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Three former students have alleged that Harvard University archaeologist Gary Urton propositioned or had affairs with them.

Prominent Harvard archaeologist put on leave amid allegations of sexual harassment

On the morning of 30 May, anthropologist Jade Guedes read an article in the online issue of The Harvard Crimson in which a former student alleged that archaeologist Gary Urton had propositioned her. The story triggered Guedes’s memory of an incident in July 2012: She had been a Ph.D. student at Harvard University, and Urton, who was soon to be department chair, had invited her to a “tête-à-tête” to discuss her promising research. Guedes had felt “really great—this big professor is interested in my work.”

Then she got an email from Urton: “I wonder if you would be interested in something more intimate? … What if I got a hotel room and then we got a bottle of wine and spent an afternoon in conversation and exploration? … I do hope this is not shocking to you, or disturbing. …”

Guedes panicked, consulted friends and a mental health adviser, and turned Urton down. She did not report his solicitation, but now, reading an account that in some ways paralleled her own, she was filled with rage. A tenured anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, she posted Urton’s 2012 email on 1 June on Twitter. One day later, she filed a complaint of sexual harassment against Urton with Harvard’s Title IX office.

Urton, now 71, an anthropological archaeologist and scholar of Andean culture, said in a statement to Science: “As much as I would love to respond to the false allegations that are circulating and destroying my professional reputation, I have been advised not to do so at this time, other than to say that I am truly saddened by the allegations and hope that someday I will have the chance to clear my name.” The Harvard Crimson has reported that Urton apologized for his behavior to Guedes in a statement to them on 2 June.

Guedes wasn’t the only person flooded with unwelcome memories this week. “I spent the day shaking; I haven’t been able to sleep,” says anthropologist Carrie Brezine, now a data analyst at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a former Ph.D. student of Urton’s. “I’m so sick this happened to other people.”

In conversations with Science, Brezine alleges that Urton seduced her at a remote field site in Peru in 2003. She was 32 and says Urton had hired her to create a database of examples of khipu, complex knotted textiles that the Inca used as a numerical recording system. Brezine says she and Urton had an affair from 2003 to 2009 while he was her employer and later her Ph.D. adviser. She alleges that her work and research on khipu depended on Urton’s good will, which was conditional on sex. She is contemplating filing a complaint with Harvard’s Title IX office.

The Crimson article, by rising junior James Bikales, has triggered an earthquake in Harvard’s anthropology department, long dominated by a small group of senior men. And it has begun to topple Urton, who “until last week, was one of the most respected researchers in the world,” says archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, where Urton holds an honorary professorship. Urton, a world authority on khipu, has received a MacArthur “genius” grant and a Guggenheim fellowship. He and Castillo Butters, also a former minister of culture in Peru, worked together at the San José de Moro field school in Peru in recent years. According to Castillo Butters, “In all field work trips there has been no incident, no complaints.”

On 2 June, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay put Urton on paid administrative leave pending a full review of the allegations. In a statement Thursday, Gay said Harvard’s policy is to not comment on Title IX investigations. She added that “Harvard is deeply committed to providing an environment for all members of our community that is free from sexual harassment and misconduct. … We encourage any member of our community who has experienced inappropriate behavior to come forward.”

Also on 2 June, the anthropology department removed Urton as director of undergraduate studies, a post he had held for 2 years after being department chair from 2012 to 2018. On 4 June, 25 faculty members in the anthropology department sent Urton a letter calling for him to resign. “The strong evidence put forth in these allegations has destroyed our confidence in your ability to be a teacher, colleague, and productive member of the department,” the letter said.

As the Crimson article noted, questions about Urton’s conduct had emerged in a 2015 lawsuit filed by medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon, now at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, Medford. She alleged she was denied tenure in 2013 because of gender discrimination and in retaliation for her advocacy for students who were victims of sexual harassment. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled against her.

Tufts University, Medford, anthropologist Kimberly Theidon sued Harvard University for gender discrimination but lost.

Kimberly Theidon

As evidence of harassment in the department, Theidon’s lawsuit eventually included the account that infuriated Guedes. In an affidavit filed in 2016 as a later addition to the lawsuit, an anonymous Harvard Extension School student wrote that in 2011, she asked Urton for a letter of recommendation before she received her final grade in his class. In response, Urton suggested she join him in a private meeting to discuss her “promise” in anthropology. According to the affidavit, Urton instructed the Extension student to go straight to a room he had booked at the Sheraton Commander Hotel near Harvard on 29 December 2011. “I drank the wine he brought and became intoxicated. He in fact made unwelcome sexual advances and I submitted to his advances,” she wrote.

