Thirty-eight of Harvard’s leading lights, people who are among the most accomplished and admired intellectuals in the world, last week signed an open letter expressing their concern that a colleague, the renowned anthropologist John Comaroff, had been punished for violating the school’s sexual and professional conduct policies. Among them was the African-American studies professor, critic and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr., the historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, the medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer and the postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha.
On Wednesday, almost all the letter’s signatories reversed themselves; in The Harvard Crimson, one professor called signing a “terrible mistake” and another apologized for a “serious lapse of judgment.”
By then, the letter had become part of a lawsuit that three doctoral students, Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava had filed against Harvard, claiming, among other things, discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation. The lawsuit alleges shocking behavior by both Comaroff and the university, including an accusation that Harvard obtained records from the therapist of one of the students without her consent and shared them with the professor. (In a statement, Harvard denied getting the records improperly and defended sharing them as part of its investigation.)
The suit accuses Comaroff of kissing and groping students against their will. It says he threatened to “sabotage students’ careers if they complained.” Comaroff’s colleagues’ letter is presented as a signal that he’s doing just that. (Lawyers for Comaroff have denied the accusations against him.)
“If we’re able to go to trial, this will show something really important, which is the reach and the network” Comaroff has, said a lawyer for the students, Carolin Guentert. “Because prior to this letter being published, of course our clients knew just how much reach Professor Comaroff has, and how devastating it is to lose an adviser and to lose support from your adviser, and really having the well poisoned in your field of study. But this letter shows that perfectly.”
It shows us some other things as well. I find the letter fascinating because it demonstrates how some of the most revered writers and scholars in America are deeply anxious about what they see as #MeToo overreach, student hypersensitivity and campus kangaroo courts. In their retraction, 34 of those who signed the original letter said they were “lacking full information about the case.” Yet they were willing to believe Comaroff’s spin on the limited information that had become public, which is that he was being punished simply for offering a student professional advice about the dangers of traveling as part of a lesbian couple in an African country where homosexuality is illegal.
“Since we the undersigned would also feel ethically compelled to offer the same advice to any student conducting research in a country with similar prohibitions, we are perplexed,” they wrote. These scholars appear to feel that the current campus climate leaves them open to life-upending accusations for entirely innocent comments.
This isn’t wholly surprising; there are real examples of professors who’ve been subject to grotesque campus inquisitions. And yet what we know of this case — including the existence of the letter itself — shows that the deck is still very much stacked against those challenging powerful men. More than one prominent professor in Harvard’s anthropology department has been accused of pervasive sexual misconduct, and according to a 2020 Crimson exposé, women “who were made uncomfortable by faculty in the department said they faced a persistent dilemma. Report, and risk their career aspirations in anthropology. Continue, and face greater obstacles than their male counterparts.”
Many of the underlying facts in the Comaroff affair, of course, remain in dispute. Harvard conducted two investigations, one of which found that Comaroff “engaged in verbal conduct” that violated school policy. But exactly what he said isn’t clear, and the lawsuit claims that the inquiry was deeply flawed. Comaroff’s defenders, meanwhile, have argued that the overlapping investigations are a kind of double jeopardy. (He’s been put on unpaid leave for a semester and barred from teaching required courses or taking on new graduate-student advisees through the next academic year.)
The most serious allegations are those made by Kilburn, one of Comaroff’s mentees. According to the lawsuit, “Harvard allowed Professor Comaroff’s behavior to continue for two years — subjecting Ms. Kilburn to a continuing nightmare that included more forced kissing, groping, persistent invitations to socialize alone off-campus, and coercive control. When Ms. Kilburn tried to avoid Professor Comaroff, he forbade her to work with her other adviser.” The lawsuit accuses Comaroff of lasciviously dwelling on the possibility that she would be raped and murdered in Africa; he says he was simply offering her safety advice.
The lawsuit also claims that Comaroff behaved inappropriately toward Mandava, and threatened her and Czerwienski after they reported his alleged harassment of other students and warned other women about him.
Maybe none of these charges are true; if there is a trial, all of us will have to evaluate them more fully. But there’s little question that the three women have already suffered quite a bit for coming forward. Comaroff’s wife, Jean, had been Czerwienski’s adviser. According to the complaint, Czerwienski ended that relationship and changed her academic focus to avoid the couple. Mandava, too, altered the focus of her dissertation so she wouldn’t have to be involved with them.
Kilburn initially resolved to keep quiet on the advice of a former mentor; as The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2020, “They talked about how difficult it would be for Kilburn to get a job without a good letter of recommendation from Comaroff.”
Speaking to The Chronicle about the allegations against Comaroff, Ajantha Subramanian, the chair of Harvard’s anthropology department, described a “system of patronage” that “severely constrains the ability of students to be critical and speak openly about problems.” Those who’ve benefited from that patronage, she said, have an interest in upholding the reputation of their benefactors. Scholars, said Subramanian, “become invested in protecting the family name so that it remains an asset.”
The women suing Harvard may have thus alienated a great many leading figures in their field. It’s quite possible that they have permanently derailed the careers they’ve spent years striving for.
Maybe they did that because of an imaginary microaggression. But why would some of the smartest and most highly credentialed people in this country find it so easy to jump to that conclusion? Perhaps professors’ sense of their own vulnerability to rampant snowflakery has obscured to them the actual workings of power. Maybe they thought they were standing up against woke illiberalism. What they were really doing was closing ranks.
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