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Anthropology Faculty Call for Urton’s Resignation as More Former Students Accuse Him of Sexual Misconduct

The Tozzer Anthropology Building and Peabody Museum house offices for Harvard's Anthropology department.
The Tozzer Anthropology Building and Peabody Museum house offices for Harvard's Anthropology department. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: June 5, 2020, 4:18 p.m.

Twenty-five members of the Harvard Anthropology faculty requested professor Gary Urton’s immediate resignation Thursday, as more former students alleged that Urton had sexually harassed them.

Two former Ph.D. students in the department — Carrie J. Brezine and Jade d’Alpoim Guedes — told The Crimson this week that Urton sexually harassed them when they were graduate students.

Brezine said she faced “years of sexual coercion and emotional abuse” by Urton between 2003 and 2007; she said he made her feel that saying no to his “routine” requests for sex might end her career.

Guedes filed a Title IX complaint against Urton on Tuesday based on a 2012 email in which Urton asked her to join him in a hotel room.

The two women came forward days after an investigation by The Crimson found another former student had accused Urton of sexual harassment in 2016, though that she never filed a formal charge against him.

In their letter to Urton requesting his resignation Thursday, the faculty cited The Crimson’s reporting, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay’s decision to place Urton on administrative leave, and “moral grounds.”

“The strong evidence put forth in these allegations has destroyed our confidence in your ability to be a teacher, colleague, and productive member of the department,” they wrote. “We see your continued presence as an impediment in our efforts to move the department in a more equitable, responsive, and responsible direction.”

Urton did not respond to requests for comment on the faculty letter and Brezine’s allegations Thursday. He apologized for his behavior toward Guedes in a statement Tuesday.

In an emailed statement to The Crimson Thursday responding to Brezine and Guedes’s allegations, Gay asserted “unequivocally” that the FAS will not tolerate sexual harassment.

“Sexual harassment constitutes a form of discrimination that is both personally damaging for those who experience it and is an assault on our faculty’s fundamental commitments to equity and academic excellence,” Gay wrote. “Since 2013, the FAS has been using its strengthened procedures, additional reporting requirements, and updated disciplinary policies to combat sexual misconduct in our community, while also bolstering prevention and support for those who have experienced it.”

“We must continue to improve upon these efforts to ensure that all members of our community experience a safe and healthy educational and work environment,” Gay added.

‘I BELIEVED HE COULD HALT MY CAREER’

Brezine said Urton first asked her to have sex with him in the summer of 2003, when she was a staff member working with Urton in Peru.

“Abusers are really good at choosing a moment when there are limited options,” Brezine said. “We’re in a place that was fairly remote, Gary is controlling the finances, and he comes to my hotel room late at night.”

Brezine said this marked the first of many sexual requests by Urton. She said she believed turning Urton down would jeopardize her employment, and, once she entered the Harvard Ph.D. program in 2005, her graduate studies.

Brezine said Urton requested sex from her on work trips to Peru and Europe, conferences in Washington, D.C., in his office and at her home. Between 2003 and 2007, she said he made the requests roughly once a day while they traveled together, and roughly weekly while they were in Cambridge.

Brezine said she and Urton both work in the “extremely niche field” of Khipu studies, the study of pre-Columbian Andean record-keeping. Urton was and remains an acknowledged expert in the field, she said, so she believed she would not be able to work in the field without completing her degree under his supervision.

“He said, in these words, ‘I have created you as a scholar,’ which meant I had no standing on my own,” she said. “I believed he could halt my career.”

Brezine said that, along with his sexual requests, Urton controlled her work, how she spent her time, and with whom she met. He would become “livid” if she did not answer his calls or spent time in the office reading for a class besides his, she said.

“He wanted to know my whereabouts all the time, who I was with,” Brezine said. “His emotional manipulation and controlling behavior was extreme.”

Refusing his requests for sex would cause the emotional manipulation to escalate dramatically, Brezine said.

“This all contributed to not being able to tell anyone because I felt so guilty, so ashamed,” she said. “I knew there would be retaliation.”

