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Notes from a Grad School Survivor

Editors’ note: Insurrect! was founded as a publication in part because we wanted to create more scholarly networks of support for graduate students that supplemented, rather than relied upon, the formal academy. Like many junior scholars, this week the editors of Insurrect! have been consumed by the ongoing fight against sexual harrassment at Harvard University led by Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava and their supporters; and also overwhelmed by the incredibly disheartening way that senior scholars at that institution have responded. As an online magazine that is devoted to critiques of colonial legacies, and to the foundational work of Black Studies, Indigenous Studies, and postcolonial feminist theory, we cannot ignore how institutions today uphold these legacies through the gendered mechanisms of power and abuse, even within fields designed to analyze them. To that end, we are sharing a personal narrative from one of Insurrect!’s co-founders that speaks specifically to the ways that our working lives as scholars and academics cannot be divorced from gendered institutional power. We are incredibly fortunate to work with and know someone as brave and brilliant as Kellen Heniford.

Talk of the Harvard Letter—the online shorthand for an open letter signed by 38 Harvard professors in support of fellow Harvard professor John L. Comaroff—has dominated my news feed for days. No event in recent memory has so roiled the waters of academic Twitter, or so captured my own attention. The letter has received ample criticism, which has been heartening. But for me, as for many who experienced sexual violence in graduate school, this news cycle has been emotionally devastating as well.

The letter came after Harvard sanctioned Comaroff, a prominent faculty member in the African and African American Studies and the Anthropology Departments, for violating professional codes of conduct, including guidance on sexual harassment. The letter writers objected: after all, they reasoned, Comaroff was, to their knowledge, “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen who has for five decades trained and advised hundreds of Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds.” The signers, who claim that Comaroff’s sanctioning could have detrimental “effects on our ability to advise our own students,” count among them several heavy hitters from the world of Early American Studies, including—but sadly not limited to—Sven Beckert, Alejandro de la Fuente, Henry Louis Gates, and Jill Lepore.

The details of Comaroff’s case that have emerged since the letter was released are deeply disturbing. One student, an advisee, alleges that he kissed her on the mouth without her consent, touched and squeezed her thighs, and, in one private meeting, described in graphic detail how she, a queer woman, might be subject to “corrective rape” on a trip to Cameroon.

A lawsuit filed by three graduate students claims not just that Harvard ignored years of inappropriate behavior on Comaroff’s part, but that the university went so far as to obtain the notes from complainant’s private therapy sessions and share them with Comaroff. This assertion, in particular, suggests not only neglect on the part of Harvard administrators but also active complicity in Comaroff’s behavior.

I applaud the bravery of the women who have come forward against Comaroff, especially as they faced down what appeared to be a united front of opposition from luminaries across a whole host of fields. Many of those luminaries, including Beckert, de la Fuente, Gates, and Lepore, are now retracting their signatures from the Comaroff letter. They appear to have recalculated after the massive backlash online and the announcement of the lawsuit against their colleague.

Stories like the one currently unfolding at Harvard are shocking, to be sure, but, for many of us, they are not surprising.

Read entire article at Insurrect: Radical Thinking in Early American Studies