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Smithsonian called out by congresswoman for mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations

Last week The Verge published a lengthy investigation into the Smithsonian Institution’s apparent mishandling of a case of sexual assault that occurred on the premises of its National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The victim, a research student who we referred to by the pseudonym “Angie,” had spent the last five years trying to get museum and Smithsonian officials to take seriously her requests to be protected from her harasser — an older researcher affiliated with the museum who had admitted to the facts of the assault.

Today, Congresswoman Jackie Speier of the 14th District in California, who has championed the fight against sexual harassment in the sciences, wrote a stern letter to the Smithsonian’s Inspector General about the case. She called on the institution to provide Angie with records she had requested on her case and urged the Smithsonian to “open an investigation” into its sexual misconduct policies and procedures.

Also today, the director of the NMNH, Kirk Johnson, sent a memo to all museum staff, contractors, and fellows expressing his “dismay and sadness” at recent reports of “sexism and sexual misconduct in the workplace.” Although Johnson’s message — which was not intended for the public but which The Verge has obtained — did not refer to Angie’s case specifically, sources at the museum acknowledge that it was sent in response to public revelations of her long plight.

(Museum officials declined to comment.)

In her letter, Speier urged the Inspector General, Cathy Helm, to consider five questions as part of the recommended investigation. They included an examination of whether the Smithsonian had “an adequate and fair process” for reporting sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct; whether such complaints are handled “effectively and in a timely manner;” and whether there were “appropriate protocols” to ensure that employees guilty of harassment or assault are properly disciplined.

In his own memo, Johnson praised “those among you who have courageously raised your concerns” about the effectiveness of anti-harassment policies at the museum. Johnson promised to engage in “dialogue” about these issues and said he was committed to “making improvements to ensure a safe, harassment-free workplace.” He also announced that these issues would be discussed at a forthcoming meeting of all museum staff on the morning of November 9th (the morning after the US presidential election).

But for Angie, who attended meeting after meeting at the museum trying to convince administrators and staff to keep her harasser away from her, Johnson’s assurances ring hollow. “The empty platitudes of this letter exemplify the NMNH’s inadequate, cowardly approach to sexual misconduct,” she told The Verge. Johnson, she added, “has utterly failed our community by refusing to acknowledge the institutional rot that prompted his letter in the first place.” Angie insists that only “an independent, external investigation” can bring real changes. She urges that the Smithsonian adopt policies similar to the somewhat more victim-friendly Title IX of the US education code. Title IX investigations have led to discipline against numerous alleged sexual harassers in university science departments during the past year.


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