Brezine said she reported Urton’s behavior to University Ombudsman Lydia L. Cummings ’80 and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean for Student Affairs Garth O. McCavana in early 2007.

At the time, however, FAS policies on sexual harassment did not prohibit sexual relationships between faculty members and students, and Brezine said guilt and shame led to her to describe her sexual relations with Urton as a consensual affair to the administrators.

She said she now believes such a relationship between a student or a staff member and a person who controls their career can never be “truly consensual.”

Brezine said she felt Cummings and McCavana appropriately laid out all her options for reporting but made it clear to her the “immense” costs of filing a complaint. She said they told her reporting might cost her years of time — and even her Harvard degree — because her project relied so heavily on Urton.

“I was essentially told that I could file a complaint or get a degree, but not both,” Brezine wrote in an email. “It was emphasized that complaints rarely work in the victim’s favor.”

FAS policies at the time did not require McCavana to report Urton’s behavior to Harvard sexual harassment officers. FAS adopted a mandatory reporter policy in 2014, and later updated its sexual harassment policy to explicitly ban faculty from engaging in sexual relations with students under their supervision.

Cummings wrote in an emailed statement that the Ombudsman is a “confidential, neutral and independent resource” for Harvard affiliates.

“Strict confidentiality is essential to the Ombudsman function,” she wrote. “I do not disclose, affirm or deny the identify of visitors to the Office and all conversations are kept in strict confidence. I cannot affirm or deny any accounts made by others.”

As an employee beginning in 2002 and later as a graduate student, Brezine built the Khipu database, the first computerized repository of complete descriptions of all known pre-Columbian knotted string records.

She said she signed a contract agreeing that her work on the database would belong to Harvard, and that Urton always credited her for her work.

Brezine said that, despite her wishes to do so, she did not write her dissertation based on the database because Urton controlled access to it.

She said McCavana arranged a meeting between her and then-department chair Arthur M. Kleinman in 2007, where she explained the hostile work environment created by Urton, though she did not tell him about sexual relations.

Kleinman wrote in an emailed statement that he did not recall discussing a “hostile work environment” with Brezine, and instead understood the meeting to be centered around an “issue of intellectual dispute over access to the data she needed for her PhD research.”

“It was presented to me as an issue in mentoring related to promises made about access to a database and that is how I discussed the problem with Ms. Brezine,” Kleinman wrote. “When I discussed this issue with Prof. Urton I urged him to resolve this problem as an issue of intellectual dispute over access to the data she needed for her PhD research.”

“I certainly would have done more if the issue were a hostile work environment,” he added. “This dispute stayed in my mind as an example of our need to improve mentoring.”

Brezine and McCavana drew up “ground rules” for her workplace interactions with Urton, but that he wrote back with edits specifying that he could withdraw her permission to use the database at any point.

She said she worried that even after years of research, Urton might suddenly withdraw his permission if she did something to anger him.

“If you knew my passion for Inka khipu and wondered why that wasn’t my disseration, the condition of access to the khipu database was sex,” Brezine wrote in an email. “Gary made it clear that he could, and would, revoke my access at any time if I did not perform adequately. I felt that was too risky a basis on which to propose a dissertation topic.”

Guedes, the other graduate student who reported harassment by Urton this week, said she noticed Urton tightly controlled the people with whom Brezine could meet. Guedes said Brezine told her on one occasion that Urton had temporarily withheld Brezine’s access to the Khipu data.

Brezine said she never filed an official complaint in part because she felt people would believe that it was her fault, or that she had “traded” sex for a Harvard degree.

She said Urton’s sexual requests tapered off between 2007 and 2010, but that his controlling behavior continued until she graduated and moved away from Cambridge in 2011.

“If you have cited the Khipu Database Project, or found it interesting, you should know that it was first created on the sexual exploitation of a staff/graduate student,” Brezine wrote. “If you have ever cited an article of Gary’s on which I am a co-author, know that it was written in an atmosphere of sexual coercion and emotional manipulation and abuse.”

She said she is currently in contact with the Title IX office and exploring her options for reporting.

Urton is the subject of at least one other recent sexual harassment allegation, detailed in a Title IX complaint Guedes filed Tuesday.

