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Harvard did a bad, bad thing

Here’s what I know and what I don’t know about the latest lawsuit against Harvard for protecting its own

Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Jan. 20, 2015. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Today’s Spoiler Alerts is about a lawsuit that was filed on Tuesday against Harvard University by three of its PhD students in anthropology. Its very first sentence reads, “This is a case about Harvard’s decade-long failure to protect students from sexual abuse and career-ending retaliation.” The filing in federal court alleges that the university inappropriately handled sexual harassment allegations made by the three female students (and others) against anthropology professor John Comaroff.

A plaintiff’s brief will always present the case in terms most favorable to their cause. Some facts asserted in them might remain in dispute. And there has already been a lot of reporting on this case, most notably from the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Harvard Crimson. So let’s frame today’s column as an exercise in what I know and don’t know and my own state of mind while sequentially reading up on it. Here goes:

I know that John and Jean Comaroff are distinguished anthropologists with a long track record of publications and grants (I cite them in “Theories of International Politics and Zombies”).

I know that back in 2020, both the Harvard Crimson and the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about the allegations that all three graduate students in the lawsuit made against John Comaroff. They range from accusations of inappropriate physical contact to inappropriate verbal entreaties to efforts by Comaroff to coerce the students into silence.

I know that I thought some aspects of the Chronicle story seemed ambiguous at the time. For example, Comaroff warned one student, Lilia Kilburn, about the dangers of “corrective rape” if she was discovered to be in a lesbian relationship while doing fieldwork in certain parts of Africa. According to the New York Times’s Anemona Hartocollis, Kilburn alleged that Comaroff said it “with a tone of enjoyment” and that “this was not normal office hours advice.” But that gets to gray areas about tone. I know that warnings about the risks of doing fieldwork in dangerous places is an aspect of mentoring PhD students inclined to minimize such risks. I did not know whether this part of the complaint was valid or simply a case of misinterpretation.

I know that Harvard placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave in August 2020, conducted two investigations and then last month placed him on unpaid administrative leave “after University investigations found that he violated the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies” according to the Harvard Crimson’s Ariel Kim and Meimei Xu. Comaroff’s lawyers released a statement stating, “Title IX investigators found John Comaroff responsible solely for verbal sexual harassment.”

I know that 38 Harvard faculty members wrote an open letter to Harvard’s administration protesting the treatment of Comaroff. I know that a part of me gets the inclination to sign that letter. After reading only the Chronicle story and then seeing the decision, I know it is possible to ask questions about due process: why two investigations rather than one, for example?

I also know that, as a good friend texted me, “never start a land war in Asia, never sign a letter of support about a colleague credibly accused of sexual misconduct.” I know that Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay responded to that open letter by warning her colleagues about “the obvious dangers of an asymmetry of information in a situation like this … you are necessarily operating without a comprehensive understanding of the facts that have motivated the response.” I know that 73 Harvard faculty members wrote a letter criticizing the first letter, and that some of the signatories to the first letter are trying to walk their words back.

I know that the lawsuit is a terrifying read. It includes allegations that Harvard hired Comaroff knowing full well about his reputation as a serial harasser, and that complaints began almost immediately after he arrived. It cites a Harvard assessment of the anthropology department in which a third of the graduate students said that they had been harassed and that there was a “longstanding pattern of sexism, misogyny, and sexual and gender-base misconduct” that has gone unchecked by faculty. It quotes Harvard’s Title IX officer and the chair of the anthropology department urging the complainants to go to the press because Harvard’s process would not work.

I know that the most hair-raising allegation is: “During the process, Harvard obtained Ms. Kilburn’s private therapy records without her consent and disclosed them to Professor Comaroff.” I know that I want to know a lot more about how exactly that happened.

I know that university investigative procedures can have a star-chamber-like quality for both accusers and accused. I know that universities that used to operate much more on trust-based procedures now have more formal means of adjudicating accusations of sexual harassment and abuses of power.

Unfortunately, I now know that the erosion of trust in institutions like Harvard is not without foundation.