Organization issues apology, defends its actions toward disgraced ex-UAA professor
A week since the beginning of a public relations nightmare, an international archaeology organization defended its handling of former University of Alaska professor David Yesner's presence at its annual conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The statement, released Wednesday morning, marks the first time the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) has acknowledged Yesner by name and comes after days of relentless criticism and an open letter signed by thousands of academics.
On Thursday, SAA board president Joe Watkins appeared in a video addressing the #MeToo scandal and promising changes to members.
A Title IX investigation found complaints of sexual harassment, and even an assault, against Yesner by nine women to be credible and confirmed that even though some were reported, Yesner's misconduct went unchecked for decades.
That changed in March.
The former anthropology professor was denied emeritus status and later banned from all University of Alaska property and events. The Alaska Anthropological Association followed suit, barring Yesner and revoking past honors.
But Yesner was granted access to SAA's annual meeting last week, after one of his accusers says he registered on site.
In a phone interview Monday, Norma Johnson, who identified herself as one of the nine complainants in the report, said she and others who were wary 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."
SAA issued a vague response, then silence, followed by multiple promises to update members. Finally, on Tuesday, an apology culminated its week-long approach to members' growing disdain and outrage.
Wednesday, SAA posted the following statement on their website, claiming they took action against Yesner on April 12, the same day they say they learned he was at the conference:
"We know this has been a difficult experience for members and we are sorry for the distress this has caused. That said, to dispel the rumors as to how SAA handled the Dr. David Yesner situation at the SAA annual meeting, here’s a detailed description of the events:
- On Friday late morning, April 12, 2019, SAA received two complaints regarding Dr. Yesner’s presence at the meeting due to sexual harassment allegations made against him while he was employed at the University of Alaska Anchorage. SAA began reviewing the complaints immediately.
-Within one hour of receipt of the complaints, SAA received correspondence from Cathy Sandeen, Ph.D., M.B.A., University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor. Dr Sandeen indicated that Dr. Yesner was no longer employed by the University and echoed the concerns of the individuals who filed the complaints about Dr. Yesner’s presence at the meeting.
-On Friday, April 12, 2019 – A few hours after receipt of the complaints, SAA notified Dr. Yesner that it was removing him from the meeting per SAA’s policy.
-At no time before Friday, April 12, 2019 did SAA receive any information regarding Mr. Yesner which would have precluded his attendance at the meeting but, as noted above, as soon as SAA was made aware of the information, it acted to remove him from the meeting within hours.
Please check back for further updates as we continue to examine this situation."
Members were quick to cry foul, citing tweets from a journalist who confronted Yesner and escorted him from the building on Thursday, April 11.
Michael Balter tweeted about Yesner's presence and notified SAA staff of the issue.
The tweets show a time stamp for the morning of April 11.
According to an email from SAA executive director Oona Schmid, Balter was informed early Friday morning that he was no longer welcome at the conference.
The email reads:
Dear Mr. Balter,
As we just discussed,I appreciate that you have been trying to reach SAA to discuss your concerns. I would like to set up a telephone call with you to understand your concerns fully and I suggest that Thurs 4/18 is a possible date at my end if you can suggest at time that is convenient for you.
As much as I recognize that you are trying to share your concerns, your calls are not appropriate. Given the nature of this outreach, SAA must withdraw your 2019 conference registration per our Standard of Conduct Policy. I will arrange for you to receive a refund as soon as possible. Please refrain from attending the rest of the conference including your participation in Saturday's session.
Thank you for your anticipated cooperation and I look forward to hearing more details about your concerns when we talk next week.
Society for American Archaeology
In its apology released Tuesday, SAA said it is taking steps to improve in the future:
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 society also solicited feedback this week, promising to respond within 24 hours.
Wednesday evening, Annalisa Heppner, who also identified herself on Twitter as one of Yesner's accusers, said she still had not received a response.
Along with the video released on Thursday, SAA posted an open letter to members:
As the President of the Board of the Society for American Archaeology I want to apologize for the events that happened last week in Albuquerque under my watch.
I failed to take the kind of action we should have taken to address the distress of the attendees at our meeting. I allowed myself to be convinced that our harassment policy was more important than the feelings of our members.
The Board of Directors and I are working to find a way forward. We will create a body to examine the short-comings in our sexual harassment policy of 2015 and the anti-harassment policy of 2018.
That body will create a report and make recommendations to the Board of Directors so that we can do our best to ensure that this does not happen again. This body will operate at arm’s length from the Board so that there will not be any perceived undue influence. This body will be member-led.
This situation has highlighted the weakness of our communication with our membership. I pledge to strengthen our internal and external communication mechanisms by increasing the communication between Board liaisons and their respective task forces and committees.
I have also heard from former task force and committee members of their frustration with the existing structure where task force recommendations to the Board were ignored or unacknowledged. I pledge to put a stop to this and listen better to our members’ concerns.
The elected members of the Board really do care about you. You are our friends and colleagues, our students and mentors. You are the shared histories of the discipline and the future stories yet to be written.
I ask that you give me a chance to make the changes we need to make. It will be painful and difficult. There will be some missteps, but we must keep working at it. We are at a point where we can destroy what has been 84 years in the making because we are angry and frustrated, or we can work together to make it better.
I DO know how you feel. I have felt this way before in the past, and I have tried to work to get to a point where I can influence change.
I ask that you work with me to help me change what you believe needs changing. Without you the SAA cannot exist. Thank you for listening and being part of this Society.
Joe E. Watkins
President of the Board of Directors
Society for American Archaeology
Kristina Killgrove, who resigned as chair of SAA's media relations committee over the scandal, responded to Watkins' message in a series of tweets.
Late Thursday afternoon, Johnson said she had still not received a personal response from SAA to her complaint about Yesner. Another Title IX accuser tweeted that she too was waiting for a response.
KTVA reached out to the SAA Friday and did not receive a response. Daily requests for comment from the society have been unanswered since Monday.
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 story has been updated to include a formal apology video and letter from SAA to its members Thursday.
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