Many casual readers will encounter the lawsuit against Harvard claiming it protected a serial sexual harasser through a New York Times article published yesterday. The article opened by describing the accused, anthropologist John Comaroff, complimenting a graduate student, now plaintiff, on her bike helmet. Meanwhile, the subheadline informs us that distinguished scholars like Henry Louis Gates and Jill Lepore support their colleague. Hmmm, readers might think, aren’t these women being a little bit oversensitive?
In fact, the full complaint, filed in federal district court in Massachusetts, makes far more serious claims, many of which are only hinted at or glossed over in the initial reporting. (The helmet isn’t even mentioned.) These are unproven allegations, which is to say only one side of the story, but they are worth reading in full.
The crux of the complaint is not only what students say Comaroff did to make them uncomfortable — including alleged forcible kissing, groping, and inappropriate remarks — but the damage to their careers as a result of his retaliation and influence at the institution. Harvard’s own Title IX investigation only found that Comaroff had committed verbal harassment against one complainant, by graphically and at length claiming she would be raped if she traveled in South Africa with her same-sex partner, but the lawsuit says that investigation was seriously flawed.
Comaroff has denied the allegations; a statement from his attorneys published by the Boston Globe called him a “deeply caring person who has devoted his energy for decades to mentoring and advancing generations of students. Attacks on his career based on gossip and fantasy rather than actual evidence are shameful.”
Here’s some of what’s in the complaint:
- The complaint says that when Harvard hired Comaroff, described as a giant in his field, in 2012, it had been made aware that his decades at the University of Chicago had included allegations of harassment and retaliation. The complaint includes an account of Comaroff groping a Chicago undergraduate in 1979, who “was so disturbed by her experience with Professor Comaroff that she abandoned her plans to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology.”
- More recently, between 2006 and 2007, the complaint says Comaroff sent a Chicago graduate student “violent pornography without her consent, commented on her choice of underwear, and assaulted her in his office. During the assault, he kissed her forcibly on the lips, groped her buttocks, and repeatedly grabbed her thigh without her consent.” The student reported to another graduate student, who reported to faculty, but according to the complaint, Comaroff learned of her report and pressured her to delete his emails.
- In 2015, the complaint says, Comaroff subjected his own advisee (unnamed here and not a plaintiff in the suit), to harassment: “He commented on her appearance; shared his attraction to other students (describing one student as ‘beautiful’ and another as ‘out of [his] league’); recounted his sexual history and sexual preferences to her in detail; and frequently shared sexual jokes that made her uncomfortable. He also winked at her in class, drank out of her water bottle in the middle of a course he was teaching, called her ‘my date,’ and kissed her on the forehead without her consent — all in view of other students.”
- By 2016, the complaint says, “Professor Comaroff cornered her in his laundry room and forcibly kissed her on the mouth without her consent. His abuse continued throughout the semester: He kissed her, grabbed her buttocks, and, on information and belief, sent her messages late at night asking about her sexual partners.” When confronted in his office, Comaroff “knelt in front of her, laid his head on her breasts, and told her he was impotent.” This student reported to Harvard’s Title IX coordinator; the complaint says, “Professor Comaroff obtained a copy of Harvard Student 2’s complaint and read portions of her complaint back to her verbatim. This intimidation tactic worked. It pressured [the complainant] to withdraw her complaint and would, apparently, dissuade her from participating in any further investigations, including of Plaintiffs’ complaints.”
- Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava, graduate students who are named plaintiffs in the suit, are described as attempting to blow the whistle on Comaroff’s conduct. At once point, Comaroff confronted Mandava to complain about “nasty rumors,” saying by way of defense that he had “‘been sexually inactive for seven years’ because he was impotent — an admission that caused Ms. Mandava great discomfort because she was alone in his office with him.” He also allegedly told Mandava, whose recommender was Comaroff’s wife and fellow Harvard professor, that she and Czerwienski would have “trouble getting jobs” if they persisted. This retaliation was allegedly reported to Harvard’s Title IX office.
- The complaint says that at a dinner with students and faculty in October 2017, as reporting exposed sexual harassment and assault by Harvey Weinstein, “Comaroff compared himself to Harvey Weinstein, and remarked, ‘They’re coming for me next!’” His wife Jean, also in attendance, disparaged women who confront or report sexual violence, commenting, ‘Whatever happened to rolling with the punches?’”
- As a result of Harvard’s inaction, the plaintiffs say, Lilia Kilburn enrolled as a graduate student working with Comaroff without knowing about the alleged pattern of his behavior, enabling him to “forcibly kiss Ms. Kilburn, grope her in public, imagine aloud her rape and murder, cut her off from other professors, and derail her academic trajectory.”
- Despite repeated formal complaints from students and faculty, the complaint says “Harvard apparently did not investigate Professor Comaroff’s misconduct until a year later, in May 2020 — when The Harvard Crimson contacted the Title IX Office seeking comment on an article it was set to publish in the coming days.” That article was about a pattern of sexual harassment in the Anthropology department that allegedly included two former chairs who served 11 of the past 14 years.
- When Harvard did investigate, per the complaint, “During the process, Harvard obtained Ms. Kilburn’s private therapy records without her consent and disclosed them to Professor Comaroff,” but withheld the full notes from her. During the investigation, Comaroff claimed “that she must have imagined that he sexually harassed her because she was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition that she developed as a direct result of his conduct.”
- Kilburn says they failed to interview two-thirds of her suggested witnesses and that despite having a witness to Comaroff kissing her without her consent, the investigating office “rejected this corroborated testimony because Ms. Kilburn could not recall against precisely which wall in the room Professor Comaroff had assaulted her.”
Notably, after the complaint was filed yesterday, most of the professors, including Gates and Lepore, who had signed a letter saying they were “dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against [Comaroff] and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students,” said they retracted their support. Another faculty letter with almost twice the number of signatories had already expressed dismay at the first letter.