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Archaeology society votes to let board ban sexual harassers from meetings

Seven months ago, an archaeologist banned from his university for sexual harassment attended the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), and the society’s halting response to his accusers’ concerns rocked the organization. Now, SAA members have voted to change the society’s bylaws to prevent similar events. Starting on 20 November, the SAA board may bar people found to have committed sexual harassment or other misconduct from society events, as well as revoke their membership. But a bylaws amendment some felt represented a stronger stand against sexual harassment did not pass.

Sexual harassment came to fore at this year’s SAA annual meeting, held in April in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when David Yesner, an archaeologist who had recently been found guilty of harassment by the University of Alaska in Anchorage and banned from campus, registered onsite for the meeting and was allowed to attend. Some of Yesner’s accusers were also at the meeting and his presence made them feel unsafe. They reported the situation to SAA, but the organization was caught off guard, unsure how to respond to harassment that had occurred before the meeting at a different institution. SAA was slow to remove Yesner and protect his accusers, leading to widespread outrage among members. At the time, Sherry Marts, a consultant in Washington, D.C., who advises nonprofits on how to address sexual harassment at meetings, called the society’s response “a worst-case scenario.”

A group of SAA members, dubbed the Awesome Small Working Group, quickly organized a petition to change the society’s bylaws to clarify that people sanctioned for sexual harassment by a court or a university would be barred from SAA events, including annual meetings. The group based its amendment on a policy adopted by the American Anthropological Association in Arlington, Virginia, just days after the SAA scandal broke. More than 10% of SAA members signed the petition, triggering an election on whether to change the society’s bylaws.

But as the society’s board of directors reviewed the member-proposed amendment, they realized they wanted to expand it, says SAA President Joe Watkins in Washington, D.C. They wrote a different amendment that would allow the organization to ban people sanctioned for bullying or other misconduct in addition to sexual harassment. The two amendments were put up for a vote in mid-October and members voted for about 1 month.

Many archaeologists on social media worried the competing amendments would create confusion and split the vote, resulting in no bylaw change at all. They also pointed out that the member-proposed amendment contained stronger, more direct language, saying offenders “will be barred” from SAA events. The board-proposed amendment says “the Board may bar” offenders.

“That means we have to have board members who are supportive of victims and other survivors,” says Sara Gonzalez, an archaeologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Events at this year’s meeting did not give her confidence that was the case, she says. Michael Smith, an archaeologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, agreed, tweeting that the board-proposed amendment “gives too much discretion to the Board of Directors” and that the member-led proposal “is the most direct and clearest way” to deal with sexual harassment.

On 22 November, SAA announced the board-proposed amendment had passed with 1560 votes in favor and 446 votes against. The member-proposed amendment received 972 votes in favor and 1034 votes against. “I’m disappointed,” Gonzalez says, though she recognizes that the result is a step in the right direction, a sentiment shared by many archaeologists on social media. Even though its amendment was voted down, the Awesome Small Working Group said in a statement it was “heartened” that survivors of harassment would be better protected. “This demonstrates to us that member-led pushes for change are effective.”

Shortly after the election results were announced, SAA announced on Twitter that it had withdrawn University of Georgia anthropologist Robert Jeffrey Speakman’s registration to the 2020 meeting because he had been arrested for felony stalking and banned from the university’s campus.

“We are listening more closely to the membership, and definitely working to improve the situation so that our members can attend knowing that we are doing our absolute best to make it a safe place,” Watkins says.

Gonzalez, however, isn’t ready to go back. She says she is keeping her SAA membership for now, but she won’t be attending the 2020 meeting.