David Yesner, University of Alaska & Board of Regents sued over sexual misconduct
For decades, a powerful professor was permitted to use the University of Alaska Anchorage campus as his own personal "hunting ground," preying on women who depended on him for academic and professional success, all while the university chose to shield its reputation rather than protect female students, according to a federal lawsuit filed on Wednesday.
The lawsuit comes less than two months after KTVA reported a Title IX investigation into sexual discrimination and sexual harassment by Dr. David Yesner that found accusations from nine women all credible.
The civil complaint lists 20 plaintiffs: Jane Doe I, Jane Doe II, Jane Doe III, Jane Doe IV, Jane Doe V and Jane Does 6-20.
The suit currently represents claims by the first five women. Jane Does 6-20 have yet to come forward and be identified. They are either current or former University of Alaska students who were victims of harassment, retaliation, and/or discrimination, according to the complaint.
Yesner, the University of Alaska system and the University of Alaska Board of Regents are listed as defendants.
The following claims are included in the suit:
- Women reported Yesner's conduct on multiple occasions, including in 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017.
- Reports were made to other professors, the dean, the provost's office, the chancellor and the Title IX office.
- While Yesner's retaliation against complainants crippled their academic careers, he was promoted.
- The University of Alaska's response to reports of Yesner's alleged sexual harassment violated state and federal laws.
"The safety and wellbeing of female students came a distant second to the University’s desire to protect its reputation and fundraising efforts."
The women allege that Yesner subjected them to years of sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse, exploitation and retaliation that was crippling to both their academic careers and their emotional well-being and that the university failed to comply with federal Title IX requirements in response to their numerous complaints.
They describe Yesner as someone who would deliberately stare at their breasts, make inappropriate sexual comments and advances and find ways to touch them without consent. He was known to keep an extensive pornography collection on his computer that was discovered by multiple women on different occasions during his time at UAA. He also kept photos he had taken of students participating in field digs, cropped to highlight body parts rather than archeological artifacts. One woman reported walking into his office to find him masturbating.
In one of the most serious claims against Yesner, a woman who spoke to Title IX investigators reported that Yesner sexually assaulted her in a public shower during a field project. Her account is included in a redacted version of the investigative report dated March 15, 2019, that has not been made public. She is not currently a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Yesner worked as a professor in UAA’s anthropology department for 26 years after he was hired as an associate professor in 1991, according to a university spokesperson. Prior to 1991, Yesner held temporary and adjunct positions with UAA. His affiliation with the school goes back to 1975.
In April 2017, Yesner announced his retirement 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.
According to the complaint, Jane Doe II and other women reached out to then Chancellor Sam Gingerich via email, hoping to reverse the decision:
"As is consistent with the University's ongoing indifference and inaction, Chancellor Gingerich apparently ignored Plaintiff Jane Doe II's email and never responded. Plaintiff Jane Doe II was forced to send the email again to Chancellor Gingerich on December 11, 2017."
The email read, in part:
"It is not a secret that David Yesner is inappropriate with his female students. This is something known to the department, the college, and the University Title IX office. I’ve complained and contributed to investigations, and nothing happened. Choices like granting David Yesner emeritus status directly contribute to a culture of sexual harassment that keeps women out of science and the academy. Every faculty member who nominated him, everyone who refused to object to his nomination, and you are complicit in creating an environment that is hostile to women. In this age of #metoo, and the ousting of serial sexual harassers in the entertainment, media, political, and academic worlds, it is beyond tone deaf, to grant an honor like this to someone like Dr. Yesner."
Additionally, Jane Doe III, Jane Doe V and a third woman sent a letter to Gingerich on December 8, 2017, asking that the announcement be delayed pending the investigation of numerous Title IX complaints.
The complaint continues:
"This time, instead of ignoring the female complainants, Chancellor Gingerich responded by stating that the '[emeritus] process was completed weeks ago' and 'the Commencement Program [had already] been finalized.' His response failed to address any of the sexual harassment and discrimination reports and clearly communicated to Plaintiffs that their appeals for help from the University were nothing more than an annoyance to him."
Also on December 8, 2017, Jane Doe IV sent a letter to Gingerich, according to the document, and was referred to the university's Title IX office, which the lawsuit claims also made several missteps in responding to complaints against Yesner appropriately.
