ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—The annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) here was roiled by a #MeToo scandal this past weekend, when an archaeologist banned from his university’s campus for sexual harassment attended part of the meeting. Some of his accusers were also present: They used the buddy system to avoid running into him alone and missed the conference sessions they most wanted to see, according to one of the accusers, Norma Johnson, an archaeology graduate student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage (UAA).
Many archaeologists were outraged that the accusers’ meeting was spoiled and that meeting organizers did not immediately eject the alleged harasser. They said the situation exposed blind spots in SAA’s new antiharassment policy, instituted for the first time this year. “We do not have anything in place … to ensure that meeting attendees can be protected from aggressors from previous situations,” SAA President Joe Watkins said in an interview with Science.
Furious archaeologists took to Twitter denouncing SAA’s inaction, and by Monday morning, more than 1500 had signed an open letter calling for change. “This is the exact dismissive culture that facilitates and even promotes abuse. It’s inexcusable. I will not be renewing my membership … until significant changes are made,” said bioarchaeologist Gwen Robbins Schug of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill posted a letter resigning her position as chair of the SAA media relations committee and also said she would not renew her membership.
This controversy highlights what can happen when a society “has not done the groundwork of having contingency plans for just such an occasion,” Katie Hinde, an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe and co-author of the 2014 Survey of Academic Field Experiences study in PLOS ONE, wrote on Twitter. But few, if any, societies have such plans. All the same, Hinde said in a statement to Science, “A situation that demanded leadership to act with alacrity, sensitivity, and transparency, instead revealed an organization whose capacities can be best characterized as inept, traumatizing, and opaque.”
The controversy was focused on the presence of archaeologist David Yesner, who worked at UAA for decades before retiring in 2017. According to reporting by KTVA in Anchorage, Yesner was scheduled to receive emeritus status when formal complaints against him “rushed in.” A Title IX investigation found nine women’s accusations (including Johnson’s) of sexual discrimination, assault, and harassment by Yesner to be credible, according to an investigative report commissioned by UAA and dated 15 March. Accounts included that he stared at students’ breasts, took and saved inappropriate photos of students, and assaulted a student in a public shower during fieldwork. On 8 April, Yesner was banned from the UAA campus, events, and all other university property, according to an email sent to all students by the university police. On 12 April—2 days after the SAA meeting began here—the Alaska Anthropological Association in Anchorage revoked Yesner’s membership and 2014 Professional Achievement Award and banned him from its annual meeting and other events.
Yesner registered on-site for the SAA meeting and was allowed to attend. Johnson first spotted him on 10 April and was shocked: She had been checking the list of attendees for weeks to make sure he wasn’t on it. She and two other Title IX claimants teamed up to accompany each other to poster sessions where they were scheduled to present, as well as symposia Yesner was likely to attend. “That’s how we spent our entire conference—looking over our shoulders,” Johnson says. “None of us got to see [the sessions] we wanted.” On 11 April, freelance journalist Michael Balter (a former correspondent for Science) escorted Yesner out of the meeting, an event that drew widespread attention to the situation, especially on Twitter. Yesner did not respond to Science’s requests for comment and declined an interview for KTVA’s report. Johnson filed a report about Yesner on 12 April but never received clarity on what actions SAA took. (She would have filed a report earlier, she says, but she didn’t know it was an option.)
SAA appeared caught off guard by the controversy. Eventually, it stated that it had “[withdrawn] multiple meeting registrations.” But officials did not say whose registration was withdrawn, citing confidentiality requirements in its antiharassment policy. Balter reported being banned from the rest of the meeting.
SAA asserted on Twitter that it “has been at the forefront in creating an anti-harassment policy that is designed to make the meeting a safe space for all attendees. … When complaints come in, we investigate immediately.”
Many archaeologists were scornful of that claim. SAA officials are “the ones responsible for who’s registering. They have a level of power there, and they failed to use that to keep their registrants safe,” said attendee Stephanie Halmhofer, a cultural resources management archaeologist with In Situ Archaeological Consulting in Roberts Creek, Canada. She interrupted a symposium she had co-organized on Friday to ask attendees to call out SAA on social media for allowing Yesner to register and attend; many did so.
SAA’s new antiharassment policy, developed in November 2018 and adopted for the first time at this year’s meeting, encourages attendees to report incidents of harassment to SAA staff and officers, who were wearing buttons that said, “Talk to Me.” But the procedures for investigating and addressing complaints focuses exclusively on incidents at the meeting itself. Watkins expects the policy to be reviewed by SAA’s executive committee at its next meeting in September, and by its board of directors in October.
“SAA will use this intervening year to try to find ways to make this policy and procedures much more beneficial to the SAA membership. We will continue to do as best as we can to create a safe environment for all attendees at the meetings,” he told Science. But because of legal constraints, “I cannot guarantee that we will be able to do anything differently.”
SAA’s inaction was “a worst-case scenario,” says Sherry Marts, a Ph.D. consultant who advises nonprofits how to address sexual harassment at meetings. The organization should have immediately removed Yesner from the conference once it became aware of the results of the Title IX investigation, Marts says. “These meetings are private events. … There’s no legal right to be there.”
Many societies are struggling to navigate what to do when known harassers register for and attend meetings. Hinde says she’s not aware of any society that “preemptively bans registration” of such individuals. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists requires registrants to commit to an ethical code of conduct during the registration process. The American Geophysical Union defined sexual harassment as a form of scientific misconduct in 2017.
SAA’s ethics committee met on 11 April during the meeting, according to its chair, Arlen Chase, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. They had agreed to draft a statement to the SAA board asking it to institute a procedure for imposing sanctions in the case of egregious and proven unethical behavior. Such a statement would likely go to the SAA board this summer. “The problem is the SAA and the ethics committee have no teeth,” Chase says. “What we’re doing isn’t working.”
The open letter calls for SAA to issue a formal apology, update its sexual harassment policy, train staff on how to implement the policy, ban Yesner from future events, and compensate the women who couldn’t fully participate in the conference.
Meanwhile, the extent of sexual harassment in archaeology was made clear at the meeting by a scheduled forum on 13 April called #MeToo in Archaeology. Over the course of an intense 2 hours, a dozen men and women spanning many phases of their careers read aloud anonymous accounts of harassment submitted by other archaeologists ahead of time. The accounts spanned decades and recounted a wide range of harassment experiences, including rape. The room was overflowing with attendees, and many were crying by the end.
In the introduction to the session, Jason De León, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, called SAA’s antiharassment policy “a baby step forward.” With regard to Yesner, he said, “In many ways, it seems that we’ve just taken a giant leap back in the last couple of days.”
*Update, 15 April, 8:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to include Norma Johnson’s experience and Sherry Marts’s commentary.