Lawsuit Alleges Harvard Mishandled Harassment Complaints
At a Monday demonstration, students show support for the plaintiffs.
Hundreds of students joined a campus demonstration Monday afternoon in support of three graduate students who recently filed suit against the University, claiming Harvard downplayed or ignored their sexual-harassment complaints against John Comaroff, professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies. At 12:15 p.m., students and some faculty members walked out of class and assembled in front of the Science Center. As chants of “Shut it down!” and “Time’s up!” and “Whose Harvard? Our Harvard!” echoed across the Yard, led by organizers in bright yellow vests, the group marched to a spot near Weld Hall, where two of the plaintiffs, Lilia Kilburn and Margaret Czerwienski, spoke, along with Ajantha Subramanian, Mehra Family professor of South Asian studies and chair of the anthropology department. “This case is not about the three of us,” Kilburn told the crowd. “This case is about all of us. This case is about Harvard’s failure to provide a prompt and equitable process for dealing with claims of harassment and discrimination that’s required by law.” Later, Subramanian, praising the “bravery and determination” of the plaintiffs, added, “The events of the past few weeks have shown just how broken the system is.”
Those events included not only the lawsuit, but the turmoil that had preceded it: a University announcement of sanctions against Comaroff, who had been on paid leave amid investigations into the claims against him; a pair of dueling open letters signed by faculty members, one criticizing the process that sanctioned Comaroff, and a second letter, signed by a different group of faculty members, rebuking the first one. (Adding to the upheaval, the first letter was later retracted by nearly every person who’d originally signed it.)
Photograph by LG/Harvard Magazine
The speakers at the demonstration demanded changes in the way Harvard handles complaints of sexual harassment—most notably that it implement a third-party process of investigation and arbitration (this has long been a demand of the Harvard Graduate Student Union, of which two of the plaintiffs are members). “We need a process that is truly independent, transparent, and equitable,” Subramanian said. “We need a third-party process for everyone at Harvard.” Added Czerwienski: “Right now we’re calling for immediate changes to the University’s grievance procedures. We don’t want to see another student go through the same process we did.”
Currently, complaints of sexual and gender-based harassment and misconduct against Harvard students, staff, and faculty are investigated through the Title IX process by the Office for Dispute Resolution (ODR), which is part of the Office of the Provost. Formal complaints, which begin the investigatory process, are filed in writing with a Title IX Coordinator at ODR. The Title IX process is required by federal law, although the precise application and interpretation of Title IX law in campus sexual misconduct disputes has long been a subject of contention and controversy.
The protest was the most recent event in a rapidly unfolding—and increasingly tangled—drama over this case and the University’s response to it. The situation was set in motion in 2020, when Harvard placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, after allegations surfaced in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Crimson that he had harassed three graduate students: Kilburn, Czerwienski, and Amulya Mandava. Those allegations, detailed more fully in the women’s lawsuit, which was filed in Massachusetts federal court last Tuesday, include unwelcome kissing and touching, verbal sexual harassment, “coercive control,” and threats of professional retaliation if they complained. The lawsuit also alleges a pattern of sexual misconduct against students dating back to 1979, when Comaroff was on the faculty at the University of Chicago; he joined Harvard in 2012. Comaroff, through his attorneys, has denied all the allegations.
On January 20, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Claudine Gay announced that Comaroff would be put on unpaid leave for the spring semester and prohibited from teaching required courses, taking on additional advisees, or chairing dissertation committees through the 2022-23 academic year. Those sanctions were levied following two separate investigations. Official reports from those investigations are confidential, distributed only to the parties involved, and Harvard has not publicly released details.
But according to the lawsuit’s complaint, the Title IX investigation conducted by ODR concluded in 2021 with no finding on Mandava’s and Czerwienski’s allegations that Comaroff threatened them with retaliation, meaning it could not substantiate their claims. That conclusion was upheld on appeal. Also according to the lawsuit, ODR did find that Comaroff had sexually harassed Kilburn during an advisee meeting in which he “repeatedly” described how she “’would be raped’ in certain parts of Africa” if she did her fieldwork there, because she was in a same-sex relationship, which is outlawed in many African countries.
In the first of the open letters, faculty members expressed their concern that such a conversation could be considered harassment, since they, too, would “feel ethically compelled to offer the same advice” in the interests of protecting their students’ safety while conducting fieldwork—but the lawsuit describes a discussion that allegedly went beyond the bounds of an ordinary warning. Kilburn’s meeting with Comaroff, it claims, took place on her first day as a student; by then, the lawsuit alleges, he had already kissed her on the mouth once without her consent, during a campus visit the prior winter. During the advisee meeting, in which Comaroff also verbally reminded Kilburn of "the power he now wielded over her career,” according to the complaint, he went on at length, in “graphic” detail, about her risk of sexual violence in Africa:
He told her, “There are many places where you would go where you would be raped,” “you would certainly be raped,” and “you would be raped and killed.” He then identified specific places where “corrective rapes” had been carried out, and stated over and over that Ms. Kilburn, too, “would be raped,” “would be killed,” “would be left for dead,” and that “they would finish you off.”
After ODR submitted its final report, which did not recommend sanctions, the lawsuit says, FAS commissioned an external fact-finder to review the case and determine whether Comaroff had violated its professional-conduct policy. The fact-finder concluded that the professor had threatened Mandava to prevent her from discussing allegations of sexual misconduct, in violation of FAS policy.
