An Unwanted Relic

From the description of former University of Alaska archaeology professor David Yesner, there is nothing good to say about him.

That investigation, first obtained by KTVA, found that Yesner created a hostile environment for the students and violated numerous university policies against sexual misconduct, including assault. The nine complainants’ reports ranged from inappropriate comments and touching, to taking pictures of students’ breasts at work sites, to — in one case — rubbing his genitals against a student in a public shower. The reports were deemed credible.

Yesner was forced to retire in 2017, banned from campus and denied emeritus status. Despite having taught for years, he was determined to be such a threat that the school felt compelled to notify its students to be on the lookout.

Last week, Alaska emailed students to say that Yesner was “banned and trespassed from all property owned, controlled or used by the [university], including but not limited to UAA campuses.” The email asked students to alert authorities if “you see him or become aware of his presence in any such location.”

What he was not was convicted at any time by any court of any offense. But the university is entitled to ban someone, even a longtime professor, from campus. Why, given these seemingly egregious complaints about him, he held his position is curious. Maybe he was the best archaeology prof ever? Maybe he had pictures of the dean with a goat in fish nets? Or maybe he wasn’t so awful, until he was?

But it wasn’t sufficient for Yesner to be forced out of his college.

Yet just days later, Yesner was allowed to attend the annual meeting of Society for American Archaeology in Albuquerque, N.M. Anthropologists present, some of whom have identified themselves as Yesner’s targets, filed complaints with meeting organizers and sought to have him kicked out.

A science journalist decided to confront Yesner at the meeting and demand that Yesner go away, and rather than be lauded as a hero, was himself thrown out.

Michael Balter, a science journalist who was at the conference in part to speak on a panel about Me Too, said that he was kicked out for confronting Yesner and asking him to leave.

It wasn’t that Balter felt uncomfortable for his own safety, but that he had a duty as an ally to protect others by seizing the opportunity to demand Yesner leave.

Balter told The Scientist that journalists “shouldn’t necessarily be kicking the subjects of their reporting out of meetings, but quite frankly nobody else was protecting these students” and he “considered this an emergency.”

As for others, once they realized that this threat to their safety was physically present, they got on board.

The society’s “inaction” in light of a “serious danger” at the meeting “indeed had a ‘chilling effect on learning and workplace experiences’ at the conference,” the letter continues, quoting the society’s Statement on Sexual Harassment and Violence. Consistent with what attendees have shared on social media, the letter says that “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.”

Signatories demanded an apology from the society and an update to its harassment policy, along with training for all staff on relevant, proactive procedures. The letter also requests that Yesner be banned from all subsequent events, plus conference refunds for those impacted by his presence this year.

There was no allegation that Yesner did anything at the meeting, but that didn’t bear upon the others’ conclusion that he was a “known threat.”

Kristina Killgrove, teaching assistant professor in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, publicly stepped down from her role as chair of the society’s media relations committee over the incident. In her resignation letter, Killgrove said that Yesner “was a known threat with sanctions in place from his former employer.” And while the society “could not have known that he would register on-site, the response from SAA staff and other leadership when the issue was first raised both in person and on Twitter on Thursday, by [Balter] has been nothing short of appalling.”

Did Yesner deserve to be “unpersoned,” not only by his former employer, but by the Society? Did he deserve to be hated as a sex offender, to be deemed such a threat that he be banned not only by his former employer, but by the Society? Perhaps. He may well be every bit as bad as they seem to believe him to be, although one might wonder whether people who felt threatened by Yesner could just not go near him. As bad as the descriptions may be, there’s nothing to suggest he grabbed young women in dark alleys.

But then, did Balter or Killgrove know Yesner to have committed the offenses of which he was accused? Sure, they may have been found credible by the University of Alaska, but so is every defendant indicted. Are they all guilty too? Or at least guilty enough to be fired and canceled from their life and occupation? Certainly Yesner’s academic peers would recognize their colleague’s dilemma.

Some 800 academics have since signed an open letter to the society, saying that it “protected an individual who had claims of sexual harassment against them substantiated, who had already been banned by other institutions,” and in the process “aggrieved survivors of sexual harassment both in attendance and those following the escalating events on social media.”

Yesner never stood a chance. Maybe he didn’t deserve one. Maybe he never had the opportunity to defend himself from accusations. No matter, he’s a goner.

18 thoughts on “An Unwanted Relic

  1. Skink

    “and in the process ‘aggrieved survivors of sexual harassment both in attendance and those following the escalating events on social media.’ ”

    “Survivors” has lost its meaning. Survivors survive some catastrophic event–like earthquakes, floods , fires and famine. People don’t survive bad words. I was in a hearing yesterday where the judge let the other parties have it because he’d had enough.* Am I a survivor?

    But there’s more: “survivors” were “aggrieved” by “following the escalating events on social media.” Set aside the obvious twitter damage nonsense. But just how does someone get damaged by reading stuff they know will damage their sensibilities?

    *Not me. I’m old. I know when to shut-up.

    1. PseudonymousKid

      You are a survivor. Skink, survivor of the swamp and a bunch of non-lethal things. Remember that time that one guy gave you the stink eye? You survived the hell out of that. Keep on surviving.

