Open letter gathers 1,800-plus signatures asking organization to bar ex-UAA professor
The fallout from a Title IX investigation into sexual harassment at the University of Alaska Anchorage continues. Women who reported decades of misconduct by a now-disgraced former member of the school's anthropology department say they were re-victimized while attending a international conference in New Mexico last week.
Accusations against Dr. David Yesner from nine women were all found to be credible following an independent investigation into sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.
Yesner's ties to UAA date back to 1975. The report from investigators illuminates an environment in which he had no fear of getting caught and details allegations from the women include inappropriate staring and touching, verbal harassment and assault. Women around him banded together and shared stories to warn others about a predator.
University police sent an alert to students last week announcing Yesner is banned from all university property and events, and the Alaska Anthropological Association notified members in a post Friday that as a result of the Title IX investigation, Yesner faces several consequences:
1) The Professional Achievement Award presented by the Alaska Anthropological Association in 2014 is hereby revoked.
2) Membership in the Alaska Anthropological Association is prohibited.
3) Participation in the Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association and/or any events or activities sponsored or hosted by the Alaska Anthropological Association is prohibited.
Yet Yesner was allowed to enter and partake in the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) 2019 conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico that started last week and ended Sunday.
Norma Johnson identified herself on Twitter over the weekend as one of the complainants in the Title IX report.
In a phone interview Monday, Johnson said she and others who were weary of being at the same event as Yesner checked the conference roster daily and didn't see his name.
"He registered on site and I ran into him the very first morning," she explained, "and I was kinda outraged and shocked and it just ruined the entire conference for all of us."
The conference she had paid to attend became an extension of the environment Yesner created at UAA. One in which students warned each other of a potential threat, and used the buddy system for their own safety — even if it meant missing out on a session they had planned to attend.
Attendees voiced their outrage on social media, blasting SAA's response to Yesner's presence at the event.
The organization responded in a series of tweets that Yesner's accusers, and hundreds of their colleagues, found insufficient.
"They’re claiming to be the forefront in the anti-harassment policy but when it slapped them in the face they put their head in the sand and hoped it went away," said Johnson. "I’m frustrated. I’m angry. I’m not gonna go away."
In a blog post, Kristina Killgrove announced her decision to resign as chair of SAA's media relations committee, a position she has held since 2017:
"The last few days have been like watching a public relations train wreck in real time. Since I wasn't in attendance at the SAA conference this year, I did my best to amplify voices of outrage through Twitter and Facebook. But even had I been in Albuquerque, I do not believe that SAA staff would have heeded my advice to issue a response as quickly as possible.
After reading hundreds of tweets from survivors who are sharing their stories, archaeologists who were in attendance at the SAAs, and academics in other fields who were horrified at seeing this unfold, I made the decision to resign as chair of the Media Relations Committee."
Killgrove characterized the SAA as "wildly out of touch with social media" and said her efforts to assist the organization with its social media strategy were not met with a positive response.
An open letter circulating online calls for SAA to apologize, update its sexual harassment policy, and, among other demands, bar Yesner from attending in the future. It reads:
"This year a Title IX investigation substantiated the claims of sexual harassment against the archaeologist David Yesner, formerly at the University of Alaska, and he was subsequently banned from the campus where he had worked and from any events (on and off campus) in which students attend. There are also currently nine other active complaints about Yesner’s conduct in process, with more pending.
On the 11th of April 2019, it was confirmed that Yesner was in attendance at the 2019 Society for American Archaeology conference. Those he harassed were also in attendance. Concerns for their safety and well-being were raised to staff at the conference and to the organisers; however, thus far no known tangible action has been taken. The protection of other attendees was not ensured.
SAA’s statement on sexual harassment, not updated since 2015, acknowledges the issues of harassment in archaeology and claims to be committed to an educational environment that is ‘optimal for all to develop and practice relevant skills andthat calsubstantiated, who had already been banned by other institutions, and they aggrieved survivors of sexual harassment both in attendance and those following the escalating events on social media. The only action SAA leadership took was to ban Michael Balter, a journalist who complained multiple times about David Yesner’s attendance and the impact it was having on survivors.
The inaction of the SAA in light of the serious danger threatening their attendees has indeed had a chilling effect on learning and workplace experiences’ at the conference. Survivors and allies had to adopt a buddy-system to try and keep themselves safe, while missing out on many panels they had paid to attend. They took to social media to warn others of the danger, and to seek support that was not provided by the SAA.
Academic institutions and professional organisations have a duty-of-care to their members and guests and, in this respect, SAA has failed. SAA had an opportunity to show leadership and implement an already-existing policy, but instead allowed the situation to escalate and David Yesner to continue to create a hostile and intimidating environment for many attendees.
In light of this, we call on the SAA to:
1. Issue a formal apology for the above events.
2. Update their sexual harassment policy, which has not been updated since 2015. This would include creating a format through which survivors can safely report their concerns about individuals and have COSWA or another interest group monitor and report to SAA leadership members who should be banned.
3. Train all staff, both on-the-ground and those in senior and organisational positions, on how to implement these policies if situations such as this arise again.
4. Follow the lead of the University of Alaska and the Alaska Anthropological Association in barring David Yesner from all subsequent events.
5. Refund and give compensation to all those impacted -- including the survivors and the allies who could not fully participate in the conference as a direct result of SAA’s inaction.
6. Fund counselling for anyone impacted by SAA’s inaction."
By Monday evening, more than 1,800 people had signed the letter. More than 20 are affiliated with the UA system.
In a tweet and Facebook post, SAA apologized for its response and promised to issue an update on Tuesday.
Tuesday morning, nearly half an hour past SAA's self-imposed deadline to respond, the society posted the following tweet:
By Tuesday evening, SAA had issued an apology:
"SAA apologizes for the unfortunate situation which occurred at the SAA annual meeting and for the delay in issuing this apology. In particular, we apologize for the impact, stress and fear the situation caused to victims of sexual harassment within our field.
The SAA Board of Directors and staff are in the process of setting up a member-lead, independent committee to address member concerns now and in the future in order to improve our meeting.
We have already begun to implement members’ suggestions including adding a counselor onsite at the meeting should an incident occur, board and staff training on sexual harassment, and additional policies to safeguard the integrity of our meeting. We welcome your continued feedback throughout the process – please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org."
The statement did not include information on whether Yesner will be allowed to attend SAA events in the future.
Johnson said in a tweet Tuesday evening that no one from SAA had reached out to her regarding her complaint.
KTVA's multiple requests for comment from the society went unanswered on Friday, Monday and Tuesday.
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.
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