Title IX investigation reveals decades of sexual misconduct by former UAA professor
A first-year anthropology graduate student was alone in a laboratory, performing a necropsy on a bear when a professor stood in the doorway and began staring at her. She had heard stories about Dr. David Yesner, who worked as a professor in the University of Alaska Anchorage's Anthropology Department for 26 years. When he entered the room, the woman made an excuse to leave. She had to jump over the bear skin on the floor because he had positioned himself between her and the other path to door.
Yesner is the subject of a Title IX investigation into sexual discrimination and sexual harassment that found accusations from nine women all credible. A report from investigators illuminates an environment in which Yesner had no fear of getting caught, while the women around him formed a network, sharing "war stories" to warn others about a predator.
One woman described finding pornographic images on the lab computer she shared with him. Several of them said he stared at their breasts and made them feel uncomfortable. One of the victims told investigators Yesner sexually assaulted her in a public shower during a field project.
Calls for an investigation
A redacted version of the investigative report dated March 15, 2019 details the inquiry that began in December 2017 into allegations of sexual misconduct.
Prior to 1991, Yesner held temporary and adjunct positions with UAA. He was officially hired as an associate professor in 1991, according to a university spokesperson, however his affiliation with the school goes back to 1975.
Yesner announced his retirement in April 2017, and applied for professor emeritus status, an honor he was expected to receive publicly during the commencement ceremony that December. Days away from the ceremony, complaints against Yesner rushed in, requesting an investigation before he was granted recognition and a continued presence on UAA's campus.
The report, contributed to by three investigators, was completed by Danée Pontious, a private attorney retained by UAA.
Nine woman — referred to in the report as C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, C7, C8 and C9 — shared their experiences with Yesner, often corroborating each other's accounts to investigators. The report also includes interviews with UAA faculty labeled as W5 and W6, who are both described as being either current or past Anthropology Department chairs.
Yesner — who is referred to in the report only as R1 — declined to participate in an interview as part of the investigation.
|Name (as identified in the document)||Interview Date|
|R1 - respondent||*declined to be interviewed|
|C1 - complainant||Dec. 12, 2017|
|C2 - complainant||Dec. 12, 2017|
|C3 - complainant||Dec. 12, 2017|
|C4 - complainant||Dec. 13, 2017|
|C5 - complainant||Dec. 15, 2017|
|C6 - complainant||Dec. 20, 2017|
|C7 - complainant||Jan. 17, 2018|
|C8 - complainant||Jan. 19, 2018|
|C9 - complainant||Feb. 8, 2018|
|W5 - witness||Oct. 24, 2018|
|W6 - witness||Oct. 24, 2018|
To protect the anonymity of complainants, some details about dates and locations have been omitted from this story. Some readers may find the following descriptions of sexual harassment and sexual assault disturbing.
Three women, C1, C2 and C3, co-authored an email to the office of interim UAA Chancellor Samuel Gingerich in December 2017. In interviews, they said Yesner made them feel uncomfortable and would stare at them. C3 described a department holiday party where Yesner attempted to force her to drink more alcohol. All three said they were careful to avoid being alone with him, based on his reputation.
Another woman, identified as C4, described interactions with Yesner starting in 2014. She said Yesner was her advisor and would not review her work unless she sat next to him. She also reported feeling uncomfortable when Yesner suggested she say positive things about him to UAA's Human Resources Department, which was investigating complaints about Yesner's performance as a professor.
According to the report, the woman also told investigators that Yesner had her meet him after hours at the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, where he worked as a volunteer. He had not told her they would be alone:
"C4 felt so concerned and uncomfortable about the situation that she called her mother and told her that if she didn't hear from her within the hour to call APD. She carried her pepper spray. Although C4 was not sexually harassed or assaulted in the museum, she was fearful of being in that environment with him based on his reputation and the environment."
C4 also said Yesner offered to write her entire thesis for her. Later, he offered to pay for her lab tests — which cost thousands of dollars, according to the report — and even her tuition. She declined, wanting to avoid owing him something in the future.
A woman identified in the report as C5 recalled an Alaska Anthropological Association event in which she observed Yesner look an undergraduate student up and down and comment on her physical appearance.
"The unnamed undergraduate student immediately covered her breasts with her arms and the two of them attempted to laugh it off. C5 felt that [Yesner] had violated her and shamed her and that she was visibly upset."
C5 described Yesner as a person who held significant power and sway within the department, and said she believed students chose not to confront him in order to graduate.
Another woman, C6, said Yesner was her instructor for her field school at the Broken Mammoth Archaeological Site near Delta Junction. She said Yesner once asked her if she ever wore heels, and looked at her suggestively when she told him she had in the past.
C6 also described an instance when Yesner invited her to dinner, then insinuated she was welcome to come home with him, as his wife was out of town. She said he never touched her inappropriately, but the way he looked at and verbally complimented her made her feel uncomfortable. Yesner also took two and a half years to grade her comprehensive exam, a task C6 said should have taken about five weeks.
