Lawsuit accuses Harvard University of ignoring Sexual Harassment Allegations

By: Ciara McAuliffe — Managing Editor

On Tuesday, three graduate students––Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava––filed a lawsuit against Harvard University alleging willful ignorance of sexual harrasment and retaliation by Anthropology Department professor John Comaroff. The suit alleges that Comaroff used his “power and his perch at Harvard to exploit aspiring scholars: he kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatend to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.” 

The suit states that Comaroff subjected Kilburn to “a pattern of gender-based harassment and assault continuing from 2017 until at least April 2019 using threats, intimidation, and coercion.” 

Cited in the suit were comments Dr. Comaroff made to Kilburn, which she discussed in a New York Times interview. After Comaroff allegedly planted a kiss on her mouth during a campus visit, Kilburn told him that she spent the summer traveling with her girlfriend, hoping that using female pronouns to describe her partner would deflect unwanted attention. Kilburn alleges that Comaroff, “with a tone of enjoyment,” launched into a harangue about how she could be subjected to “corrective rape” if she were seen in a lesbian realtionship in certain parts of Africa.

After multiple filings of complaints, in 2020, The Harvard Crimson and The Chronicle of Higher Education publicly exposed Professor Comaroff’s misconduct. “Only then, with its reputation to protect, did Harvard launch an investigation,” states the suit. 

“Harvard dragged the process out for over a year, foisted inordinate burdens on Plaintiffs, then willfully ignored the overwhelming evidence they marshaled.” The suit adds that during the process, Harvard obtained Ms. Kilburn’s private therapy records without her consent and disclosed them to Professor Comaroff. “Harvard denied that Professor Comaroff engaged in repeated sexual harassment or retaliation and allowed him to continue teaching after a slap on the wrist.”

After Harvard’s Title IX investigation began, Comaroff was placed on paid administrative leave in August of 2020. Last month, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sceinces Dean Caludine Gay sanctioned Comaroff last month after the invetgations determinted that he violated sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. 

Days leading up to the lawsuit, more than 90 academics at Harvard signed open letters defending Comaroff’s character and alleged comments about corrective rape. “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,” said the signers. 

On Tuesday night, around 50 other Harvard scholars criticized Comaroff’s defenders for immediately accepting the facts presented by his lawyers as truth. “As is evident from the letters written in his support, Professor Comaroff is a scholar with a powerful network of friends and colleagues. This raises the question of why three graduate students would go public with their complaints against him and willingly subject themselves to protracted, grueling, and potentially career-ending investigations,” said the signers.

By Wednesday, after the lawsuit was filed, a new letter was issued entitled “We Retract” signed by the majority of Harvard academics who originally and regretfully supported Dr. Comaroff. “We read with horror additional details of what the students went through, and we talked with one another and wished to retract,” said Ingrid Monson, professor of African American music. 

According to the suit, from 1987 to 2012, when Professor Comaroff worked at the University of Chicago, graduate students and faculty there considered Professor Comaroff a “predator” and a “groomer.” “At least one of them warned Harvard about Professor Comaroff while the University was considering Professor Comaroff’s candidacy. But Harvard welcomed him anyway,” the lawsuit states. 

“Harvard’s continued failure to act on repeated reports of harassment against Professor Comaroff—until spurred to do so by the media—demonstrates an institutional policy of indifference: a system designed to protect the University, its reputation, and the faculty who sustain that reputation at the expense of its students,” states the suit. 

The plaintiffs expressed that their outspokenness has resulted in many closed doors. Ms. Czerwienski said it’s been nearly impossible to finish her dissertation. 

The women are represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp, which filed a similar suit against Dartmouth that won a $14 million settlement in 2019 for nine women in a sex abuse case. 

By: Ciara McAuliffe — Managing Editor

On Tuesday, three graduate students––Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava––filed a lawsuit against Harvard University alleging willful ignorance of sexual harrasment and retaliation by Anthropology Department professor John Comaroff. The suit alleges that Comaroff used his “power and his perch at Harvard to exploit aspiring scholars: he kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatend to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.” 

The suit states that Comaroff subjected Kilburn to “a pattern of gender-based harassment and assault continuing from 2017 until at least April 2019 using threats, intimidation, and coercion.” 

Cited in the suit were comments Dr. Comaroff made to Kilburn, which she discussed in a New York Times interview. After Comaroff allegedly planted a kiss on her mouth during a campus visit, Kilburn told him that she spent the summer traveling with her girlfriend, hoping that using female pronouns to describe her partner would deflect unwanted attention. Kilburn alleges that Comaroff, “with a tone of enjoyment,” launched into a harangue about how she could be subjected to “corrective rape” if she were seen in a lesbian realtionship in certain parts of Africa.

After multiple filings of complaints, in 2020, The Harvard Crimson and The Chronicle of Higher Education publicly exposed Professor Comaroff’s misconduct. “Only then, with its reputation to protect, did Harvard launch an investigation,” states the suit. 

“Harvard dragged the process out for over a year, foisted inordinate burdens on Plaintiffs, then willfully ignored the overwhelming evidence they marshaled.” The suit adds that during the process, Harvard obtained Ms. Kilburn’s private therapy records without her consent and disclosed them to Professor Comaroff. “Harvard denied that Professor Comaroff engaged in repeated sexual harassment or retaliation and allowed him to continue teaching after a slap on the wrist.”

After Harvard’s Title IX investigation began, Comaroff was placed on paid administrative leave in August of 2020. Last month, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sceinces Dean Caludine Gay sanctioned Comaroff last month after the invetgations determinted that he violated sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. 

Days leading up to the lawsuit, more than 90 academics at Harvard signed open letters defending Comaroff’s character and alleged comments about corrective rape. “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,” said the signers. 

On Tuesday night, around 50 other Harvard scholars criticized Comaroff’s defenders for immediately accepting the facts presented by his lawyers as truth. “As is evident from the letters written in his support, Professor Comaroff is a scholar with a powerful network of friends and colleagues. This raises the question of why three graduate students would go public with their complaints against him and willingly subject themselves to protracted, grueling, and potentially career-ending investigations,” said the signers.

By Wednesday, after the lawsuit was filed, a new letter was issued entitled “We Retract” signed by the majority of Harvard academics who originally and regretfully supported Dr. Comaroff. “We read with horror additional details of what the students went through, and we talked with one another and wished to retract,” said Ingrid Monson, professor of African American music. 

According to the suit, from 1987 to 2012, when Professor Comaroff worked at the University of Chicago, graduate students and faculty there considered Professor Comaroff a “predator” and a “groomer.” “At least one of them warned Harvard about Professor Comaroff while the University was considering Professor Comaroff’s candidacy. But Harvard welcomed him anyway,” the lawsuit states. 

“Harvard’s continued failure to act on repeated reports of harassment against Professor Comaroff—until spurred to do so by the media—demonstrates an institutional policy of indifference: a system designed to protect the University, its reputation, and the faculty who sustain that reputation at the expense of its students,” states the suit. 

The plaintiffs expressed that their outspokenness has resulted in many closed doors. Ms. Czerwienski said it’s been nearly impossible to finish her dissertation. 

The women are represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp, which filed a similar suit against Dartmouth that won a $14 million settlement in 2019 for nine women in a sex abuse case. 

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