John Comaroff, Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard University, is teaching again this month following a two-year administrative leave related to sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Comaroff denies all the allegations, which include forced kissing, groping, inappropriate comments and retaliation. Prior to his one-term suspension last spring, which followed a lengthy administrative leave, Harvard inquiries found Comaroff responsible for “verbal conduct” that violated community norms, not clear sexual harassment or retaliation. Challenging Harvard’s findings and process, three graduate students filed a civil lawsuit, which is ongoing.
Harvard’s graduate student union objected to Comaroff’s scheduled return to teaching this fall in a grievance and a petition saying, “We reject the widespread norm in which senior academic figures who jeopardize or end the careers of their junior colleagues through misconduct and retaliation are themselves subject to only mild and brief professional consequences, and are indeed supported by their peers.”
According to information from the union, Harvard did not meet with leaders regarding the grievance or the petition.
When Comaroff did begin to teach this week, multiple students staged a class walkout, which was followed by a union-led rally on campus. (Harvard’s graduate student union is affiliated with the United Auto Workers.)
“Professors who harass shouldn’t be in class!” students refrained.
Comaroff will not be allowed to teach required courses, take on additional graduate students or advise students who don’t have another co-adviser, or chair any dissertation committees through this academic year, per Harvard’s resolution of the Title IX case. His sole course this term is an elective, on the anthropology of law. Not all students who walked out of class were enrolled in the course, and not all students walked out.
Harvard declined comment on the protest. Comaroff’s lawyer, Ruth O’Meara-Costello, previously said of the petition to cancel Comaroff’s class, “It is shocking that an employee union is calling for a Harvard employee to be summarily punished and cast out of the university community based upon allegations that the university’s process found him not responsible for or that have never been investigated.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Harvard are Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava, all graduate students in anthropology who worked with Comaroff. Mandava and Czerwienski say that Harvard showed “deliberate indifference” to their concerns about Comaroff allegedly pushing another graduate student into a sexual relationship. They also allege that Comaroff threatened Mandava to stop talking about him, lest she and Czerwienski would have “trouble getting jobs.” Kilburn says Comaroff groped her and kissed her without consent, and that he warned her “graphically” about the sexual assaults she might endure as a consequence of traveling to parts of Africa with her own same-sex partner. (Comaroff admits to having this particular conversation with Kilburn, but he says that he was giving her important advice.)
Criticizing Harvard’s overall response to complaints about Comaroff, the lawsuit says the end result was “predictable.” The lawsuit—which has since been updated to include additional allegations of misconduct going back decades, prior to his time at Harvard—alleges, “Shortly after he arrived at Harvard, the university received repeated complaints of sexual harassment, including forced kissing, groping and offensive—even violent—sexual comments by Prof. Comaroff.”
Harvard is the sole defendant in the case, which is rooted in Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender-based discrimination in federally funded education. The university moved to dismiss the lawsuit this summer. In so doing, it filed a motion for summary judgment for one of the counts involving an unusual claim by Kilburn that Harvard’s Title IX office obtained her psychotherapy records without her consent and shared them with Comaroff. (In Title IX cases, both the accuser and accused have access to evidence, even such sensitive information as therapy records, so the key allegation here is that Harvard did not get Kilburn’s consent to obtain the records.)
Harvard’s motion included emails between Kilburn and the Title IX office in which Kilburn included her therapist on a list of potential witnesses for investigators to contact. Also included was an affidavit from a senior investigator at Harvard, who said that Kilburn verbally told a member of her staff that the therapist “should have a bunch of notes or memories for you.” The investigator said that Kilburn was further told, “We ask every single witness if they have documents that are relevant, which we share with you,” and that she responded, “Got it.”
The university pointed to this as clear evidence of consent, and a major hole in the lawsuit overall. Russell Kornblith, one of the women’s lawyers, told Inside Higher Ed that Kilburn only named her private therapist as a potential witness after Comaroff questioned her reliability as a narrator, and she sought to show that she’d only sought counseling in the first place due to Comaroff’s alleged behavior. Kilburn did not speak with her therapist after listing her as a witness to avoid potential witness tampering, Kornblith said, and she was not aware that Harvard had not only contacted the therapist but obtained her therapy records until she received a redacted copy of those records as part of the investigation. Kilburn found out shortly thereafter that Comaroff had received them, as well, and was now using her medical history to discredit her, Kornblith said.
In any case, Kornblith said, Title IX requires a signed release to obtain medical records, “and you better believe that if Harvard has a signed release from our client, they would have produced that front and center in their filing.” He accused Harvard’s legal team of “cherry-picking from a mountain of evidence” and suggested that the full Title IX case record—which Harvard wants to keep sealed, citing privacy concerns—tells a more complete story.
In seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, Harvard also has argued in court documents that it is “only potentially liable for its own allegedly retaliatory actions,” not for retaliation by its employees.
This week, the Justice Department filed an amicus brief in the case challenging that assertion.
“Harvard’s claim that it is immunized from liability for the retaliatory acts of its own faculty members lacks support in the applicable law,” the brief says. “In fact, the relevant case law instructs that: (1) retaliation is a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX; (2) unlawful retaliation may be carried out by the employees of a federal-funding recipient; and (3) the recipient may be found liable for damages under Title IX for such retaliation where it amounts to an official act or policy of the recipient, or where the recipient is on notice of such retaliation and is deliberately indifferent to it.”
Harvard declined comment on the brief. The plaintiffs celebrated the development, with Czerwienski writing on Twitter, “This is a huge deal for us and all others who think schools like Harvard should be held responsible for their indifference to retaliation by faculty and others. This is one reason we filed this case in the first place.”
Kornblith said, “We’re glad to see the government affirm that Harvard cannot skirt responsibility for the retaliatory actions of its faculty.”