Michigan State museum director “vigorously” denies “virtually all” of university panel findings against him

Mark Auslander

Earlier this month, we broke the story of a misconduct inquiry against Mark Auslander, the director of the Michigan State University Museum in East Lansing. (That story was picked up by a number of news outlets in Michigan.)

Auslander was found guilty by a university committee of having plagiarized, falsified data and committed other offenses stemming from his involvement in the repatriation to Bolivia of a 500-year-old mummy.  The claimant in the case was William Lovis, a professor emeritus of anthropology at MSU and curator emeritus of anthropology for the museum.

According to the report: 

The Inquiry Panel finds that the Respondent’s alleged conduct could constitute Misconduct and that there is credible Evidence of such merit that an Investigative Committee could reasonably conclude, in accordance with section VIII.E of Procedures Concerning Misconduct in Research and Creative Activities, that Misconduct occurred.

Auslander hadn’t responded to our request for comment by the time we posted. We’ve now heard from him, and he provided us the following statement about his case: 

The allegations are largely without foundation, and I deny virtually all of them vigorously.  It is true that I made some mistakes in the original museum newsletter shared with our members and supporters back in February 2019. The monthly newsletter frequently summarizes ongoing work by museum staff, and in this instance, unfortunately, not all passages were correctly attributed to our former curator, Dr. William Lovis. I drew on my notes from internal emails and memos by Dr. Lovis and others, and did not put all statements from these internal communications in quotation marks. It should be noted, that  I did not draw on any published work or any research reports in progress. 

The newsletter, unfortunately, did not acknowledge clearly that Dr. Lovis had played an early role in conceiving of the repatriation, a process I only learned of about a year after I arrived at MSU.  I fully recognize in hindsight that I should not have treated a newsletter so informally and should have given full attribution to each quoted phrase. I have submitted a revised newsletter for Dr. Lovis review, but he has not responded to my request for assistance in reviewing the revised newsletter. 

I am perplexed by Dr. Lovis’ clam that I unilaterally gave the mummified remains the name of “Ñusta,”  As I believe Dr. Lovis knows, we were specifically asked by the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, after consultation with indigenous leaders, to refer to the ancestor not as “the mummy” but rather as “Ñusta,” a term , it was explained to us, that honors a “princess”  as a manifestation of the divinity Pachimama. We have been careful to comply with this legitimate request by the Bolivian authorities. 

I do wish to emphasize that the larger claims made by Dr. Lovis, about any fabrication and misrepresentation within the newsletter, are without foundation.  Nor were there any irregularities in the actual repatriation process. I worked extremely hard and conscientiously, in close consultation with our university administration and the Embassy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, to bring about an effective and respectful repatriation of the ancestral being known as “Ñusta”, and remain proud of the work we did, to help right a historic wrong.  

The background to this entire situation is worth noting. Dr. Lovis has been opposed to the principal aspects of my leadership at the Michigan State Univeristy Museum since early in my tenure. This is primarily due to our disagreements over his previous, controversial tenure as NAGPRA Compliance Officer at MSU, which ended abruptly about four months after my arrival. He resigned as NAGPRA compliance officer, evidently in protest over my decision to allow Native American representatives to visit our Archaeology repository, which is their absolute right. 

I believe Dr Lovis  holds me at fault for this sequence of events which has led to NAGRPA repatriation matters being now handled at a higher administrative level  at MSU than the Anthropology curatorship level. That is the key context, I would maintain, for his continuing attacks on me. These attacks are far in excess to the actual, initial mistakes in the newsletter, and have reached a baffling ad hominen level.  I have certainly apologized to him in writing, on letterhead, for any and all mistakes in the newsletter. He remains unwilling to accept or acknowledge any apology. As noted, I have sent to him a revised newsletter, correcting as far as I know any mistakes in the original newsletter for his review and edits, so that a better newsletter may be recirculated. I am sorry to say that he has not acknowledged these communications, and continues to circulate attacks on me, rather than working together to correct the record.

