A view of Albuquerque, New Mexico (via John Fowler/Flickr)

An open letter signed by nearly 2,000 archaeologists and scholars calls on the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) to review its sexual harassment policy after a #MeToo controversy eclipsed its annual conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this past weekend.

The situation revolves around archaeology professor David Yesner, who was allowed to participate in the conference days after he was banned from University of Alaska at Anchorage (UAA) for multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, including one case of sexual assault. Michael Balter, a science journalist who called out Yesner in a panel about the Me Too movement, was removed from the conference for asking Yesner to leave. Yesner was finally escorted out of the conference after the survivors and their colleagues voiced their uproar.

The open letter calls on SAA to issue a formal apology to the survivors; update their sexual harassment policy; train staff to implement these policies; ban Yesner from all subsequent events; and refund participants who had to leave the conference because of Yesner and fund counseling for them.

“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 and knowledge’ … And yet, they protected an individual who had multiple reports of sexual harassment against them substantiated, 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 letter says.

It continues:

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.

A sexual discrimination and sexual harassment Title IX investigation found accusations against Yesner from nine women to be credible. The investigation concluded that Yesner created a hostile environment for the students. Complaints against him include inappropriate comments, touching, taking pictures of students at work, and in one case, assaulting a student in a public shower. Female students said that they shared “war stories” from their encounters with Yesner to warn others.

On April 8, Yesner was banned from the UAA campus, events, and all other university property. The professor had already retired from his post at the university in 2017, but the recent development also denied him of an emeritus status that he was expected to receive. Yesner worked at UAA’S anthropology department for 26 years.

Kristina Killgrove, teaching assistant professor in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, publicly resigned from her post as chair of SAA’s media relations committee over the incident. In a resignation letter she published online, Killgrove said that the society ignored pleas from survivors and their university chancellor to revoke Yesner’s registration although he was “a known threat with sanctions in place from his former employer.”

Killgrove adds that three survivors had to leave the conference because of Yesner, and that they were forced to out themselves on social media to counter SAA’s “disingenuous and dangerous statement that it has a Code of Conduct ‘designed to make the meeting a safe space for all attendees’.” While Yesner may have registered to the conference on site, Killgrove claims that SAA should have responded quicker to social media reports about his attendance. Instead, she says, “[O]ver the next two days, SAA staff and others who spoke for the organization refused to eject the archaeologist in spite of the exhortations of survivors and their university chancellor, and instead decided to clam up and refuse to engage with the issue in any venue.”

In a Twitter announcement earlier today, SAA promised to release a statement that offers a “solution concerning the credible information […] regarding the alleged sexual harasser” by noon PDT/3pm EDT. In a following tweet, it altered the time of the announcement to “ASAP,” adding “We want to assure you that we take this matter seriously & we hear you.” Hyperallergic has not yet received a comment from SAA.

Update 4/17/19 10:52am: Last night, the SAA issued an apology for the “unfortunate situation” at its annual meeting, and for its delayed response to the concerns of its members. “In particular, we apologize for the impact, stress and fear the situation caused to victims of sexual harassment within our field,” the statement reads. The society promises to set up a member-led, independent committee to address member concerns. It also says it has already began implementing some of the demands listed in the open letter, including adding a counselor onsite at the annual meeting “should an incident occur”, board and staff training on sexual harassment, and “additional policies” to safeguard the integrity of the conference.

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...