She then began a “consensual affair” with Urton that continued off and on until she moved out of the state in 2013. “I would have completed my education at Harvard except that I met Gary Urton,” she wrote in the affidavit.

In an interview this week, the Extension student, now 52, says she moved out of the state in 2013 because the affair with Urton was “very traumatic.” She says she became severely depressed and was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. She quit her job at Harvard Medical School and stopped taking classes. “I knew I would not survive if I didn’t leave [Harvard],” she told Science.

She says in the affidavit that in 2016, after she felt stronger, she contacted the office of then–Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust to tell her about Urton “preying on me as a graduate student. … I wanted to be on record to prevent him hurting other people.” She did not file a complaint but later filed the affidavit in support of Theidon’s case. She told Science she believed Theidon’s advocacy for other women alleging harassment had influenced how Urton, then department chair, had handled Theidon’s tenure case.

The alleged interactions with the Extension student happened in 2011, the year Brezine ended her affair with Urton and moved away. Brezine, a weaver, had majored in theoretical math at Reed College. Urton hired her in 2002 as as a research assistant to create an important online database on khipu. Brezine traveled with Urton to a remote field site in Peru, where, she alleges, Urton propositioned her. They began an affair. “I thought Gary thought I was special, that I had good ideas, that I could make a contribution to the field,” Brezine says.

With the backing of Urton’s letter of recommendation as well as Science paper on khipu co-authored with him, she entered Harvard’s Ph.D. program in anthropology. She continued to work for Urton and hoped to do her dissertation on khipu. But she changed her project because Urton controlled access to the khipu in Harvard’s collection as well as the database, a key resource in the field. She feared he would withhold access if he got angry at her.

“If you knew my passion for Inka khipu and wondered why it wasn’t in my dissertation, the condition of access to the khipu database was sex,” Brezine wrote in an email to Science. “Gary made it clear that he could and would revoke my access at any time if I did not perform adequately.”

Anthropologist Jade Guedes posted, on Twitter, a 2012 email from Harvard University archaeologist Gary Urton inviting her to a hotel room.

Chunbai Zhang

Brezine alleges that for years Urton kept track of where she was at all times and got upset when she spent time on other classes or socialized with male students. When she was busy with other work, he suggested she resign if she was insufficiently dedicated to the khipu database. “I was dependent on him for employment and continued references, teaching assistant assignments,” she says. “The majority of my energy went to managing my relationship with Gary … keeping on his good side … making sure I hadn’t offended him.”

After “years of sexual requests” from Urton, Brezine eventually consulted Harvard’s Dean for Graduate Student Affairs Garth McCavana. She recalls that he emphasized that complaints rarely worked out in the victim’s favor. Complicating her case, Harvard did not prohibit faculty from having sex with students or employees until 2015. (Many other universities banned such relationships years earlier.)

Brezine says McCavana tried to help her hammer out an agreement with Urton that would allow her to have access to the database for her dissertation, but emphasized it was dependent “solely on Gary’s good will.” She says she appreciated McCavana’s honesty, and decided to do her dissertation on colonial textiles instead. Although Urton remained her adviser, she could access the textiles from other researchers. She left Harvard in 2011 for a postdoc in anthropology at Michigan. “It’s difficult for me to overestimate the costs” of her affair with Urton, she says.

McCavana did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Brezine has decided to speak up and be named because “I am so upset with myself that I didn’t pursue it because other people might not have had to go through it. I just didn’t know that this was his habit. I thought I was unique.”

Theidon argues that Harvard should have followed up on any complaints about Urton and others, even if they weren’t official. “I just can’t bear it,” she says. “How many more students do you think may have been harassed? They are the missing women in the field.”

Today, the anthropology department has nine tenured men and three tenured women, or one-fourth women. The American Anthropological Association reports that 45% of tenured anthropologists are women. This week, the department’s younger leadership, including Chair Ajantha Subramanian (who is on leave) and acting Chair Rowan Flad, convened a committee to investigate how its culture may be problematic for women and to propose recommendations. “We are committed to repairing our relationships and fostering a more supportive, safe, and equitable departmental culture,” the department’s website says.

With reporting by Rodrigo Pérez Ortega.

*Update, 9 June, 1:10 p.m.: This story has been updated to include a statement from Gary Urton.