Guedes wrote in the complaint that she felt compelled to come forward when she noticed the similarities between the 2016 allegations reported by The Crimson last week and her own interactions with Urton, according to a copy of the complaint she provided.

She wrote in the complaint that she did not report Urton’s behavior immediately after it occurred because she initially believed Urton had not made similar advances toward other students, and she feared negative consequences for her career. Urton served as department chair at the time of the alleged incident, and held that position through 2018.

In an emailed statement to The Crimson Tuesday, Urton apologized for his behavior toward Guedes.

“My behavior in this situation showed very poor judgment and has embarrassed me every time I think about it,” Urton wrote. “I am thankful that Dr. Guedes had the good sense to decline my advances and that I was respectful in my response. I am deeply sorry, and offered an apology both at that time, and on at least two subsequent occasions when I encountered her at professional meetings.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on Guedes’s allegation and complaint, noting that Harvard does not confirm or comment on Title IX investigations.

In July 2012, when Guedes was in her second-to-last year of graduate school, she encountered Urton in the lab where she was working late at night. He suggested that the two of them meet one-on-one, which she agreed to. Guedes wrote in her Title IX complaint that she believed he wanted to discuss her research.

On the evening of July 20, 2012, Urton emailed Guedes from his Harvard email asking if she wanted to go out to eat or drink with him, according to exhibits attached to her Title IX complaint. Guedes wrote back that she had seen the email after she arrived home and agreed to meet Urton another evening.

The next morning, July 21, Urton sent Guedes another email from his Harvard account, according to the exhibits.

“Recognizing that opportunities for joy are few, I wonder if we should just plan a time to have a tete-a-tete, daytime or nighttime, rather than leaving it to chance?” he wrote. “If you are busy, and I am out of line, please just disregard this note...but I would find it most enjoyable.”

He also suggested that Guedes could reply to his personal email account, “or, just ignore this note, and write it off as silliness!”

“I thought this email was strange at the time, but had always found him socially awkward so I
brushed it off and discussed the potential of a lunch meeting with him,” Guedes wrote in the Title IX complaint.

Later that day, she received an email from Urton’s personal email account, asking if she “would be interested in something more intimate.”

“I mean, lunch is still on offer, and would be quite pleasant, but, well, what if I got a hotel room and then we got a bottle of wine and spent an afternoon in conversation and exploration?” Urton wrote in the email, which Guedes also attached to her complaint. “I have absolutely no expectations, and certainly there is no pressure; just a thought of a possibility of something potentially quite special and unique.”

Guedes said in an interview that she was shocked and upset after reading Urton’s message.

Later on July 21, Urton contacted her from his FAS email account, writing “if you would be so kind, let's forget my last email; it was a bad and inappropriate idea.” He also asked Guedes if she still planned to meet him for lunch five days later.

After receiving Urton’s emails, Guedes wrote in her complaint that she met with her Harvard mental health counselor, who helped her craft a reply to Urton.

On July 24, 2012, Guedes responded.

“What you said makes me feel uncomfortable and it was indeed inappropriate. I do not wish to meet you for lunch and prefer that we do not have social contact,” she wrote, according to the exhibits.

Urton replied with an apology minutes later on July 24. He wrote to Guedes that his email asking her to join him in the hotel room “was deeply inappropriate, was not motivated by any action on your part, and will be something that I will deeply regret forever.”

The following day, Urton sent Guedes another email noting that he would not visit her office without permission, but offered to find her another office for the summer, according to the exhibits. He added that he would be happy to write her letters of recommendation for future positions.

“I stand ready to help you out in whatever way I can as you make your way in your career,” he wrote in the July 25 email.

Urton had previously written her a letter of recommendation, Guedes wrote in her Title IX complaint.

“Part of what was difficult at the time was, I was about to go on the job market and I was just having this moment of being like, ‘if I report this guy, that might be it for me, like my whole academic career is done,’” Guedes said in an interview. “So I decided not to do anything.”

Following the email exchange, Guedes switched to a different letter writer and has “cold-shouldered” Urton since, she said.

She alleged in the Title IX complaint that the incident “created an incredibly hostile work environment during my final year.”

