Last month, three graduate students in Harvard University’s Anthropology department- Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava – filed a 65-page lawsuit against the university over the way it has handled sexual misconduct complaints involving anthropologist John Comaroff. According to the lawsuit, Camaroff “kissed and groped stu-dents without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained. When students reported him to Harvard and sought to warn their peers about him, Harvard watched as he retaliated by foreclosing career paths and ensuring that those students would have ‘trouble getting jobs.’”1
At the centerpiece of the lawsuit are the comments Comaroff made as Ms. Kilburn met him in his office to discuss her planned fieldwork in Africa. Ms. Kilbun recalls how Comaroff graphcally described she “’ would be raped’ or killed in certain parts of Africa” if she chose to do her work field there since she is in a lesbian relationship. Comaroff also reminded Ms. Kilburn of “the power he now wielded over her career,” 2 and as she tried to change adviser to avoid Comaroff, he cut her off from other professors.3
The lawsuit, New York Times writes, is “the latest strike in more than a year of allegations being parried back and forth in the case against Dr. Comaroff”, many of which are documented in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Among them are anonymous allegations dating back to before Comaroff started working at Harvard in 2012.4 According to the lawsuit, during the process of hiring Comaroff, the Chair of Harvard’s Department of African and African American studies was warned by Comaroff’s former students at the University of Chicago, where he was considered a “predator” and a “groomer“. They “could have influenced the hiring decision, supervised Comaroff, or implemented safeguards – and protected Harvard’s students.” Yet they welcomed and “empowered Professor Comaroff,”5 the lawsuit says.
New York Times reports that Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave after the school’s investigations found that he violated sexual harassment and professional conduct policies, “but he was not found responsible for unwanted sexual contact.”6
The lawsuit surfaced many unsettling issues, among them the allegation that Harvard accessed Ms. Kilburn’s private therapy records without her consent and revealed them to Comaroff, who then used them to discredit Ms. Kilburn’s accusation. 7 I will link the lawsuit and a few well-rounded articles about the allegations and how they were handled at the end of this post. Following the case feels like reading an almost real-time case study in Complaint!, and especially has reminded me of the section COMPLAINTS AND COLLEGIALI-TY in the book:
The department was warned about Comaroff’s previous misconduct at the University of Chicago and him being “surrounded by “pervasive allegations of sexual misconduct”. Harvard hired him anyway. 8 “Sometimes you hire people whom you like, or who are like those who are already there. “ 9 Ahmed writes. She notes that a broad instructional problem of harassing and bullying often indicate “an informal or casual culture around hiring”, recalling a lecturer who had told her that people often talk about candidates as “he’s the guy you’d want to have a pint with.”10
“When you make a complaint, you often learn about how power is wielded.”11 before the lawsuit, 38 Harvard faculty members signed an open letter supposedly questioning the process that sanctioned Comaroff. The letter is, however, also a love letter to their “excellent colleague.”
We the undersigned know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and commit-ted 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.12
They also addressed the rape comments, adding that they would be “ethically compelled to offer the same advice” if they were to advise Ms. Kilburn regarding studies in Africa.13 Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley issued a statement calling the comments “legitimate office-hours advice.” Professor Jean Comaroff – yes, Comaroff’s wife – criticized the complaints in her statement as an “attack on academic freedom.”14
“When some colleagues are friends, they are who end up being defended.”15 Ahmed writes. The faculty members jumped to defend their excellent colleague without being informed about the details of the complaints. That’s not my assumption – but their words. Shortly after the lawsuit went public, all but three professors said they wish to retract their names from the letter.16
What has happened? I am making assumptions here – but what if their change of heart and retraction from supporting their predator college was less because they suddenly noticed their lack of information and the impact of their word on the students17, and more about their reputation being on the line? The lawsuit did receive attention, much more than the scattered complaints filed in the previous year. All of a sudden, the discussion was not taking place behind closed doors and between colleagues. People were talking about it on the internet, it was receiving media attention. Harvard is a big name, and the cat is out of the bag. (and has slid through the closing door, smart cat)
According to the lawsuit, Comaroff once compared himself to Harvey Weinstein at a dinner with faculty and graduate students, saying “They’re coming for me next!”18 This is telling of how untouchable he felt. But also, ironically true as in the way his colleagues were quick enough to distance themselves from him when it got clear that the issue is getting out of hand. Such was the case with the disgraced Hollywood mogul.19
