Since I began writing about sexual misconduct in the sciences nearly three years ago, I have rarely had good news to report — although many might see the exposure and banishment of alleged sexual predators as a positive sign that academia is coming to grips with its #MeToo problems. My own reporting
— for Science and The Verge — has led to the banishing of two talented scientists from museums on the U.S. East Coast: Brian Richmond, former curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), who was forced to resign in December 2016 in the wake of allegations that he sexually assaulted a colleague and sexually harassed students; and Miguel Pinto, a mammalogist from Ecuador who was accused of sexually assaulting a student at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and was eventually banned from its premises. (During the Smithsonian investigation, I uncovered considerable evidence that the biology department where Pinto began his graduate work, at Texas Tech University, was a hotbed of sexism and sexual harassment.)
Yesterday, in an online article published by Scientific American, I had the pleasure of writing about Richmond’s replacement, anthropologist Ashley Hammond from George Washington University. Ashley will take up the post of curator of biological anthropology beginning June 1. Although I necessarily had to provide the history and context for the position falling open in the first place, this was largely an upbeat story. It was also a milestone for me personally, because the Brian Richmond investigation has had a very big effect on my own life. It led to my banishment from Science, for which I had worked for 25 years, the culmination of a series of events that resulted in a breakdown of trust between me and my editors (I won’t link to my blog posts on those events, which you can find by looking at a string of posts from spring 2016, and also include links to an earlier episode in which I publicly protested Science’s brutal firing of four women colleagues.)
But what I really want to talk about today is the fate of Brian Richmond and others in biological anthropology and paleoanthropology whose alleged reputations for sexual misconduct have followed them for years, and have resulted in sometimes severe consequences. Because Richmond, as many anthropologists have pointed out to me (a point also made in the SciAm story) is far from the only person in the field whom women have accused of sexual misconduct. Recently, Duke University anthropologist William Hylander, an expert in the evolution of the human and primate face with a long history of harassing women at scientific conferences, was forced by Duke to resign his emeritus status in the wake of a new episode of harassment the university undertook to investigate. Other investigations are currently under way; I will be reporting on them soon.
And, if you navigate to the pinned Tweet on my Twitter homepage (@mbalter), you will find a thread concerning David Lordkipanidze, general director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi and leader of the important excavations at the key Homo erectus site of Dmanisi. As I explain there, Lordkipanidze is already being shunned by the biological anthropology community as a result of the allegations against him. Recently, the German National Academy of Sciences was forced to cancel a human evolution meeting it had organized for this coming November in Leipzig and Halle, Germany, after some invited speakers protested the inclusion of Lordkipanidze on the program.
As for Brian Richmond, I do not feel any sympathy for him, nor do I expect anyone else to. Without going into details here (see the original Science piece, which, to protect sensitive sources, did not include all of the allegations concerning him) he reportedly made a lot of women suffer, and in various ways he will remain part of their lives for a long time to come. Some see his downfall as tragic, because he was widely regarded as a talented researcher (the co-discovery and study of hominin footprints in Kenya were his claim to fame) and his sociable manner made him a good choice for the AMNH’s curator position, which required a lot of public outreach. (Richmond never really got going on that outreach, because he was accused of assaulting his colleague just a few months after he was hired.) Yet Richmond’s attempts to rehabilitate himself have gone nowhere, at least as far as anyone in the anthropology community knows — although not for lack of trying.
I have linked a number of times to San Jose State University philosopher Janet Stemwedel’s wise and incisive article in Forbes, “Advice For the Reformed Harasser on Rejoining the Scientific Community.” I would urge you to read it if you have not already. Perhaps if Richmond had followed her advice he might have gotten further in his efforts, but there are few signs that he has.
Richmond’s resignation from the American Museum of Natural History was effective at the end of 2016, and as part of the departure deal he received an additional year of salary during 2017. When the museum announced his resignation, Richmond minimized the charges against him, telling Science that there had been only one formal complaint. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he told my colleague Ann Gibbons.