“I was afraid of coming in and wanted to avoid the department as much as possible,” she wrote. “I also felt I had to tiptoe around Gary because of the potential retaliation.”

Guedes wrote in the Title IX complaint that she informed her advisor, Anthropology professor Rowan K. Flad, of Urton’s email on July 25, 2012.

Flad encouraged her to report the email to the Title IX office and told her he wanted to report it himself, Guedes wrote. Guedes requested that Flad not do so because she was "extremely worried about the consequences it would have for [her] on the job market.” She also wrote that she doubted that Harvard would act in her favor if she chose to report. Eventually, Flad “reluctantly” agreed not to report, according to Guedes’s complaint.

Flad, who currently serves as interim chair of the department, did not respond to questions about his knowledge of Guedes’s allegations. FAS policies at the time did not require him to elevate sexual harassment allegations reported to him, as current policies do.

The Crimson’s investigation of the Anthropology department identified allegations of sexual harassment against three senior faculty — Urton, Theodore C. Bestor, and John L. Comaroff. Several of those who alleged the misconduct said the professors’ power in anthropology — a tight-knit field where informal contacts can often determine career prospects — sometimes allowed them to avoid investigation into their behavior.

Guedes wrote in her complaint that she chose not to report the email at the time because she feared retaliation and believed it was a “one off” incident. She wrote that she realized last week that her story matched that of the other alleged incident of sexual misconduct by Urton when that incident was reported by The Crimson.

According to an affidavit she filed in federal court, a former Extension School student reported to an FAS sexual harassment officer in 2016 that Urton had pressured her into “unwelcome sex” before writing her a recommendation letter in 2011.

In response to the allegations in the affidavit, Urton wrote last month that he had never violated FAS policies on sexual harassment and that, due to confidentiality rules, he could issue nothing but a blanket denial of allegations against him.

INCREASING PRESSURE

The twenty-five faculty who signed the letter included Flad, department chair Ajantha Subramanian, 12 other tenured faculty, and all five of the department’s current tenure-track faculty.

They requested he immediately resign his professorship and his position as Faculty Curator of Andean Archaeology in the Peabody Museum.

The department removed Urton from his position as Director of Undergraduate Studies Tuesday as a result of allegations against him. Flad and Subramanian announced Saturday the formation of a standing committee to “work to dismantle” structures that contributed to “an environment in which abuses continue to manifest and go undetected.”

In her email announcing the decision to put Urton on paid administrative leave, Gay referenced the allegation in the Crimson story and Guedes’s allegation, which she had posted on social media. Gay also wrote that her office has heard from others who alleged Urton sexually harassed them.

“In addition to these public reports, my office has also received direct outreach from current and former members of our community recounting experiences of sexual harassment by Professor Urton,” Gay wrote.

The faculty of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru, where Urton holds on honorary professorship, issued a statement Monday urging Harvard to conduct an investigation into the allegations against Urton.

Depending on the course of that investigation, the PUCP faculty wrote that they may call on their institution to withdraw the distinction granted to Urton, as they would in any case of sexual harassment involving a professor.

In response to the Peruvian faculty letter, Urton wrote that he hopes his contributions to Peruvian culture are judged on their merits.

“I have spent my entire academic career working to help create a better, deeper understanding of the accomplishments and the intellectual and technological achievements of ancient Peruvians, including the Incas, as well as present-day Quechua-speaking peoples of the Andes,” Urton wrote. “I have always enjoyed the support of the students and faculty of PUCP, and of many other institutions in Peru, and I hope that I will be able to count on that support again some day, moving forward, in the future.”

The Museo de Arte de Lima in Peru, where Urton was co-curator of an exhibit on Khipus scheduled to open this year, suspended all collaboration with Urton, according to a statement posted on Twitter Tuesday.

Guedes wrote in her Title IX complaint that she believes Harvard should remove Urton from situations in which he interacts with students because of his alleged behavior.

“I request that this time Harvard do the right thing, and ensure he is removed from his post and no longer able to interact with students,” she wrote. “This must happen definitively and swiftly and he must be removed from all student contact and teaching.”

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamepdx.

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