Harvard bans former anthropology chair after finding persistent sexual harassment

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Last year, Gary Urton retired from Harvard University with emeritus status, which has now been revoked.

Sam Ogden

As a result of findings of sexual harassment, Harvard University today stripped prominent anthropological archaeologist Gary Urton of his emeritus status and banned him from all events on campus. A yearlong investigation found that Urton, who specializes in Andean culture, engaged in “persistent” sexual harassment and unwelcome sexual conduct, and abused his power with students and employees he supervised in the past 2 decades, according to a searing university statement released today.

The statement from Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, read in part: “Dr. Urton is no longer welcome on any part of the FAS campus.” He will not be allowed to teach any classes, advise students, have library privileges, use office space, or attend any lectures, faculty meetings, or Harvard events. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow also imposed the sanctions against Urton across the entire Harvard campus and at all university-sponsored events.

The statement also accused Urton of hampering Harvard’s Title IX investigation by providing “materially misleading information.”

Reaction was swift from women who had filed complaints against Urton. “I am especially relieved for current and future Harvard students that a sexual predator has been publicly removed from the University campus and community,” says anthropologist Carrie Brezine, now a data analyst at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a former Ph.D. student of Urton’s. She alleges that Urton seduced her at a remote field site in Peru after he hired her to create an archaeological database. “At the same time, these sanctions cannot compensate for the emotional trauma or career setbacks suffered by his victims over the past 2 decades.”

Urton, 72, retired in 2020, before the investigation into his behavior was complete. But in an email response today, he wrote: “I am deeply disappointed and devastated by the Dean’s pronouncement of sanctions against me. I participated in good faith in the university’s Title IX grievance procedures and investigative process. I was scrupulously honest and forthright in all my interactions with the Office of Dispute Resolution. For many reasons, I do not feel the sanctions against me are fair or just, nor do I believe they accurately reflect the evidence gathered during the Title IX proceeding.”

Urton, who was anthropology department chair from 2012 to 2018, was put on administrative leave in June 2020 and removed as director of undergraduate studies in anthropology, pending a full review of allegations brought by several students in graduate studies in anthropology and in the Harvard Extension program. In allegations first aired in The Harvard Crimson, the students said Urton had sexually harassed them or abused his power as their employer or professor to coerce them into affairs. At least two students filed complaints with the Harvard Office for Dispute Resolution, triggering a Title IX investigation of Urton’s conduct.

In its investigation, the Office for Dispute Resolution documented behavior that violated Harvard policies on sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and unprofessional conduct, according to the statement. “Dr. Urton exhibited a pattern of behavior that betrayed the trust of our community and violated our fundamental institutional values,” Gay wrote.

Jade Guedes of the University of California, San Diego, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography was one of the women whose complaints triggered the investigation. She had told the Harvard office that in 2012 Urton invited her to a “tête-à-tête” to discuss her promising research, then emailed to ask: “I wonder if you would be interested in something more intimate? … What if I got a hotel room and then we got a bottle of wine and spent an afternoon in conversation and exploration?” Alarmed, Guedes turned Urton down.

Guedes wrote in an email today that although she is glad to see Harvard “finally taking some action and sanctions against Urton,” Harvard “still ignored some of the most egregious cases of harm and sexual harassment that were brought to their office because of lack of documentary evidence.” She was able to document her case with emails, but “how … often do harassers leave this type of evidence behind?”

Brezine supported that view, noting that “the burden is entirely on victims of predators to preserve such evidence if it exists, and to present it with witnesses to attest to its veracity.” Both scientists urge Harvard to support changes to the Title IX process, proposed by Harvard’s Graduate Students Union, to lighten the burden of proof on accusers.