According to the report, investigators found troubling evidence related to C6 on Yesner's hard drive:
"[Yesner] kept photographs on his desk top associated with his work with the University. However, a significant amount of the photos taken from the Broken Mammoth Archaeological Site were of a specific individual, C6. These photographs often depicted C6 in a sports bra and shorts and appeared to include no other significant archaeological feature."
Investigators showed the photos, which were kept in a subfolder named "Personal," to UAA staff. One of them, a woman identified as W5, said, "Oh my god, he really liked C6."
Yesner's sexually inappropriate behavior was no secret within the department, according to a woman identified as C7. The woman told investigators, in addition to staring at women's breasts, Yesner would make suggestive comments, give lingering hugs and rub the small of her back. She said on one occasion, when she complained that it was taking him an unusually long time to grade her comprehensive exam, Yesner suggested she spank him so he would perform better.
Yesner suggested she spank him so he would perform better.
C7 called him an "obstructionist," saying he would make it very difficult to reach him or complete her work if she did not reciprocate his advances. He would do this by being non-responsive and taking artifacts home to impede her progress. The woman said it took her nine years to complete her graduate degree, which she almost entirely blames on Yesner's actions.
Additionally, the report says C7 discovered pornography on the lab computer she shared with Yesner:
"The pornographic pictures would be up on his computer when she came into the lab and [Yesner] would be gone. There was no login for the computer. One time, C7 was wondering where he was because he was late for a meeting, so she clicked on a file labelled "Calendar." It was a file filled with pornographic images. She indicated that he was sneaky about his pornography collection, that it was within folders and subfolders sorted by hair or body type. She described it as being extensive. C7 also observed numerous pictures of students excavating and working at sites that were cropped so that the photo was focused on the students' breasts."
The woman said she told several people about Yesner's behavior and was told that it was "just [Yesner]." She said she formally complained about Yesner in 2013, but nothing came of her report.
An eighth woman, identified as C8, told investigators she worked with Yesner in the early '90s, but expressed in her 2018 interview she was still worried he could retaliate against her.
She told investigators:
"Because he was in my experience, a very vindictive powerful man and he obviously as you hear these stories, had no absolutely not any compunction about using his position."
She said women in the Anthropology Department would tell "war stories" about their encounters with Yesner. C8 felt, at the time, that she could handle his inappropriate verbal and physical advances, but decided to speak out when another woman — identified as C9 — told her Yesner was threatening to withhold a letter of recommendation for graduate school if she did not have sex with him.
"C8 felt at that point that it was appropriate to go to W6, the Department Chair at the time, and inform him of [Yesner's] conduct. However, she expressed concern about doing so because [Yesner] and W6 were best friends. C8 eventually did go to speak with W6 about [Yesner]. C8 relayed during the interview, 'I went into W6's office and I told him what was happening. And his response was, and I put it in my email, I will never forget it in a million years, his response was, 'That's your story. I bet [Yesner] has something else he would say.' He just shut me down. And it was like, I just had this sinking feeling because I knew there were other women who were at risk.'"
The woman said C9 refused to report Yesner after hearing W6's response, because there was no one else in the department who could write her a letter for graduate school.
C8 said Yesner later informed her there was no more money to pay for her position as an adjunct professor. Before she left, C8 said she told two other faculty, including a new department chair identified as W7, about what was happening and neither seemed surprised.
"I will never forget it in a million years, his response was, 'That's your story. I bet [Yesner] has something else he would say.' He just shut me down."
The final complainant interview in the report is with C9, who began classes in the UAA Anthropology Department in the late '80s, with Yesner as her assigned advisor.
She told investigators the harassment began immediately, describing verbal and physical behaviors similar to what the other eight women reported. The woman told investigators the problem peaked in the early '90s, when she was working at the Broken Mammoth Archaeological Site. She said Yesner was largely absent, but when he did show up, he attempted to sleep with her. The woman told investigators she sought medical treatment for pain, tension and stress due to his sexual advances and her job responsibilities.
C9 said that during a trip to Delta Junction with Yesner to get supplies, she decided to use a public shower where staff and students would frequently pay to bathe.
"While she was in the shower he entered it, fully naked, and proceeded to rub his body, including his erect penis, against her. She backed up against the wall because she had nowhere to go. At that point, he went down on his knees and pressed his mouth against her pubic area in an attempt to give her oral stimulation. C9 raised her voice in protest, pushed him away, grabbed her clothes, and ran out to dress. He finished his shower and the (sic) drove back to the site together. When asked why he didn't stop, [Yesner] said that she had encouraged him and he thought they were 'that type of friends.' He asked her whether she wanted a good reference letter for graduate school."
C9 also told investigators that when her husband applied for a position in the UAA Anthropology Department, Yesner told C9 he would ensure a favorable vote for her husband if C9 would have sex with Yesner. C9 said her husband withdrew his application after learning about the proposition.
The report, which KTVA acquired but has not been made public, states investigators found the reports of all nine women credible.
