University of Alaska, Board of Regents, UAA professor sued over sexual misconduct claims

Published: May. 16, 2019 at 8:17 PM AKDT
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A civil suit filed May 14 in federal court, claims several female students suffered sexual harassment, exploitation, and academic and professional retaliation from University of Alaska Anchorage archaeology professor David Yesner. The suit also names the University Of Alaska Board Of Regents, and the University of Alaska System.

According to the federal lawsuit, 20 plaintiffs, known as Jane Doe I, Jane Doe II, Jane Doe III, Jane Doe IV, Jane Doe V, and Jane Does 6-20 also claim that the University of Alaska failed to comply with Title IX. The suit alleges that the response by the University to the reported harassment of graduate students was inadequate, the school mismanaged its federal obligations to have a competent Title IX office up and running, kept it understaffed, and didn’t follow up on cases.

The current suit represents the first five Jane Does, who have filed their complaints with concealed identities. Jane Does 6-20 are, or were, University of Alaska students who lawyers claim were subjected to harassment, retaliation, and/or discrimination, who have yet to come forward yet and be identified.

The women listed claim that Yesner sexually harassed them for years, sexually discriminated against them, and retaliated against them for denying his sexual advances. They also allege that the University failed to appropriately investigate and respond to the harassment claims, effectively denying them access to educational and professional opportunities. They also allege that while these reports were being made, Yesner was receiving promotions. These reports were made on multiple occasions, between 2011 and 2017, the suit claims.

On April 8, The UAA Police Department sent a message to the UAA community saying Yesner had been banned and trespassed from all UAA property, and was banned from all participation, affiliation, or association with the University.

According to the suit, Plaintiff Jane Doe I and Plaintiff Jane Doe II “constantly reported Yesner’s inappropriate and violative behavior to professors and other faculty members at the University. However, University Faculty Members and leaders either refused to or failed to take Plaintiffs’ reports seriously, often responding to the women’s reports with: 'Oh, that’s just David being David.' ”

The lawsuit claims that after Jane Doe IV reported harassment and discrimination, The University’s Title IX Office failed to return her calls to give a status update on her report, or provide information about victim resources and referrals for support. The University did not inform Jane Doe IV of available resources on campus for survivors of sexual harassment.

“The safety and wellbeing of female students came a distant second to the University’s desire to protect its reputation and fundraising efforts," the suit claims. "The University chose convenience and money to the detriment of their students, specifically Plaintiffs and the other victims of Professor Yesner.”

The University has not yet been served with the complaint, Kirstin Olmstead, a UAA spokesperson told Channel 2 in an email.

Olmstead referenced an investigation ordered by the University, which according to the lawsuit looked into Yesner's actions and was completed in March of this year.

"As the university's own investigation demonstrated, Professor Yesner engaged in reprehensible behavior," the statement continued. "The university has taken available steps to address that conduct and offered to do what it can to make things right for affected individuals. We remain willing to do so. We will not have specific comments on pending litigation,” the statement concluded.

Olmstead said Title IX investigations are not released publicly due to the students' personal and private information involved.

Friday, Olmstead also said the university took additional steps to create a culture of respect, including Seawolves Speak Up, mandatory Title IX training each year for faculty, staff and students, plus training for bystanders.

"Our process has changed substantially even in the last several years," Olmstead wrote in an email to KTUU. "The majority of our faculty and staff are now designated as 'responsible employees,' which means they have a duty to report every allegation of sexual misconduct to the Title IX office."

Exceptions to that include mental health counselors, pastoral counselors, psychologists and others with a professional license that requires maintaining confidentiality.

"The fact that sexual harassment remains prevalent on university campuses across the country makes our resolve to execute this no-tolerance policy stronger than ever before. We are transforming our culture at UAA to one in which sexual harassment is not tolerated - plain and simple," a UAA statement said. "Through our Seawolves Speak Up campaign, we are working with peer educators and staff at the Student Health and Counseling Center and the Office of Equity and Compliance to foster a culture of respect in which members of our campus community look out for the safety and well-being of one another."

Yesner had been working for the University since 1991, with his highest position as Associate Dean of the Graduate School from 2011-2015. He had affiliations with the University as early as 1975 working temporary and adjunct positions. His employment ended in 2017.

The plaintiffs in the suit are demanding a trial by jury, damage reimbursement for all tuition and related expenses, expenses incurred as a consequence of the sexual harassment, damages for deprivation of equal access to educational benefits and opportunities provided by the University, and damages for emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life, and lost earnings and earning capacity. Among other things, they are also demanding David Yesner’s name be removed from diplomas and other official university documents.

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