In a statement released last Thursday, Harvard disputed the claims made in the lawsuit, which it said, “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.”
During the last few weeks, following Gay’s announcement of the sanctions against Comaroff, the University’s investigatory process increasingly became the center of focus for all parties to the dispute. A statement by Comaroff’s attorneys denounced the FAS review as a “second, kangaroo-court process” that produced “an illegitimate finding.” On February 4, an open letter signed by 38 faculty members also questioned Harvard’s process. Praising Comaroff as “an excellent colleague, adviser, and committed university citizen” and expressing dismay over the sanctions, the letter asked “why the FAS did not accept the final results of its own Title IX investigation and opened a second investigation in the Fall of 2021....What are the procedural grounds justifying this action? As faculty members we must know the rules and procedures to which we are subject.”
Days later, when the women’s lawsuit was filed, detailing alleged behavior by Comaroff and the University, 35 of the letter’s 38 signatories—who included many prominent scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Paul Farmer, and Jill Lepore—retracted their names.
In the meantime, a second open letter, signed by 73 faculty members, had been published in the Crimson in opposition to the first one. It, too, took issue with the University’s process—but argued that the rights of students, not powerful faculty members, are the ones most likely to be undermined. “There is ample evidence,” the letter stated, that the “available institutional procedures” for investigating sexual harassment and misconduct are “far from adequate for the effective adjudication of such abuses of power. As faculty, we should be demanding better protections and more expedient, transparent, equitable, and independent investigative procedures.”
The lawsuit, naming Harvard its only defendant, takes aim squarely at the University’s investigatory processes, arguing that the University ignored complaints against Comaroff until they became public and prioritized his protection over that of the plaintiffs. One startling allegation in that line of argument concerns notes from psychotherapy sessions between Kilburn and an outside therapist unaffiliated with Harvard. Without Kilburn’s consent, the lawsuit claims, Harvard acquired the notes and later provided them to Comaroff as part of its draft report on the case against him, while withholding the full notes from Kilburn herself.
In a statement last week, Nicole Merhill, director of the Office for Gender Equity and the University’s Title IX Coordinator, disputed this allegation. “As the Director of the Office for Gender Equity and the University’s Title IX Coordinator, I am deeply familiar with the University’s processes and practices, and the University’s commitment to adhering to our Title IX processes, including those related to the confidentiality of material provided during investigations,” Merhill said. “Representations that do not describe fairly or accurately the University’s processes with regard to obtaining and maintaining material during an investigatory process are extremely troubling to me because they may have a potential chilling effect on our community members’ confidence in the investigatory process and their ability to access counseling and other resources.”
The Comaroff case is one of multiple sexual-misconduct inquiries that Harvard has faced in recent years. In the anthropology department, the FAS stripped former professor Gary Urton of his emeritus status in 2021 and banned him from campus after an investigation substantiated former students’ claims of harassment. Elsewhere on campus, economics professor Roland Fryer was suspended for two years after an investigation concluded in 2019 that he had verbally sexually harassed female staff members for years and fostered a hostile work environment in his lab. And government professor Jorge Domínguez, who retired in 2018 under sexual misconduct accusations from more than 20 women, was stripped of his emeritus status and banned from campus following an investigation that found a pattern of abuse—and an institutional failure to stop it—stretching back 40 years. (Gay, who became dean in 2018, has meted out harsher penalties than her predecessors in sexual-misconduct cases. Harvard has also instituted wider mandatory training for faculty and staff on Title IX cases and other abuses of power by faculty members in positions of authority over students and others.)
This recent past loomed over Monday’s demonstration in the Yard. Kilburn spoke of sexual harassment as something that “we all know is a pervasive problem at this institution.” Subrumanian, too, condemned what she called the University’s “long and sordid history of failing survivors of sexual and gender-based misconduct.” “The Title IX system was supposed to be the solution,” she said. “Instead, it’s become part of the problem.” She and the other speakers argued that, in deliberating harassment complaints against faculty, like the Comaroff case, Harvard and other universities have entangled interests that make a fair internal process all but impossible. Those entangled interests mean, Czerwienski said, that Harvard officials “cannot be impartial adjudicators of these cases.” Alluding to the faculty who had signed the open letter supporting Comaroff, Subramanian said, “If we learned anything from the past week, it is that power is distorting, that even those who study power can be blind to how it operates in their own institution.”
The speakers cited what they called past “failures,” as well as the current lawsuit’s allegations, in calling for a third-party process to investigate misconduct cases. That change has been a longstanding (and, so far, unmet) demand of the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW), which in negotiations with the University has sought what it calls a “neutral grievance process” guaranteed through a union contract. This week’s protest was co-organized by HGSU-UAW, along with Our Harvard Can Do Better, an undergraduate organization focused on ending sexual violence on campus. Kilburn and Czerwienski, both union members, spoke of this years-long fight.
They also spoke of the fight they see ahead. The afternoon’s final speaker, Czerwienski, said, “We need to keep insisting as loudly as we can, as often as we can, in as many places and to as many people in power as we can, that this system must change.…The University wants us to throw our little rally and go away. But it’s our job to make sure they’ve got another thing coming.” A few minutes later, the demonstrators dispersed, amid chants of, “We’ll be back, we’ll be back!”