College

A lawsuit accuses Harvard of ignoring sexual harassment by a professor

The controversy surrounding John Comaroff, an anthropologist, has divided the faculty, with scholars like Jill Lepore and Henry Louis Gates Jr. supporting their colleague.

Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava are suing Harvard University for its handling of sexual harassment accusations against an anthropology professor, John Comaroff. Vanessa Leroy / The New York Times


For her first day of graduate school at Harvard, Lilia Kilburn arrived at her adviser’s office by bike. She said she felt a tremor of discomfort when the adviser, John Comaroff, a respected anthropologist and an expert on South Africa, complimented her on her helmet.

She remembered, she later said in an interview, how he had planted a kiss on her mouth during another campus visit. So she told him that she had gone on a trip with her partner that summer, she said, and made a point of using female pronouns to describe her partner, to deflect unwanted attention.

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In the interview, she recalled how Comaroff launched into a harangue about how she could be subjected to “corrective rape,” or even killed, if she were seen in a lesbian relationship in certain parts of Africa. But he said it with “a tone of enjoyment,” Kilburn said. “This was not normal office hours advice.”

On Tuesday, Kilburn and two other female graduate students filed a lawsuit in Boston federal court against Harvard University, accusing the university of both ignoring Comaroff’s sexual harassment of students for years and allowing him to intimidate students by threatening their academic careers if they reported him. The rape comments that Kilburn said he made are a centerpiece of the lawsuit.

Lawyers for Comaroff disputed the accusations against him. “Professor Comaroff categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student,” they said in response to the complaint. He did not kiss or touch Kilburn inappropriately, the statement added, and said that his comments about rape were advice about staying safe while traveling with her same-sex partner in Cameroon, which criminalizes homosexuality.

The lawsuit is the latest strike in more than a year of allegations being parried back and forth in the case against Comaroff, many of them initially detailed in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. It expands on what has become a public campaign by the three women and includes anonymous charges that date back to his days as a professor at the University of Chicago, before he arrived at Harvard in 2012.

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The women have already succeeded in some ways. Harvard found that Comaroff had engaged in verbal conduct that violated policies on sexual and gender-based harassment and professional conduct. But he was not found responsible for unwanted sexual contact.

He was placed on administrative leave for at least the spring semester and barred from teaching required courses through at least the next academic year.

In their statement, Comaroff’s lawyers disputed the logic of the sanctions. The investigation “found that he was motivated only by concern for Ms. Kilburn’s well-being and had no romantic or sexual intention, but that the advice nonetheless constituted sexual harassment,” the statement said. “Professor Comaroff vehemently disputes this conclusion, which would cripple faculty members’ ability to use their best academic judgment in advising students about essential safety issues.”

The dispute has divided the faculty. In the days leading up to the lawsuit, more than 90 academics at Harvard and other universities globally signed open letters defending his character and extolling his reputation and mentorship.

The signers include prominent academics like Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist known for his relief work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake; Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research; Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar; Jill Lepore, a historian; and Randall Kennedy, a law professor.

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Their letter says that Comaroff’s discussion of rape was a legitimate warning about conditions in the areas where Kilburn would be doing her field work. It said the signers were “perplexed” by her objections, because they “would also feel ethically compelled to offer the same advice.”

And they took issue with Harvard’s decision to conduct two investigations, which the letter suggests exposed Comaroff to a kind of double jeopardy. “As faculty members,” the letter added, “we must know the rules and procedures to which we are subject.”

On Monday night, as the lawsuit was about to be filed, another 50 or so Harvard scholars — most of them tenured, according to Walter Johnson, a history professor — replied in an open letter, criticizing Comaroff’s defenders for being too quick to accept the facts as presented by his lawyers.

“As evident from the letters written in his support, Professor Comaroff is a scholar with a powerful network of friends and colleagues” who could discourage other students from coming forward, the latest letter said.

Harvard is not the only university struggling with these types of complaints. Under Title IX, the federal education law that forbids sex discrimination, universities must investigate or otherwise determine what occurred when a complaint is filed — not always an easy task. Faculty and students are often dissatisfied, because the emphasis on confidentiality leads to a lack of transparency in the investigations.

Just last month, the University of Michigan dismissed its president for his failure to disclose an affair with a subordinate, and Florida International University’s president abruptly resigned, apologizing for having “caused discomfort for a valued colleague.”

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At Harvard, both sides are unhappy with the administration’s handling of Comaroff’s case. The women say that he manipulated the system against them by recruiting influential academics to his side, closing off mentoring opportunities for them. His lawyers branded the internal review process that ended in sanctions against him a “kangaroo court.”

In what may be an indication of the issues at stake, one of Comaroff’s lawyers, Janet Halley, a prominent feminist law professor at Harvard, has been a critic of the adjudication of Title IX cases for lacking due process.

In court papers filed Tuesday, Kilburn, the graduate student, said Comaroff’s rape comments were part of a pattern of misbehavior that she experienced at his hands. In the winter of 2017, as she was trying to decide between Harvard and Columbia, Comaroff took her to lunch and, according to the lawsuit and an interview, while saying goodbye, pressed against her and kissed her on her mouth. He whispered, “Go visit Columbia, but then come back here,” according to the complaint.

“I was desperate to think that it was an accident, but his subsequent behavior made it clear that it was not,” she said. During a brunch at his house, he followed her as she went to get her bag, she said, and once again leaned in for a kiss.

“Ms. Kilburn pushed him away and wiped her mouth, only to find Professor Comaroff smiling at her,” the complaint says. She began avoiding him, skipping weekly meetings and dressing more conservatively, the complaint says. Another time, he squeezed her thigh while passing by her in a lecture hall, the court papers say.

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The rape comments Comaroff made to Kilburn are the centerpiece of the lawsuit. – Vanessa Leroy / The New York Times

The lawsuit says she reported that she was being harassed to a Title IX officer and other authorities but “was met with predictable indifference,” even though the Title IX officer guessed whom she was talking about before she even mentioned Comaroff’s name.

But one of Comaroff’s lawyers, Norman Zalkind, noted that Harvard’s own investigations did not support Kilburn’s accusations of unwanted sexual contact.

The other two women in the case, Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava, are portrayed in the court papers mainly in the role of whistleblowers whose careers were threatened by Comaroff when they challenged his behavior.

But Comaroff had also showered Mandava with unwanted attention when she first encountered him as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she said in an interview. When she joked about one day wearing a high-necked wedding dress, he looked at her low-cut neckline and said, “That would be out of character for you,” she said.

His treatment was “objectifying and boundary-crossing,” she said.

Czerwienski said the stress associated with the case made it almost impossible for her to complete her dissertation. The other plaintiffs, too, said that doors had been closed to them because of their outspokenness.

The women are represented by Sanford Heisler Sharp, which filed a similar suit against Dartmouth, winning a $14 million settlement in 2019 for nine women in a sex abuse case, and against Columbia, which resulted in the 2017 retirement of a longtime Greco-Roman historian.

Some faculty members said that they knew little about Comaroff’s case beyond what was in the letter of support for him that they signed.

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Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences, warned Comaroff’s supporters last week that they might have jumped to conclusions about his behavior without knowing the full extent of it.

“Be aware that if you do not have access to the full review, and instead are relying on public accounts relayed through the media or only what is shared by one party to a complaint, you are necessarily operating without a comprehensive understanding of the facts,” Gay wrote in a letter.

She defended the process of adjudicating sexual harassment complaints, saying that it had to strike a delicate balance in serving the complex network of constituents at Harvard.

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