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MSU Museum committee find director guilty of research misconduct

February 10, 2020
A Michigan State University sign on Beal Street on Aug. 23, 2019.
A Michigan State University sign on Beal Street on Aug. 23, 2019. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander has been found guilty of research misconduct and meddling with a 500-year-old mummy. 

The case involves many years of alleged misbehavior, including two main events. One of which involved a repatriation ceremony in Washington D.C. for the relic and an official letter Auslander wrote that published his ill-gotten work. 

A committee at the museum determined that Auslander had misappropriated the work of other scholars, fabricated data, and mishandled work with the 500-year-old mummy. 

“He immediately, or almost immediately, started making ethical judgments about some of the work that I was doing,” Michigan State anthropology professor William Lovis said. 

Lovis — who had been working for MSU since he was a graduate student — said he became concerned about the director’s actions shortly after he took the position in 2017. 

Lovis alleges that Auslander had been meddling in his work, especially with the mummy repatriation, which means returning the relic to its original country, in this case Bolivia.

“I had been working on that project for a year and a half, almost two years, before he arrived here. And this was related to the return of a mummified girl to Bolivia,” Lovis said. “Even though I had been working on that for several years and had been doing some analysis before we returned her, that's when he inserted himself into my projects in a big way.” 

Auslander said he was unaware of the amount of work Lovis had done, and that he was shocked to find out about the investigation. 

"I was extremely surprised," Auslander said. "We had done the repatriation together, and it seemed like a wonderful experience. And I mean, I had not known about the fact that Dr. Lovis was working on the repatriation and doing the research."

Lovis said Auslander made him pay for a trip to a repatriation ceremony held in Washington D.C. and invited others not involved with the project to watch while Lovis stood on the sidelines recording the ceremony.

The greatest transgression, Lovis said, was a newsletter released following their trip to Washington D.C.

“He put out a digital newsletter, his director's newsletter, from the MSU Museum,” Lovis said. “And that newsletter had a number of things that I consider to be major transgression of research integrity, including plagiarism and including false data, not crediting people for their work, lots and lots of things that as a researcher and scientist is totally unacceptable.” 

Auslander said he was aware that there were problems with the newsletter, but that he did not think it was necessary to quote everyone's work.

"We have a newsletter that goes out every month, and so I always write a little note with that ... and then that's when I guess the problems started," Auslander said. "And I acknowledge I made a few mistakes in the letter." 

After this, Lovis said he spoke with numerous MSU administrators about the issue, but they did not take any action. 

“None of it seemed to have an impact,” Lovis said. “The MSU administration did nothing. So what I did was I sent out ... a rant about his behavior by email. And I included university administration in that. And our former Provost, Dr. Youatt, saw the email, read it, and she sent it to the Research Integrity Office.” 

The Research Integrity Office started an investigation into Auslander in February of last year, and found that there were violations. This investigation has been concluded and gave Auslander a month to appeal. 

“The case ended Dec. 26, that’s when I sent him the letter that says 'this is the finding and you have a month to appeal,' and he chose not to,” said Dr. James Pivarnik, MSU research integrity officer. 

Auslander said he was unaware of the process and did not understand the findings, and that's why he didn't appeal. 

After the investigation had concluded, Lovis said he deserves a public apology. 

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“I got from him a short email," Lovis said. "He described all of his behavior and the things that he got wrong in his digital newsletter as inadvertent. That he didn’t mean to do that. ... In other words, after a year of investigation, and having been found at fault on many, many, many charges by an independent faculty investigation committee, he still has no remorse and is totally unwilling to take responsibility for his actions.” 

Auslander said that the two have had a long-running disagreement ever since Lovis stepped down as the Native American graves protection and repatriation officer.

"We had a long-running disagreement, pretty much from the time I got here, over other issues of repatriation that fall under a federal law known as NAGPRA, which did not apply to this case," Auslander said, referring to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. "But for many years, Dr. Lovis had been the NAGPRA compliance officer ... Many tribes in Michigan felt that the museum and that the university, while Dr. Lovis was the compliance officer, did not comply. It kind of blew up in September of 2017. ... (It) led to Dr. Lovis resigning as NAGRA compliance officer, and he was very upset, and he's been very angry at me ever since."

Lovis was the NAGPRA Compliance Officer for the MSU Museum from 1990 to 2017, when John Norder was appointed for the role. However, the circumstances of Lovis’s decision to step down have not been confirmed.

Lovis has since retired from the museum, and Auslander is still the director. 

"I really did not want to do this in my retirement," Lovis said. "This is the first university grievance that I've been involved in, and I have worked here for 50 years. So this is not what I wanted to do with my retirement. ... And one of the reasons I'm willing to do it is ... what I want is a public apology from him for his behavior."


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