How did he persist?

I am just shocked at the stories emerging about David Yesner, the University of Alaska anthropologist. He is being sued for sexual harassment by 20 women, for events spread over 26 years.

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.

There’s something rotten at the University of Alaska. They’re suing Yesner, the whole dang university, and the regents of the university — they reported the problems many times, and the Title IX office dragged its heels, the chancellor did nothing and was in fact about to bestow emeritus status on Yesner. There seems to be a real problem among the faculty there.

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.

“David being David.” Jesus. Try mentally reviewing your colleagues and coworkers, and you probably know their personalities and quirks well enough that you can say that’s “[Name] being [Name]” about something — it’s about the emptiest thing you can say — but it can also numb you to what harm they’re doing. “Oh, that’s just Joe, he likes holding up liquor stores on the weekend. That’s Joe being Joe!” Usually, when we’re told about criminal behavior, we don’t excuse it by dismissing at just a feature of their nature.

Unless, it seems, it’s sexual harassment. Boys will be boys, you know; if we kicked out all the men who fondled young women and made lewd jokes about them and held up their progress in the system, why, we wouldn’t have a department any more. As one of Yesner’s accusers put it, though:

“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.”

Exactly right. When Yesner started his petty tyranny over two decades ago, he should have been fired then. I understand precisely the pressures universities face, where dismissing a faculty member means the administration is going to take years to replace them, and meanwhile, everyone else has to work harder to fill the gap because he was also teaching essential courses and doing the administrative work, but the procedures should have been initiated long ago, not the year he is retiring. Sure, if you kick out the harassers you’re going to weaken your department for a while, but what will thoroughly destroy your department and blight the careers of your students is if you keep him there.

Would anyone recommend to an enthusiastic student who wanted to study anthropology that UAA would be a good place to go? I wouldn’t. I’d steer them to just about any other university. Yesner may be gone, but the faculty who said, “Oh, that’s just David being David” is presumably still there. The chancellor still has his job. The Title IX office is still understaffed and not doing its job.


  1. kome says

    It absolutely sickens me how common it is in academia for the institution to protect sexual predators, and for faculty to turn a blind eye because to speak out allegedly hurts the university (either hurts their reputation or would somehow allow the predator to sue the university for hostile work environment or defamation or something). Being an academic has to be more than being a smart person on an esoteric topic. It needs to include being a minimally decent human being, too. And we just don’t do enough to promote a culture that encourages academics to be minimally decent human beings.

  2. weylguy says

    My advice to Yesner is to become a billionaire President, and all these problems with women will go away.

  3. chrislawson says

    Not only was he allowed to get away with harassment for two decades, he was allowed to maintain unprofessional standards that should have got him sacked even without the harassment. Taking 2.5 years to grade an exam? Destroying that student’s career progression in the process? That’s how bad the protective culture in academia is: he probably received more disciplinary leeway because the university didn’t want to deal with the sexual complaints than if he had just been incompetent.

    I wish the plaintiffs every success.

  4. Jazzlet says

    I made a formal complaint about sexual abuse from one of my university lecturers in 1983, only to discover that I was not the first, that the behaviour was dismised just the same way, that was just him being him, on a par with his fondness for trams, a bit weird but essentially harmless. It is appalling that so little progress has been made in thirty plus years.

  5. wzrd1 says

    I am infamous on playing the, “was that my outside voice”, as evil Uncle mode nonsense.
    Then, I question why I wasn’t “nutted” or otherwise disposed of?

    Yes, I go into protected land, to further protect it, I want everyone to challenge me. To further their protections and educate them.
    Documented by someone who loathes me, preferably, if not, someone I kicked in the shins upon initiation of investigation.

    I’ve never enjoyed investigation by someone who likes me, it’s business as usual. Loved a more hostile investigation.
    Passed, even got an ATO, when such was so long delayed that most investigators ignored it, due to a four star signature.
    That investigation left him outside of the loop, along with his subordinate.

    Is our government dysfunctional? Name a purely functional government, even money, we’ll be dealing with proton decay.
    Work with which one has.
    Move on, advancing via various stimuli.

  6. DLC says

    Me being Me : “Okay, class. Everyone deserves their own space, and their own personal dignity. We will conduct ourselves accordingly, and treat everyone with professional courtesy, honesty and respect. This means I won’t infringe on your space or crowd your rights, and I fully expect everyone here to follow my lead. Everyone has boundaries, and everyone here needs to respect them. “

  7. snuffcurry says

    My advice to Yesner is to become a billionaire President, and all these problems with women will go away.

    Right, like men of all stations don’t regularly get away with this kind of serial abuse. As proof, see… why, David Yesner himself! Big fish in a little pond who benefited not from wealth but just your big-standard rape culture and the lazy dudes in charge who find it too much trouble to listen to women.