membership of faculty who are found to violate Title IX guidelines or who resign because of harassment accusations, as well as ban them from future AAG events.

In Yesner’s case, the Alaska Anthropological Association in Anchorage appears to have been the first to act, banning him from its meetings and events on 12 April—4 days after UAA barred him from campus and while the SAA meeting was still going on.