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Former students have alleged sexual misconduct by Harvard University’s Gary Urton, who studied Incan knotted strings, or khipu. 

Harvard anthropology professor retires amid accusations of sexual harassment

Prominent Andean scholar Gary Urton will retire from Harvard University, amid accusations that he sexually harassed former students during the 18 years he was a member of the faculty. In an email dated 10 July to his colleagues in the anthropology department, Urton wrote that he had decided to retire as of August.

The email comes as Harvard’s Title IX office investigates complaints of sexual harassment filed by at least two former students against Urton, an anthropological archaeologist who chaired the anthropology department from 2012 to 2019.

One complainant, Jade Guedes, said in an interview that if Urton retires, he should not be given emeritus status or other benefits that allow him to be on campus. “He should not have benefits that allow him to interact with students. People need to be protected from this sort of thing,” says Guedes, now an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Urton did not respond to a request for comment. But in his letter to his colleagues, he wrote: “While it is not appropriate for me to share my side of the allegations with you at this time, I simply ask that you remember that there are two sides to every story. My side has not been shared.”

One former Ph.D. student of Urton, Carrie Brezine, now a data analyst of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, alleged that she had an affair with Urton while he was her thesis adviser and her boss in the anthropology department; she said the affair damaged her emotionally and professionally. Guedes alleged that while she was a Ph.D. student in 2012, Urton suggested a “tête-à-tête” to discuss her research. Then Guedes 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?” Earlier this year, she posted that 2012 email on Twitter.

Today, after hearing of Urton’s plans for retirement, Tufts University medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon called for “a full investigation of the multiple allegations against [Urton].” Theidon alleged in a lawsuit in 2015 that she was denied tenure in anthropology at Harvard in 2013, while Urton was chair, because of gender discrimination and in retaliation for her advocacy for students alleging sexual harassment. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled against her. But, Theidon says, “The sealed records from my lawsuit must be unsealed. I hope there may yet be a full accounting.”

In an affidavit filed in 2016 as a later addition to Theidon’s lawsuit, an anonymous Harvard Extension School student wrote that in 2011 Urton had propositioned her and that she had had an affair with him. She told Science she believed Theidon’s advocacy for other women alleging harassment had influenced how Urton had handled Theidon’s tenure case.

Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in email that Urton’s retirement does not alter the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’s review of his conduct or potential future action against him. She cited the case of Latin American scholar Jorge Domínguez, who was denied emeritus status when he retired from Harvard.

Harvard put Urton on paid administrative leave on 2 June, the same day the anthropology department removed Urton from his position as director of undergraduate studies.

On 4 June, 25 faculty members in the anthropology department sent Urton a letter calling for him to resign. And on 22 June, 53 alumni of the department, including scholars and faculty from more than 40 universities, wrote a letter to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow complaining that the department was run by “an old boys’ club” that created “an environment that tolerated gender-based harassment” and engaged in a “pattern of sexual misconduct, sexism, and misogyny.”

Nearly 400 students also have signed a petition demanding that Urton be removed from the department, as well as two other faculty members accused of sexual harassment in an investigation by The Harvard Crimson, which brought the harassment allegations to light.