“Neither Comfort nor Cover”

A withering investigation of sexual harassment

In a February message to the University community, President Lawrence S. Bacow announced that Harvard had “failed” Terry Karl, now an emerita professor of government at Stanford, when it did not take seriously her complaints concerning sexual harassment and misconduct by Jorge Domínguez, formerly the Madero professor for the study of Mexico and Harvard’s first vice provost for international affairs. The apology came nearly four decades after the fact: as an assistant professor at Harvard, Karl had first reported Domínguez’s behavior to the University’s administration in the early 1980s. But Domínguez was given only a minor sanction, and the abuse continued.

“She deserved better, and she and others suffered greatly as a result,” Bacow wrote. “I also apologize to those whose subsequent sexual harassment might have been avoided if Harvard had  taken timely and appropriate actions. We all owe Dr. Karl a debt of gratitude for doing the right thing, especially when it was difficult, and for being persistent in her efforts to demand justice. I deeply regret that she—and so many other members of our community—were made to feel that we turned our backs on them. Everyone deserves a fair process, and no one should ever again have to go to the same lengths to be heard.” 

Bacow’s message accompanied the final report from the external review committee convened in 2019 in response to accusations of decades-long sexual harassment by Domínguez. Those accusations had been brought to light in a 2018 investigation in the  Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Karl described the harassment she suffered from him, and others, too, added their own accounts: former students, faculty members, and staff members who alleged misconduct dating from 1979 to 2015. Karl left her position at Harvard in 1984; Domínguez remained a faculty member in good standing. A month after the Chronicle story appeared, he retired  and was subsequently stripped  of his emeritus status and effectively banned from the University by Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Claudine Gay, after a Title IX misconduct investigation. (For further background on President Bacow’s announcement, see harvardmag.com/apology-to-terrykarl-21.)

The government department then undertook an assessment of its own climate, and in 2019 requested that Bacow convene the external committee to review sexual harassment across the University. Early this past March, the faculty of the department followed up with its own apology to Karl and others, expressing “our sorrow and shame” at the department’s failure to respond effectively to complaints or to raise objections as Domínguez was promoted.

The report was released at a moment when other faculty members are under investigation for sexual misconduct: after  2020 coverage by The Harvard Crimson of accusations of wrongdoing, FAS placed Reischauer Institute professor of social anthropology Theodore Bestor and Foster professor of African and African American studies and of anthropology John Comaroff on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. Gary Urton, the former Dumbarton Oaks professor of pre-Colombian studies, retired after being placed on administrative leave.

The external committee was chaired by  Susan Hockfield, professor of neuroscience and president emerita of MIT. The other members were Vicki Magley, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut (an expert on sexual harassment and workplace incivility), and Kenji Yoshino ’91, Warren professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law and the 2016-2017 president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers.

Their report recommended a series of  changes to improve how sexual misconduct is reported and investigated, and to improve the climate on campus in ways that discourage harassment or discrimination. The recommendations included greater transparency about investigations and sanctions, a centralized database of personnel records, a standardized vetting process for promotions, greater gender balance among the faculty, and a system to monitor employees with past infractions. “Cultures that are permissive of sexual harassment are characterized by members feeling that it would be too risky to report their experience of sexual harassment, that their complaint would not be taken seriously, and that no corrective action would be taken in response,” the report stated. “It is clear that the government department, and, to some extent, the University as a whole, has had such a permissive culture. No real progress can be expected without altering that culture.”

  

A few days before the report was released, Provost Alan Garber announced the formation of three working groups to examine Harvard policies related to anti-bullying, non-discrimination, and sexual harassment and misconduct. After gathering input from faculty, staff, and students, the working groups will make recommendations for new policies where needed. The sexual-harassment working group will consider whether an affirmative-consent definition should be a part of University Title IX policies, and whether the University’s consent definition should apply to the entire Harvard community or to a subgroup such as undergraduate and graduate students. In late March, Garber announced the formation of an Office for Gender Equity, which will report directly to the president and provost. The new office combines existing resources from the University’s Title IX office and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and Garber described the measure as an effort to streamline access and improve communications. 

Those announcements echoed some of the concerns of the 26-page external committee report, which repeatedly emphasized the need for people to feel comfortable coming forward with complaints: that the University should foster a greater sense of “psychological safety,” especially important in a hierarchical structure like Harvard’s. Pronounced power disparities and a persistent gender imbalance among faculty members contribute to this problem, according to the report. The proportion of female faculty members in the government department has risen from 9 percent in 1980 to 31.3 percent in 2019, although the committee report noted “consistently articulated concerns” about recruitment, retention, and advancement of female scholars. “Several sources suggested that the dearth of female faculty members led to underreporting,” the report stated. 

The committee praised improvements in recent years, with Harvard’s updates to its Title IX policy (see titleix.harvard.edu), but noted that effectively communicating about those procedures to University community members remains an area of needed improvement. “Robust policies and procedures now in place are of little value if they are not widely understood and adopted,” Bacow wrote about that observation. “Everyone at Harvard should know how they can help to create a safe and healthy community, and anyone who has experienced or witnessed unwelcome conduct should find the experience of exploring available resources and making informed decisions straightforward and helpful. To those ends, the University accepts the committee’s recommendations, and I have asked the Title IX Office to accelerate existing plans” for improving communications about reporting procedures.

Much of the committee’s emphasis was cultural, a note that Bacow reinforced in his letter. “Culture is—and always will be—rooted in our care for one another,” he wrote. “Individuals who demean and exploit others defy the values we hold dear and must find neither comfort nor cover in our community.” 

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson

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