"The University's Title IX office failed to return Plaintiff Jane Doe IV's calls to receive a status update on her report,” the lawsuit states. “After no response from the University and desperate to gain some assistance, Jane Doe IV resorted to calling the Office two to three times a week for months on end to no avail. When she did finally hear back from someone at the University's Title IX office, the investigator told Jane Doe IV that she was so ‘tired’ of Plaintiffs' calls, leading Plaintiff to believe that the Office was not taking her claims seriously or taking any action with respect to her reports about Defendant Yesner. [...] By the time the office got back to Plaintiff, the investigation into Professor Yesner and report were already close to being completed and released."
"The University's Title IX Office was more concerned about protecting Defendant University's reputation than protecting its students."
The suit claims the university's Title IX office was ineffective in protecting students, severely understaffed, failed to provide complainants with information about victim resources and violated the federal statute it exists to enforce by taking too long to resolve complaints:
"Even the University of Alaska Title IX offices were internally infested with predators. The misconduct investigator hired by UAF, Patrick Shipwash, was found to have engaged in sexual misconduct at a previous university where he was employed. UAF failed to do its due diligence to ensure the investigators it hired were free of sexual misconduct allegations themselves, compounding the danger in which the University was placing its students."
Jane Doe I and Jane Doe II "constantly" reported Yesner's behavior to professors and other faculty, according to the suit, but were met with excuses like "Oh, that's just David being David."
Jane Doe II was also told she "should cover up more" and that she should just "switch advisors" – a move that would have set her studies back by years since she was already writing her thesis under Yesner's guidance.
The lawsuit alleges Yesner retaliated against Jane Doe I for rejecting his sexual advances by delaying grading her comprehensive exam, which prevented her from graduating. The task should have taken the professor five weeks at the most, according to the suit, but instead it took 2 1/2 years. She eventually withdrew from the university, but still must pay back student loans with interest.
In a statement delivered by her attorneys on Thursday, Jane Doe I wrote:
"Because the university ignored a longstanding problem, my dream of becoming a professional archaeologist came to an end. All of the hard work I put into my chosen path leading up to graduate school was subverted by Yesner and UAA when I had to quit. Yesner made it clear to me I would never finish my degree. Every student should have the opportunity to work hard and succeed, not work hard and have their professional confidence debased. Every student should be able to trust the institution they attend."
In another example of alleged retaliation, Jane Doe II claims Yesner failed to review her final thesis paper, which was required for her to graduate. It took Jane Doe II nine years to complete her graduate degree from a program intended to last three to five years.
"The University chose convenience and money to the detriment of their students, specifically Plaintiffs and the other victims of Professor Yesner."
The lawsuit alleges the University responded to complaints against Yesner with deliberate indifference:
"The Defendant University had actual knowledge of Plaintiffs’ sexual harassment at the hands of Defendant Yesner from the time Plaintiffs reported this harassment to a then professor and now the Chair of the Anthropology Department, the Provost’s Office, the Dean, and the Chancellor in 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017 respectively and other complaints lodged before these years as well."
And it claims Yesner, for decades, was promoted despite known instances of sexual misconduct:
"What the University did do was continue to reward Yesner for his sexual harassment, sweeping the students’/Plaintiffs’ complaints under the rug and awarding Yesner with promotion after promotion within the Anthropology department and within the graduate school in general. Defendant University even appointed Defendant Yesner Associate Graduate School Dean of UAA for two terms and ultimately proceeded to bestow “emeritus” status upon Yesner – a highly coveted and one of the more highly prestigious positions at any university. Once a Professor achieves “emeritus” status, he/she is allowed unrestricted access to the University forever. He/she can come and go as she pleases without any supervision. Despite extensive reports of Defendant Yesner’s history of sexually harassing and sexually abusing female students, the University was going to allow him even more leeway and an unfettered gateway to prey on young female students on campus."
The plaintiffs are demanding a trial by jury, reimbursement for tuition and related expenses, and the following damages:
- Deprivation of equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities provided by University of Alaska
- Past, present and future emotional pain and suffering
- Ongoing and severe mental anguish
- Loss of past, present, and future enjoyment of life
- Past and present lost earnings and earning capacity
The lawsuit also requests the removal of Yesner's name from diplomas and other official university documents, as well as the cost of attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs.
In response to the filing, UAA spokesperson Kirstin Olmstead emailed the following statement:
"The university has not yet been served with the complaint, which we now understand was filed yesterday in federal court. As the university's own investigation demonstrated, Professor Yesner engaged in reprehensible behavior. The university has taken available steps to address that conduct and offered to do what it can to make things right for affected individuals. We remain willing to do so. We will not have specific comments on pending litigation."
A follow-up request asking whether UAA has offered to reimburse the women for their tuition costs was not immediately returned.
Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.