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University of Alaska, ex-professor sued after years of sexual harassment complaints

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 16, 2019
  • Published May 16, 2019

Five women are suing Alaska’s public university system, saying it violated federal law by failing to appropriately respond to their reports of sexual harassment at the hands of a longtime Anchorage professor, according to a complaint filed Wednesday.

Former UAA professor David Yesner (Photo provided by UAA)

In the complaint, the women say despite their reports, University of Alaska Anchorage anthropology professor David Yesner continued to receive promotions and to take advantage of his female students — making unwanted sexual advances and then retaliating against them when they turned him down.

The women’s 62-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Alaska, lists UA, the UA Board of Regents and Yesner, who’s now retired, as defendants.

The five women aren’t named in the complaint. All attended UAA as students at one time, the complaint says. The women are requesting a trial by jury and unspecified monetary damages.

Yesner couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday.

UAA said in a statement Thursday that it had yet to receive the complaint and “will not have specific comments on pending litigation.” It said its own Title IX investigation had demonstrated that Yesner “engaged in reprehensible behavior.”

“The university has taken available steps to address that conduct and offered to do what it can to make things right for affected individuals,” said the UAA statement. “We remain willing to do so.”

The university’s Title IX investigation was first reported by Anchorage television station KTVA in March. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal money. Discrimination can include sexual harassment and sexual violence.

The university investigation — done outside the court system — found sexual misconduct allegations against Yesner to be credible. The allegations were made by nine women and spanned decades, KTVA reported. UAA announced in April that Yesner, who retired in August 2017, was banned from all UA property, a sanction stemming from its investigation.

But the new complaint says that university officials knew for years of reports that Yesner had sexually harassed students, and they didn’t do anything or didn’t do enough.

Two of the women behind the lawsuit, former graduate students, “constantly reported Defendant Yesner’s inappropriate and violative behavior” to other professors and faculty members, the complaint says.

However, it alleges, faculty members and leaders either refused or failed to take the students’ reports seriously, often responding with: “Oh, that’s just David being David.”

The five women are referred to as Jane Doe I, II, III, IV and V in the complaint. The complaint also leaves room for more of Yesner’s former students to come forward and join the suit as plaintiffs, according to Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs from The Buzbee Law Firm in Houston, Texas.

Yesner’s earliest affiliation with UAA was in 1975, according to a university spokeswoman. He held temporary appointments until he became an associate professor in 1991.

Yesner later worked as an anthropology professor and served as the associate dean of the UAA Graduate School from 2011 to 2015.

The complaint says Yesner was considered to be one of the most well-known and highly-regarded faculty members at the university. He was even a candidate for emeritus status in 2017, an honorary title given to a small portion of retiring professors.

The complaint alleges Yesner used his position of power to repeat the same pattern of behavior: Earning female students’ trust, sexually harassing and abusing them and then retaliating against them when they declined his advances.

“What these women initially thought was going to be a place of learning and education turned out to be a minefield with this empowered monster lurking in the shadows and those that enabled him,” the complaint says.

Here are a few of the claims made against Yesner in the complaint:

• Women reported Yesner staring at their breasts. One of the women, Jane Doe II, reported he “would find ways for his hands to make contact with her breasts and buttocks." She said he also made unwanted comments such as, “If I were not married, I would love to be with you sexually.” Yesner was her thesis adviser.

• Yesner kept photographs of his university work stored on his computer. A significant number of the photos taken at one archaeological site, however, turned out to be of a student at the time: Jane Doe I, working in a sports bra and shorts. He had zeroed in on her breasts and buttocks with his camera.

• Yesner also kept pornography on his work computer. He shared the computer with students. Jane Doe II said the pornographic images would be left open on the computer when she came into the lab. Jane Doe II also once walked in on Yesner masturbating in his office during work hours.

• When Jane Doe II told Yesner his behavior was inappropriate, he would stop talking to her for six months at a time. He would also remove important artifacts from the classroom that she needed and hide them at home.

• Jane Doe I said when she rejected Yesner’s sexual advances he retaliated against her by not grading her comprehensive exam. It should have taken five weeks, at most, to grade the exam, the complaint says, but it took Yesner two and a half years. Jane Doe I withdrew from the university.

In written statement from The Buzbee Law Firm on Thursday, Jane Doe I wrote: “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. “

The complaint argues UA violated Title IX in several ways including failing to conduct a formal investigation into the women’s complaints and failing to protect them from further sexual harassment. It says the women faced discrimination based on their sex while trying to pursue their education. It says Yesner invaded their privacy and inflicted emotional distress.

Aside from monetary damages, the plaintiffs are seeking a court order prohibiting UA “from unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex” and the removal of Yesner’s name from diplomas and other university documents, among other asks, the complaint says.