His wife, Jean Comaroff, who was also present at the dinner event, later belittled the sexual harassment complaints commenting “Whatever happened to rolling with the punches?” 20
Just roll with the punches. Just loosen up. Feminists: so sex-negative. So uptight. Don’t over-react, don’t be so divisive. 21
Back to the rape comments. The way Comaroff pals and colleague tried to downplay them reminded me of a section in Complaint!, where physical violence towards a student who was trying to “flee” from the office of the head of the department was apparently “on par with a handshake.”22 Comaroff thinking loudly about how his student is going to get raped is described as “legitimate officehour advice”23 As Ahmed writes, “violence can be removed from an action by how an action is described.”24
The lawsuit further criticizes Harvard’s Title IX office, pointing out that the office did not act on complaints regarding Comaroff and has time and again discouraged students going down the formal complaint route: Ms. Czerwienski was told in October 2017 that filing a formal report would be “futile”25 Ms. Kilburn states that her complaints on May 2019 were “was met with predictable indifference”26 , even though the officer knew who Ms. Kilburn wanted to talk about. At a recent demonstration in the Yard Kilburn said “The Title IX system was supposed to be the solution, Instead, it’s become part of the problem.”27
I was listening to the sound of machinery: the clunk, clunk that was telling me that inefficiency is not just the failure of things to work properly but is also how things are working.28
Harvard enabled and protected the predator for years, and that in a field as small as anthropology, where a downvote from a professor as influential as Comaroff could be the end of the academic career.29 only to take action when the students decided to go public.30
As of February 21, several of Harvard’s tenured Anthropology faculty asked. Comaroff to resign, stating that they have “lost confidence” in him as a professor.31
Is this a good ending? I genuinely do not know. One (possibly) destroyed academic career after years and years of predatory and abusive behavior, harassment, ruining careers and lives. What if it was a smaller university? Would the story still have been covered by New York Times or the Guardian? Would “going public” have made a difference?
I end this short report with Czerwienski’s final words at the recent campus demonstration:
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.32
The Harvard Magazine writes: “A few minutes later, the demonstrators dispersed, amid chants of, ‘We’ll be back, we’ll be back!’”33
The complete lawsuit
New York Times: A Lawsuit Accuses Harvard of Ignoring Sexual Harassment by a Professor
New York Times: After Sexual Harassment Lawsuit, Critics Attack Harvard’s Release of Therapy Records
The Cut: All the Alarming Allegations in Harvard’s Sexual-Harassment Suit
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, February 9, 2022, 10, https://www.thecrimson.com/PDF/2022/2/9/Czerwienski-et-al-v-harvard-filing/.
- Ibid, 20.
- Ibid, 5.
- Anemona Hartocollis ,“A Lawsuit Accuses Harvard of Ignoring Sexual Harassment by a Professor,” The New York Times, last modified February 9, 2022, last accessed March 06, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/08/us/harvard-sexual-harassment-lawsuit.html.
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 11.
- The New York Times, “A Lawsuit Accuses Harvard of Ignoring Sexual Harassment by a Professor”
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 33.
- Ibid, 9.
- Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 189.
- Ahmed, Complaint! , 190.
- Isabella B. Cho and Ariel H. Kim,“38 Harvard Faculty Sign Open Letter Questioning Results of Misconduct Investigations into Prof. John Comaroff” The Harvard Crimson, February 2, 2022, last accessed March 06, 2022, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/2/4/comaroff-sanctions-open-letter/.
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 39.
- Ahmed, Complaint! , 190.
- Ariel H. Kim and Meimei Xu,“35 Harvard Professors Retract Support for Letter Questioning Results of Comaroff Investigations” The Harvard Crimson, Last modified February 11, 2022, last accessed March 06, 2022, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/2/10/comaroff-faculty-letter-retraction/.
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 18.
- “Harvey Weinstein’s allies distance themselves as allegations grow,” October 11, 2017, video, https://www.cbsnews.com/video/harvey-weinstein-allies-distance-themselves-as-allegations-grow/.
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 18.
- Ahmed, Complaint! , 248.
- Ibid , 168.
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 39.
- Ahmed, Complaint! , 180.
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 17.
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 23.
- Lydialile Gibson,“Lawsuit Alleges Harvard Mishandled Harassment Complaints” The Harvard Magazine, February 16, 2022, last accessed March 06, 2022, https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2022/02/lawsuit-alleges-harvard-mishandled-harassment-complaints-against-john-comaroff.
- Ahmed, Complaint! , 94.
- Czerwienski et al. v. Harvard, 65.
- Meimei Xu,“15 Harvard Anthropology Professors Call on Comaroff to Resign Over Sexual Harassment Allegations” The Harvard Crimson, February 21, 2022, last accessed March 06, 2022,https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/2/21/anthropology-faculty-call-for-comaroff-resignation/.
- Lydialile Gibson,“Lawsuit Alleges Harvard Mishandled Harassment Complaints”