Although a number of anthropologists have told me that it is unlikely Richmond will ever get an academic position again, he apparently has not given up on that goal. Early last year, Richmond emailed women he might have suspected were anonymous sources for Science’s original investigation and offered to apologize. “I hope you are well,” Richmond wrote. “I would like to apologize to you and thought this might be best done over the phone.” Richmond went on to ask if it was okay to call and offered his own telephone number in case anyone wanted to call him.
Nevertheless, some senior researchers, concerned that Richmond might be trying to identify those who had given evidence against him to the AMNH’s outside investigators, put a stop to these efforts.
“I don’t think he gets it yet,” one colleague who has known Richmond for some years told me. “He’s more sorry for being caught.” (Richmond did not respond to repeated requests from me for comment about his efforts to contact the women, nor about the episode described below.)
Shortly after he resigned from the museum, Richmond began talking to Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, about coming to Leipzig at least temporarily. Hublin convened a meeting of his department to discuss the possibility. Two members of the department who were present talked to me about the meeting, although they asked that their names not be used. According to one of these sources, Hublin read part of an email from Richmond asking if he could come to Leipzig, using a research award that he had earlier received from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. However, the Humboldt Foundation had suspended Richmond’s award when the sexual misconduct allegations against him first surfaced, according to a statement the Foundation provided to me. Richmond was reportedly hoping that if Hublin and the Max Planck Institute supported his visit to Leipzig, the Foundation would lift the suspension.
“Several members of staff raised concerns about the [institute] supporting Brian’s request for the suspension to be lifted, and concerns about him coming to the institute,” one of the sources told me, adding that “several female PhD students spoke about their concerns.” The group then decided to hold a secret vote on the matter, open for 48 hours, which Hublin announced to the entire department. Although Hublin made clear at the meeting that “the vote would not be the deciding factor, but ultimately he would make the decision,” according to this source, the vote went decisively against Richmond’s visit. Hublin then decided Richmond would not be coming.
According to one researcher who knows Hublin well, when the allegations against Richmond surfaced in 2015, Hublin was “obsessed” with the notion that the charges were unfounded and felt he was getting a bad deal. “Jean-Jacques talked about Brian Richmond endlessly. He was very emotional about it.”
In an emailed statement to me about this, sent in connection with another article that has not yet been published, Hublin said that Richmond was a “top scientist” and admitted that he had “struggled to come to terms with what was reported about him and then what happened to him.” But Hublin denies ever saying that Richmond was “not guilty of wrongdoing. In fact, when I had a chance to talk to colleagues, I privately and publicly said just the opposite.” Hublin also confirmed the basic account provided by the departmental sources about the meeting and the vote. “I took the results of this survey and the opinions of many I talked to, and in the end decided not to invite [Richmond] for this visit.”
I will not speculate here about why Hublin thought it might be appropriate to bring Richmond to Leipzig, even temporarily, despite the allegations against him. (Richmond’s resignation from the museum came after a full year of investigation by an outside firm, T&M Protection Resources, which the AMNH had contracted with to conduct the inquiry after its own half-hearted investigations kept him in his job. A look at their Web site will give you an idea of the seriousness and competence that T&M brings to its work.)
I don’t feel good about the fact that Brian Richmond has become the poster boy for sexual misconduct in anthropology, even if I think that he is fully and personally responsible for his forced resignation and banishment from the scientific community. Like other, more high-profile #MeToo abusers such as Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose, he has suffered severe consequences for his actions — and as the reporter on the story, I obviously played a decisive role in making that happen. Some (especially men, but some women too) have questioned whether it is right to close the door entirely on sexual predators and give them no path back into the communities they were once part of. I would refer them back to Janet Stemwedel’s Forbes post: There is a path, but who can name a single sexual predator who has chosen to follow it, rather than falsely proclaim his innocence to anyone who will listen?
To change the culture in the future, the consequences for misconduct in the present must be severe. Save the sympathy for later. For each abuser who has been exposed and banished from his former life, there are hundreds of women who have been forced to flee from beloved jobs and positions, or who never got the chance to pursue them at all.