  2. B. McLeod

    Mentally, I can kind of picture this guy Rodney Dangerfielding his way through the conference, feeling up all the other attendees. It probably wasn’t that, but this extreme reaction suggests something similar. Too bad nobody saw fit to report the details while promulgating their condemnations. And these people are supposed to be scientists.

    1. SHG Post author

      While there’s no info as to how long this had been going on, the scope suggests it didn’t just happen in a week, or year, but likely for his tenure at the school. Yet, it was never so bad that anyone brought it up until 2017, went to the cops, acted upon it? Was he a tolerable oddball before, but a predator now?

  3. MonitorsMost

    So many questions. Why was the archeologist teacher showering with students? Why was there a panel on Me Too at the Society for American Archeology? Why did Sam Neil overstate the danger of velociraptors to the kid at beginning of Jurassic Park when velociraptors were only three feet tall and yet Hammond also happened to create genetically modified raptors which were substantially larger and thus more dangerous? I think the field of archeology has a lot to answer for right now.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a panel on MeToo at every academic conference these days. In fact, every panel is really about MeToo.

  4. KP

    This IS a serious threat… If justice is now to be done without Courts, there will be no need for lawyers!

    ..it also confirms my theory that archeology is an arts subject, not a science!

  5. Julia

    According to the link provided, University of Alaska brought Title IX to an entirely new level.

    1. They investigated a retired professor
    2. The complaint included people who clearly are not current students complaining about events in the 1990s. The article doesn’t specify if *any* of the complainants were current students, they all are referred as “women”. It seems, being a woman now is sufficient.
    3. It seems, the purpose of the complaint was to deny him a professor emeritus status; it was submitted days before the ceremony.
    4. He’s mostly guilty of “staring”. However, the investigators uncovered particularly sneaky ways to sexually harass, including asking a woman to sit close when reviewing her work, being alone with a woman and not warning her beforehand, taking pictures of women wearing sports bras, shorts and jeans (!), not protecting your computer with a password (if a nosy woman searches through your computer, she can be made uncomfortable by the content), being disorganised and absent-minded as a supervisor. And, apparently, if people spread rumors about you, you’re already guilty because your “reputation” makes the listener fearful. I don’t know what “Yesner offered to write her entire thesis for her” implies. Did he fulfil his promise or did he only write a part of her thesis?
    5. Looking for and finding pornographic images (whatever it means) on his hard drive, in the absence of complaints about him harassing students with its content.
    6. Discovering new creative ways to twist language. Cropping pictures is now the same as taking pictures of breasts (aren’t pictures of those parts he cut off – shorts and jeans – are considered equally inappropriate?). Access to his computer in his absence is now the same as sharing the computer.
    7. The only serious allegation against him was from early 1990s, a sexual assault in public showers. However, you would wonder why nobody filed a police report and how reliable those memories are. Do promises of favors count as sexual harassment? “I reward you if you sleep with me” doesn’t sound the same as “I punish you if you don’t”.
    8. I looked up his ratings as a professor. There are, basically, 2 groups of students – one group likes him for being knowledgeable and easy to understand, the second one finds his lectures very boring and complains that he doesn’t interact with students. Out of 31 reviews, there are no complains of feeling uncomfortable or “staring at breasts”. You would think.

    I think, Yesner should’ve protected his computer with a password, kept his personal stuff elsewhere, and should’ve cleaned his drive before retiring. But if the computer wasn’t protected by a password, the investigators can’t prove which files were his. If it was his personal computer, students had no business accessing it. I don’t buy the explanation that the student was looking for a calendar, you don’t need to go through directories to access it. And there is nothing sinister about taking pictures of students on a field trip. I had my supervisors taking mine, it was very nice to see them posted years later.

    Overall, the complaint feels like a Catch-22. A student learns about the Yesner’s “reputation” from some source. As she has a meeting with him without other people present, she brings pepper spray and tells her mother to call police if she doesn’t hear from her in an hour (she complains that she wasn’t warned about meeting him alone but how would she know to bring pepper spray and call her mother?). Nothing happens. Nevertheless, she launches a complaint about sexual harassment as she felt uncomfortable being next to him. 3 students who heard about his “reputation”, avoided to be alone with him and launched a complaint that he stared at them. Etc. Now, Society for American Archaeology says: “survivors and allies had to adopt a buddy system to try and keep themselves safe.” Do they keep a hit list or something? It doesn’t matter if he did anything in the 1990s or not, it’s all got buried under a pile of complaints “he’s guilty because I feel uncomfortable next to him after learning he’s guilty”. Rinse, repeat. If sexual harassment is equated to feeling uncomfortable, it’s all valid.

    1. SHG Post author

      Much as I suspect you won’t bother reading my reply, as you don’t seem to grasp that this isn’t your soapbox for whatever crap pops into your head, this is going to be your last comment as SJ. I’ve tried to be kind, since you obviously put some effort into writing lengthy comments, even when they’re off-topic or kinda dumb, but your failure to get the message and continued refusal to control yourself has taken up too much of my time. It was fun, but you’re now done.

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