Students Sue Harvard Over Harassment
In January, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) announced sanctions against John Comaroff, professor of anthropology and of African and African Americans studies, following two separate investigations into allegations of sexual harassment. Comaroff is the latest in a series of Harvard faculty members to be sanctioned for sexual misconduct in recent years, and a few weeks after the announcement, three graduate students filed suit against Harvard, claiming that it had for years downplayed or ignored their harassment complaints against him. The Comaroff case roiled campus, prompting dueling open letters from faculty members, campus protests, and front-page news stories in national outlets.
The public drama surrounding Comaroff began in 2020, when Harvard placed him 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: Lilia Kilburn, Margaret Czerwienski, and Amulya Mandava. Those allegations (both as reported in 2020 and subsequently included in the lawsuit the three women filed this year) included unwelcome kissing and touching, verbal sexual harassment, and threats of professional retaliation if they complained.
Soon after the Chronicle and Crimson stories were published, the University initiated an investigation. 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 are filed in writing with a Title IX Coordinator at ODR.
Official reports from those investigations are confidential, distributed only to the parties involved, and Harvard has not publicly released details. But the lawsuit’s complaint offers information from the investigation reports. According to the suit, 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. Also according to the lawsuit, ODR did find that Comaroff had sexually harassed Kilburn during an advisee meeting. Comaroff, through his attorneys, has denied all the allegations.
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.
On January 20, 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.
After Gay’s announcement of the sanctions against Comaroff, the University’s investigatory process itself increasingly became the center of attention for all parties to the dispute. A statement by his attorneys denounced the FAS review as a “second, kangaroo-court process.” On February 4, an open letter signed by 38 faculty members also questioned Harvard’s process, while praising Comaroff as “an excellent colleague, adviser, and committed university citizen.”
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, 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.
The lawsuit names Harvard as its only defendant, arguing that the University ignored complaints against Comaroff until they became public and prioritized his protection over that of the plaintiffs. The lawsuit also alleges a pattern of sexual misconduct against students dating back to 1979, when he was on the faculty at the University of Chicago; he joined Harvard in 2012. The Comaroff case is one of multiple sexual-misconduct inquiries that Harvard has faced in recent years. The most serious involved 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 (see “Neither Comfort nor Cover,” May-June 2021, page 22).
In a statement, 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.”
Students and other faculty members, too, questioned the University’s investigatory process after the lawsuit’s claims were reported. A campus demonstration on February 14 drew hundreds of protesters, who marched into the Yard, where two of the plaintiffs, Kilburn and 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 added, “The events of the past few weeks have shown just how broken the system is.”
The speakers cited what they called past “failures,” as well as the current lawsuit’s allegations, in calling for changes in the way Harvard handles complaints of sexual harassment—most notably that it implement a third-party process of investigation and arbitration. “We don’t want to see another student go through the same process we did,” said Czerwienski. That change has been a longstanding (and 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. Kilburn and Czerwienski are both union members.
Looking ahead, 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 think coming.” Read more at harvardmag.com/mishandled-comaroff-22.
Published in the print edition of the May-June 2022 issue (Volume 124, Number 6), under the headline "How Harvard Handles Harrassment."