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.