Further findings listed in the report were Yesner's conduct created a hostile environment and repeatedly violated university regulations:
"As a result, what should have been a safe environment for the female staff and students, became a place where they had to protect themselves from discrimination and potential harassment and/or assault. Seemingly benign situations with their professor, advisor, or colleague produced anxiety and discomfort. This environment hindered their ability to learn and thrive in what should have been a supportive educational environment. [Yesner] was made aware that his conduct was offensive by at least two of his students, C7 and C9, yet it appears that he failed to modify his behavior or address it in any meaningful way."
"... it appears that he failed to modify his behavior or address it in any meaningful way."
The purpose of the report was to examine Yesner's actions against UAA regulations, rather than criminal statutes. However, the investigation concluded Yesner sexually assaulted C9:
"Based on the facts, there can be no debate that C9 was subjected to sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, both of which were a product of her gender and adversely affected her education at the University. However, the more serious allegation, that [Yesner] sexually violated C9 while in Delta Junction while working at a University sponsored archaeological dig, amounts to sexual assault."
In addition to interviewing the nine women and multiple witnesses, the investigation included a thorough review of Yesner's university computer hard drive. On it, investigators uncovered lewd pornographic images as well as a folder of images exclusively depicting female students in sports bras, shorts and jeans.
"W6 and W5 were both asked about the potential archaeological value of these images during their interviews. W6 struggled to identify a legitimate archaeological purpose. His attempt to define the pictures as 'archaeology in action' is not credible. W5 stated multiple times that there was not a legitimate educational or professional justification for the images. Furthermore, the placement of the pictures in a subfolder somewhat hidden and identified as 'Personal' supports the face that [Yesner] was not utilizing the images for educational or professional purposes. W6's explanation that [Yesner] could have placed them in separate folder to protect the individuals from having these particular photos accidentally disclosed due to their potentially embarrassing nature is not convincing."
A response from UAA
A UAA spokesperson declined to provide KTVA with an opportunity to conduct any interviews with school officials, but answered some questions through email and released the following statement:
"When allegations of sexual harassment reached UAA administration in December 2017, an investigation commenced immediately. This report is now being forwarded to the chancellor’s office for possible sanctions, pending any appeals by parties to the complaint. In order to protect the privacy and due process rights of all parties, the university will have no further comment about this specific case.
UAA is committed to providing a safe, secure, respectful environment for all who work and study here. We will not tolerate violence, harassment or discrimination of any kind on any UAA campus, or in any facility or program.
The fact that sexual harassment remains prevalent on university campuses across the country makes our resolve to execute this no-tolerance policy stronger than ever before. We are transforming our culture at UAA to one in which sexual harassment is not tolerated – plain and simple.
Through our Seawolves Speak Up campaign, we are working with peer educators and staff at the Student Health and Counseling Center and the Office of Equity and Compliance to foster a culture of respect in which members of our campus community look out for the safety and well-being of one another."
When asked why the behavior was allowed to continue for so long, public relations & marketing manager Kirstin Olmstead wrote:
"Failure to respond appropriately to complaints is an ongoing issue across the country. When complaints are not welcomed as an opportunity to prevent misconduct, it discourages victims from reporting, and prevents the university from taking corrective action to prevent further misconduct.
We now require that employees report every allegation of sex discrimination and harassment to our Title IX office. The exception to this is employees such as mental-health counselors or psychologists with a license that requires maintaining confidentiality. The Title IX office reviews every allegation it receives. If the matter is within our jurisdiction and the allegations would be a policy violation, we investigate. We have taken many steps over the last several years to encourage appropriate response and reporting. When UAA leadership learns of harassment, or learns that harassment and abuse have not been reported, we respond."
Olmstead declined to say whether the individual identified as W6 in the report — who failed to respond properly to allegations of sexual misconduct and made excuses for Yesner's photo collection as recently as October 2018 — is still employed by UAA, citing legal limitations.
She wrote in an email:
"Since this is an ongoing matter, what we can share is that allegations that reports were made and that nothing was done are very concerning. Regardless of whether that involves former or current employees, we are conducting a supplemental investigation to pin down the details regarding past reports. We will hold people accountable if they failed to take appropriate action. We’re also responding in several other ways. As with all Title IX cases, all parties have been offered interim support and services – UAA will do whatever it can to make them whole. In addition, Chancellor Sandeen has asked the University of Alaska’s Chief Human Resources Officer Keli McGee to focus on how we foster a culture where complaints are welcomed and responded to appropriately."
As for Yesner, his photo and biography have been removed from UAA's website, which continues to include other past anthropology professors. Olmstead said his employment ended in August 2017.
She said the university will not decide whether the Title IX report is turned over to law enforcement:
"Best practice is to leave the choice of whether to pursue criminal sanctions to complainants, unless the complainant is a minor or there is an ongoing and immediate safety threat. We provide complainants the option to file a police report, but do not insist that they do so. It is their decision."
Multiple attempts to reach Yesner for comment have not been successful.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, resources are available on the Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) website or by calling the statewide crisis hotline at (800) 478-8999.
Editor's note: This article has been edited to clarify that David Yesner is referred to only as R1 in the Title IX investigative report.
Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.
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