Max Planck Institute demotes noted archaeologist | Science

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Archaeologist Nicole Boivin has been removed from her position as a director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Jena, Germany, after an internal investigation found evidence of workplace misconduct and bullying, sources inside the institute say.

According to a Max Planck Society (MPG) spokesperson, on 23 October, President Martin Stratmann notified Boivin she was no longer director of archaeological research at MPI-SHH, which has been a premier institute in the study of prehistory. And in an all-staff meeting early Tuesday afternoon in the institute’s airy, glass-walled library, MPG Vice President of Human Sciences Ulman Lindenberger spoke to about 100 employees, group leaders, and postdocs to announce the decision and answer questions about what would happen next, according to people who were present.

Lindenberger could not say whether MPI-SHH would continue its investigations into the human past or shift focus entirely. “That is the subject of deliberations in the governing bodies of the Max Planck Society,” spokesperson Christina Beck wrote in a 29 October email. The assembled staff were told permanent staffers would keep their contracts and other researchers and postdocs would be allowed to finish out their contracts.

Several current and former staffers contacted by ScienceInsider voiced support for Boivin and question MPG’s inquiry. But multiple former staffers endorsed the investigation’s findings and her demotion.

“I do not accept the decision,” Boivin said in a statement to ScienceInsider, “and am planning to challenge the action that has been taken.”

Launched in 2014, MPI-SHH was supposed to marry archaeogenetics, archaeology, and linguistics to explore the recent human past in a multidisciplinary way ; its archaeology budget is one of the world’s largest. But in 2020, the archaeogenetics and linguistics departments decamped for the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in nearby Leipzig, in what was rumored to be an acrimonious split between Boivin and the two other MPI-SHH directors, Johannes Krause and Russell Gray. That left Boivin as sole director at MPI-SHH.

Boivin’s removal last week followed a commission’s lengthy investigation, conducted by Ulrich Sieber, a German lawyer and director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law, and Silja Vöneky, a law professor at the University of Freiburg, into allegations of bullying and other alleged “violations of good scientific practice,” Beck says. Former staffers told Science the complaints included taking credit for others’ ideas.

The investigation included interviews with more than 50 current and former staffers and scrutinized hundreds of email chains, according to people involved in the investigation. Complaints about Boivin’s management came as recently as November 2020.

According to Beck, Sieber recommended in January that Boivin be removed from her position and she was given a chance to respond and provide additional evidence in her defense. No formal report on the commission’s findings has been published, which Beck says would require the consent of all concerned, according to German law.

Several researchers say the investigation got it right. “The commission was thorough and has documented a really systematic culture of mistreatment,” says University of Colorado, Boulder, archaeozoologist William Taylor, who worked in Boivin’s department between 2017 and 2019. “The findings accurately reflect a pretty severely dysfunctional environment that was exploiting junior scientists.”

In a statement emailed to Science on Thursday, Boivin pointed to positive evaluations by two recent external review boards of the institute’s research and working conditions. “Over the past 5 years I have built up an internationally renowned Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History,” Boivin wrote. “The Society has so far not disclosed any reasons that would justify the decision it has taken to revoke my directorship.”

In an email to staff from her MPI-SHH account on 24 October, Boivin called her demotion “abrupt and shocking.” “My contract has been terminated extraordinarily and without notice, and I am prohibited from accessing any of the resources of my Department,” she wrote. “It is hard to see how such urgent measures were deemed to be warranted in light of the excessively protracted nature of the process that led to them.” Boivin also told staff she plans to challenge the decision. “I will fight for the future of my professional career and our Department,” she wrote in the email. “With unbroken optimism I hope that we will all soon be able to return to jointly working on our projects.”

At least three other MPG directors have faced accusations of serious bullying since 2018. One resigned her directorship, one said she had reformed her leadership style and is still a director, and another was removed from his directorship.

The society has also contended with accusations of institutional misogyny. Less than one-quarter of its directors are women.

Some staffers at MPI-SHH expressed surprise. “For me this came out of the blue,” says a researcher at the institute who has worked in Boivin’s department since 2017 and asked to stay anonymous to protect his relationships in the institute. “I haven’t experienced any bullying or harassment.”

Some former and current staffers say the inquiry lacked transparency. Many members of the department remained in the dark about the investigations until a few months ago, when Boivin mentioned the investigation in a Zoom call. “All my projects involved Nicky, so it was a surprise not to be asked,” the current staffer said researcher told Science. “I still don’t know exactly what the accusations are, and considering they were so serious they should have been made more public.”

Another former member of the archaeology department, who asked to remain anonymous, tried to contact the commission and Lindenberger last year to refute specific allegations against Boivin but says they were ignored.

Although she is no longer director, Boivin remains a member of MPG and has been offered a research position without managerial responsibility, according to documents provided to Science. However, she no longer has access to departmental resources—including control over a budget in the millions of euros—according to emails Sieber sent earlier this week to people who were interviewed by the commission.

What comes next for MPI-SHH remains unclear. It may wind down once some staff serve out their 2-year contracts, or one or more new directors may be chosen.

Senior researchers have been meeting the past few days with representatives from MPG to make sure the turmoil “does not adversely affect the students and postdocs,” says Robert Spengler, an ethnobotanist at the Jena institute. “In the short term we will continue conducting top-notch research—as we always have.”

Still, researchers in Jena worry Boivin’s removal may jeopardize collaborations with other institutes. Boivin signed contracts for joint projects across the globe, and the status of that future work is now uncertain. Noel Amano, an archaeozoologist in Jena, worries those and future partners may be repelled by the controversy. “There’s concern in the department,” he says. “Archaeology is all about building trust and networks, and that might be affected by this situation.”

Update, 29 October, 11:50 a.m.: This story has been updated and corrected to reflect the number of directors who have been removed from their positions since 2018.

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