Auslander also told us that, despite the misconduct finding: 

So far as I know I will remain Museum Director for the foreseeable future.

Lovis: ‘This is spin management”

Lovis responded at length to Auslander’s comments: 

Dr. Auslander had one month to rebut and make changes to the draft report of the committee.  He did not do that. He then had another month to appeal to the President of the university. He did not do that.  He is now denying them in the press, after not having availed himself of his formal opportunities to do so through university investigative channels.  This is spin management. …

Dr. Auslander drew on my internal administrative reports, with my name, a date, a title, and the continually changing results of my ongoing historical research. These are research reports. The remainder of his several arguments were all rejected as a defense by the investigative committee…

I have been retired for a year and a half, and have been through a lengthy and trying one year investigative process during my retirement.  It is up to Dr. Auslander to produce an academically and intellectually correct newsletter, not me. …

All of the naming was negotiated by Dr. Auslander independently of others at MSU, and the outcome was announced at an administrative meeting.  I knew nothing about the naming until Dr. Auslander announced it. I note that the outcome was consistent with both a statement he made earlier in the Lansing State Journal, as well as questioning of me about naming at an administrative meeting. …

Once again, this defense was rejected by the faculty investigative committee.  He is now raising it publicly in his defense after a decision has already been made.  He is choosing to use the press for his defense. He has also told the Museum staff to come and speak to him if they want to discuss his version of the facts.  I do not have this luxury. …

It is worth noting that it was I who initiated the process that would end in repatriation to Bolivia under a prior university administration two years before Dr. Auslander arrived at MSU.  I was effectively managing the work until Dr. Auslander arrived, and he then as Museum Director almost immediately took leadership from me. I am also very pleased that this was all undertaken, that the repatriation is completed and that the young lady is back in Bolivia.  I am in regular contact with Bolivian museum staff and other Bolivian archaeologists. I have never disputed the significance of the outcome. …

I resigned as NAGPRA compliance officer NOT over repository access by tribes, which is Dr. Auslander’s talking point, but over what I considered to be Dr. Auslander’s complete mismanagement of a consultation with the City of St. Ignace and the Sault Ste Marie Band of Chippewa held at the MSU Museum.  There were many witnesses to this event. His behavior damaged both my professional reputation as well as that of my assistant, who left the university. I think it is important to note that this took place a year and a half before my allegations were filed.

Lovis dismissed Auslander’s assertions about his resentment at the NAGRPA repatriation as

speculative impression of a completely separate issue unrelated to the multiple charges for which he was found guilty. .. I resigned as NAGPRA compliance officer in fall 2017.  I retired in fall of 2018. The allegations about his behavior in the Director’s Letter and elsewhere are from February 2019, and were referred to the Integrity Officer by former Provost June Youatt, not by me.

The important omission by Dr. Auslander is that his apologies to date have all included explanations, defenses, excuses, and been characterized as misunderstandings and inadvertent, much as they have been here.  I have communicated this to our administration. As this note from Dr. Auslander indicates, he has not yet accepted the fact that an independent faculty investigation has found him at fault, and guilty, and he needs to simply and without qualification say “I’m sorry for plagiarizing, falsifying, etc. I was wrong. I am sorry.”

Update, 2100 UTC 2/26/20: The original version of this post repeated a paragraph of Auslander’s quotes at the end of Lovis’ quotes. We regret the error.

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4 thoughts on “Michigan State museum director “vigorously” denies “virtually all” of university panel findings against him”

  1. Very interesting read !

    I think there might be a mistake in one of the two large citations, probably in the last one. This part appears in both :

    “As noted, I have sent to him a revised newsletter[…] to correct the record.”

    This is quite ironic, or maybe even a joke that went over my head ? I figured I just report anyways.

    Thank you for your work !

  2. The final paragraph in the final blockquote attributed to Lovis is itself a quote from Auslander’s statement. One could make a joke about inadvertent plagiarism and misattribution here…

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