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At Harvard, sexual misconduct allegations prompt questions, retractions and vows to do better

A controversy erupted at Harvard in recent days, underscored by a lawsuit that contends Harvard has ignored complaints about sexual misconduct

A gate opens to the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)
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More than 35 Harvard University faculty members signed a letter last week supporting one of their colleagues, who had been sanctioned by the university for allegedly violating sexual misconduct policies. By Wednesday, nearly all of those professors — many of them internationally renowned — retracted their names.

“We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case,” they wrote, in a letter signed by influential academic luminaries such as Paul Farmer, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jamaica Kincaid and 30 others.

The reversal came after three Harvard graduate students filed a lawsuit this week accusing the university of ignoring sexual harassment allegations against John Comaroff, a professor of African and American studies and anthropology. It also followed the publication of a letter by another group of faculty objecting to their colleagues’ support for Comaroff and amid other calls for Harvard to rethink how it handles complaints of misconduct.

“There are a good number of people like me who might have thought that Harvard could handle these situations, who have lost confidence,” said Alison Frank Johnson, a professor of history.

Attorneys for Comaroff said he categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.

The very public debate — amplified by social media, Harvard’s outsize reputation and coverage by the Crimson, the Chronicle of Higher Education and others — highlighted tensions close to the surface on the Ivy League campus.

But it also captured the difficulty universities have found in policing, investigating and preventing sexual harassment on campus. Federal guidance on the topic also has shifted in recent administrations, as people seek to ensure fairness for both those who have been harmed and those who have been accused.

Alexandra Brodsky, staff attorney at Public Justice, a legal advocacy group, said that in her view, while the #MeToo movement and other changes spurred more women to confront such issues, “All of the progress we’ve seen culturally has spurred a legal and regulatory backlash such that it’s more difficult for a campus survivor to report to their school now than it was five years ago.”

In recent years, prominent scholars have been criticized, and in some cases fired, for their behavior.

In 2019, Dartmouth College agreed to a $14 million settlement of a class-action case from nine former students who accused professors of sexual misconduct. The three professors were banned from campus. The lawsuit alleged that for years, women in the school’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences had been treated as sex objects by the professors, who “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated, and even raped female students.”

In that case and others — including the lawsuit just filed against Harvard — graduate students described the agonizing choices they felt forced to make as they pursued highly specialized research dependent on the support of their academic advisers, a power dynamic that left many feeling all too vulnerable.

In a letter covered in the Crimson last week, 38 professors wrote that although Comaroff had been accused by three students, “only one allegation was found by Harvard’s Office of Dispute Resolution to have any merit.”

The letter cited a 2020 Chronicle of Higher Education story describing Comaroff’s comments to a student that openly traveling as a lesbian couple in an African country where homosexuality is illegal could lead to sexual violence. Those signing the letter wrote that they were perplexed because they would feel ethically compelled to offer the same advice in similar circumstances. “How can advice intended to protect an advisee from sexual violence be itself construed as sexual harassment?” they asked.

They also questioned why the university opened a second investigation in 2021, praised Comaroff as a colleague with 50 years of experience as an adviser and said they were dismayed by the university’s actions against him.

The letter resonated with some who feel university processes are flawed, leaving people accused with insufficient recourse. But it also prompted some pushback on social media and at Harvard.

Earlier this week, two professors of music and African and African American studies, Ingrid T. Monson and Kay K. Shelemay, wrote in the Crimson that the letter was never intended to discourage students from filing complaints and that they have always been in support of “this basic right.” “The goal of our letter was to advocate for the improvement of processes guaranteeing the integrity and fairness of Title IX investigations for students and faculty,” they wrote, “whether they be accusers or accused.”

After the open letter, more than 70 professors signed onto a letter published in the Crimson written “in strong opposition” by Vincent A. Brown, a professor of history and African and African American studies; Frank Johnson, a professor of history and Germanic languages and literature; and Kirsten A. Weld, a professor of history.

The support made evident that Comaroff is a scholar with a powerful network, they wrote. They also pushed back on the suggestion that the university’s existing protections undermined the rights of professors. “As faculty, we should be demanding better protections and more expedient, transparent, equitable, and independent investigative procedures.”

On Tuesday, three graduate students, Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava, filed suit against Harvard claiming the school had ignored complaints about sexual harassment and retaliation by Comaroff. The lawsuit alleges that Comaroff, a renowned academic, “has used that power and his perch at Harvard to exploit aspiring scholars: he kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.”

It contended that Comaroff warned Kilburn would be “raped or killed” if she traveled in South Africa because of her same-sex relationship.

Comaroff did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, attorneys for Comaroff said that claims that he had kissed or touched one of his students were untrue, and that Harvard’s own investigation did not find any evidence that he had. Not only is he a leading scholar in his field, they wrote, but a “deeply caring person who has devoted his energy for decades to mentoring and advancing generations of students.”

The lawsuit characterized Harvard’s response to complaints as “deliberate indifference” and cited a report by a committee tasked with examining the culture in the anthropology department: “Students rarely speak out about harassment or sexual misconduct, because when they do, they risk their education and their careers. In short, the report concluded, Harvard has condoned a culture in which the abuse of power is normalized and accommodated.'”

The complaint also contends that Harvard does not investigate reports of sexual harassment unless the victim moves forward with a formal Office for Dispute Resolution complaint, even if the university has received prior complaints about the same professor.

In a statement, Harvard said the school had acknowledged the complaints made by the three students regarding Comaroff and conducted reviews that concluded that Comaroff engaged in verbal conduct that violated two university policies. Sanctions were issued in January that among other things put Comaroff on unpaid administrative leave for the spring semester, and limit his teaching and advising activities through at least the 2022-2023 academic year.

The university disputes the allegations in the lawsuit, saying in the statement that the claims are “in no way a fair or accurate representation of the thoughtful steps taken by the University in response to concerns that were brought forward, the thorough reviews conducted, and the results of those reviews.”

On Tuesday, most of those who had signed the letter supporting Comaroff added their names to a new letter retracting it.

Randall Kennedy, a professor of law, was one who did not. “The initial open letter indicated deep concern, based on available information, about the university’s treatment of Professor Comaroff,” he wrote in an email. “Of course the signatories did not know about everything that might be pertinent.” If complete knowledge were a prerequisite for voicing concern, he wrote, there might well be no suitable occasion for doing so. And he said he is not aware of any new information that erases the worries that prompted him to sign the letter in the first place.

Attorneys for the graduate students said they appreciated that many professors had reconsidered their initial support, perhaps recognizing what a chilling effect that might have on students. But Russell Kornblith said, “The retraction letter doesn’t undo the damage done by the initial letter.” The case is about power, he said, the enormous influence advisers have over their students and the global networks that extend that influence — and the letter puts those power networks into stark relief.

In the fall, the school’s graduate student union called for changes to the way Harvard handles sex- and gender-based misconduct, and this week some faculty renewed or added their support to those efforts, saying recent revelations had given those demands new urgency.

Frank Johnson, who helped lead the committee that rewrote Harvard’s policies on sexual and gender-based misconduct several years ago, said some internal changes at the university and some scandals have made her feel the process for addressing complaints is no longer working. “We really do need to bring outside arbitration into these conversations.”

“The basic idea is we need outside voices — people who are not going to look at a case like this one, and say: ‘But how could this be? This person is always so nice to me,’” she said.

Weld, the history professor, said that they are trying to figure out next steps but that she hoped all the attention would heighten awareness of the gravity and urgency of the issue on a broader scale. “This is not just a Harvard story, not just an Ivy League story, not just a university story,” she said.