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The Tip of the Iceberg at Harvard?

Three graduate students sued Harvard University on Tuesday, alleging that the institution continually downplayed or ignored complaints about sexual misconduct by John Comaroff, Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology.

Harvard’s anthropology department has faced multiple faculty sexual misconduct scandals in recent years, including one that led to Harvard relieving longtime professor Gary Urton of his emeritus status and banning him from campus. (Urton apologized for sending a student an inappropriate email but has not addressed the other, more serious allegations against him beyond saying, "I do not feel the sanctions against me are fair or just.") This new lawsuit sheds more light on the ongoing allegations against Comaroff, who is on administrative leave this semester for violating Harvard’s antiharassment and professional conduct policies—and who continues to vehemently deny any wrongdoing.

Previously, Harvard told its anthropology and African and American studies departments that Comaroff was found to have engaged in “verbal conduct” that violated community norms. Comaroff has maintained that travel advice he gave to a female graduate student was misconstrued, and that Harvard violated his due process rights during its investigation.

Some 38 Harvard professors signed a public letter of concern about how the university has treated their colleague, saying, “We the undersigned know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen who has for five decades trained and advised hundreds of Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds, who have subsequently become leaders in universities across the world. We are dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students.”

Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, responded to the letter with one of her own, warning Comaroff’s supporters against the “obvious dangers of an asymmetry of information in a situation like this. If you have not reviewed the full findings of an investigation, it is hard to assess the proportionality of the response.”

Gay wrote it would “not be appropriate for me to provide specifics of Prof. Comaroff’s behavior." Yet she clearly suggests that there’s more to the story. The lawsuit filed Tuesday presumably tells that story, from the point of view of Comaroff’s accusers.

The plaintiffs in the case are Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava, all of whom are graduate students in anthropology at Harvard. They say that Harvard has protected Comaroff since before it hired him, as it was aware of Comaroff’s reputation as a “predator” and “groomer” at the University of Chicago, where he worked from 1979 to 2012, yet “welcomed him anyway.”

The result was “predictable,” the lawsuit says. “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.” 

Editor's Note: Since the publication of this article, most of the 38 signatories to the open letter defending Comaroff have retracted their endorsement of the letter, and a separate faculty open letter of support for the student accusers has been published. 

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed