This Week in Higher Ed – The Harvard Sexual Assault Case

Accordingly to two recent articles from Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard University largely ignored reports of repeated sexual assaults on the part of a long-time professor, perpetuating a culture of indifference towards sexual assault. Allegations of Harvard’s ‘Policy of Indifference’ On Tuesday February 8, 2022, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, three graduate students at Harvard University, Amulya Mandava, Lilia Kilburn, Margaret Czerwienski filed a lawsuit against Harvard involving the case of John Comaroff, Hugh K. Foster Professor African and African American Studies of Anthropology, alleging that the university repeatedly ignored their complaints against him and failed to protect them from ongoing sexual misconduct. A 65-page complaint filed in the District Court of Massachusetts details Comaroff’s alleged sexual harrassment history at the University of Chicago in addition to the ongoing complaints to the Title IX commissioner at Harvard, which did not lead to any formal investigation until the media highlighted the case in 2020. The case has divided faculty and underscores the need for clearer expectations and norms. Close to fifty well-known and powerful faculty members championed and defended Comaroff as “an excellent colleague, adviser and committed university citizen,” while other university faculty argued that the letter of support demonstrated the protection faculty are afforded and the intimidation that can cause and prevent students from coming forward.  Asymmetry of Power Dynamics in Higher Education According to Inside Higher Ed the detailed complaints from students point to the power dynamics at play in institutions of higher education, as is shown in the case of Mandava and Czerwienski, whom Comaroff informed would have trouble getting jobs if they reported the encounters that are described in the lawsuit. In Kilburn’s case, she alleges that Comaroff forbade her to work with other faculty members. Harvard took more than three years to investigate these ongoing sexual assault allegations against Comaroff. Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, highlights the importance of this case well by stating that “[Behind every Title IX case], are one or more complainants who made the difficult choice to come forward. Whatever your view of our current Title IX policy and procedures (which, like all policies, can and should be improved over time), we can all agree that the decision to lodge a formal complaint is a challenging experience. We should ask ourselves—perhaps especially the tenured faculty—what signal our reactions to the outcomes of these processes may send to our community, and particularly to those making that difficult choice of whether or not to come forward.”  

Accordingly to two recent articles from Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard University largely ignored reports of repeated sexual assaults on the part of a long-time professor, perpetuating a culture of indifference towards sexual assault.

Allegations of Harvard’s ‘Policy of Indifference’

On Tuesday February 8, 2022, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, three graduate students at Harvard University, Amulya Mandava, Lilia Kilburn, Margaret Czerwienski filed a lawsuit against Harvard involving the case of John Comaroff, Hugh K. Foster Professor African and African American Studies of Anthropology, alleging that the university repeatedly ignored their complaints against him and failed to protect them from ongoing sexual misconduct. A 65-page complaint filed in the District Court of Massachusetts details Comaroff’s alleged sexual harrassment history at the University of Chicago in addition to the ongoing complaints to the Title IX commissioner at Harvard, which did not lead to any formal investigation until the media highlighted the case in 2020.

The case has divided faculty and underscores the need for clearer expectations and norms. Close to fifty well-known and powerful faculty members championed and defended Comaroff as “an excellent colleague, adviser and committed university citizen,” while other university faculty argued that the letter of support demonstrated the protection faculty are afforded and the intimidation that can cause and prevent students from coming forward. 

Asymmetry of Power Dynamics in Higher Education

According to Inside Higher Ed the detailed complaints from students point to the power dynamics at play in institutions of higher education, as is shown in the case of Mandava and Czerwienski, whom Comaroff informed would have trouble getting jobs if they reported the encounters that are described in the lawsuit. In Kilburn’s case, she alleges that Comaroff forbade her to work with other faculty members. Harvard took more than three years to investigate these ongoing sexual assault allegations against Comaroff.

Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, highlights the importance of this case well by stating that “[Behind every Title IX case], are one or more complainants who made the difficult choice to come forward. Whatever your view of our current Title IX policy and procedures (which, like all policies, can and should be improved over time), we can all agree that the decision to lodge a formal complaint is a challenging experience. We should ask ourselves—perhaps especially the tenured faculty—what signal our reactions to the outcomes of these processes may send to our community, and particularly to those making that difficult choice of whether or not to come forward.”