Harvard students sue, claiming school ignored professor’s sexual harassment

Three graduate students at Harvard University have filed a lawsuit accusing the Ivy League school of ignoring for years the sexual harassment of students by a professor who they said threatened their academic careers if they reported him.

The students filed the lawsuit in federal court in Boston days after Harvard placed John Comaroff, an anthropology professor and expert on South Africa, on administrative leave following a university investigation into his conduct.

Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava alleged that Comaroff for years “kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained”.

They said they were among the students who reported Comaroff to Harvard officials. Yet despite those warnings, Harvard watched as he retaliated by ensuring the students would have “trouble getting jobs”, the lawsuit said.

In an investigation launched by the school, Harvard obtained Kilburn’s private therapy records without her permission and revealed them to Comaroff, the suit alleges. The investigation was “neither ‘prompt’ nor ‘equitable’; nor was it designed to ‘stop discrimination, remedy any harm,’ or ‘prevent its recurrence,’ as Harvard’s written policies promise”, the suit said.

Comaroff, who joined Harvard in 2012, was not named as a defendant. His lawyers – Norman Zalkind, Janet Halley, and Ruth O’Meara-Costello – in a joint statement said he “categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student”.

Harvard had no comment. In January, it placed Comaroff on leave for the spring semester and barred him from teaching required courses after finding he engaged in verbal conduct that violated its sexual harassment and professional conduct policies.

Those sanctions have divided the Harvard community, where nearly 40 faculty members signed an open letter questioning the investigation and calling him an “excellent colleague”. Almost 80 faculty members signed a counter letter, that said they were “dismayed that these faculty members would openly align themselves against students who have lodged complaints about a tenured professor”.

In Tuesday’s lawsuit, the women said Harvard’s inaction allowed Comaroff to repeatedly and forcibly kiss Kilburn, grope her in public and even graphically described ways she would be supposedly raped or killed in South Africa for being in a same-sex relationship.

When Kilburn attempted to avoid Comaroff, he prohibited her from working with her other adviser, the lawsuit said.

During a dinner in 2017 with faculty and graduate students, Comaroff compared himself to Harvey Weinstein, according to the lawsuit. He said: “They’re coming for me next!”

The suit said his wife, Harvard professor Jean Comaroff, who was also in attendance, criticized women who confronted or reported sexual violence and asked: “Whatever happened to rolling with the punches?”

All three said their academic trajectories and career prospects had been “profoundly altered” and that Harvard violated Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which protects students from discrimination based on sex, and various Massachusetts laws.

In addition to the allegations from the plaintiffs, a Harvard committee tasked with examining the “climate” within the school’s anthropology department concluded that the department is “plagued by a ‘longstanding pattern of sexism, misogyny and sexual and gender-based misconduct’ that ‘has gone largely unchecked by a predominantly white, male faculty’”.

The committee went on to conclude that Harvard “has condoned a ‘culture in which the abuse of power is normalized and accommodated’”.

According to the lawsuit, Comaroff had harassed students for years prior to joining Harvard. When he taught at the University of Chicago, he was surrounded by “pervasive allegations of sexual misconduct”.

Reuters contributed to this report

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