In 1983, Harvard University found that its government professor Jorge Dominguez had so seriously sexually harassed a colleague that any similar violation should be cause to immediately fire him.
But over the next three decades, even while women on three occasions reported inappropriate behavior by Dominguez, no action was taken against him. Instead, Dominguez was promoted, pointing to significant problems in Harvard’s culture and shortcomings in its sexual harassment reporting procedures, according to a bruising new external report the university released Thursday.
“Cultures that are permissive of sexual harassment are characterized by members feeling that it would be too risky to report their experience of sexual harassment, that their complaint would not be taken seriously, and that no corrective action would be taken in response to their complaint,” according to the 26-page report, commissioned in 2019. “It is clear that the government department, and, to some extent, the university as a whole, has had such a permissive culture. No real progress can be expected without altering that culture.”
Dominguez, a onetime vice provost, resigned from Harvard in 2018 at the height of the #MeToo movement, soon after the Chronicle of Higher Education detailed sexual harassment allegations against him by nearly 20 women over several decades. The university stripped him of his emeritus status and barred him from campus soon after.
The external committee, headed by former MIT president Susan Hockfield, recommended close to a dozen changes for Harvard, including greater transparency when faculty are sanctioned for sexual harassment, centralizing personnel records, strengthening the vetting process for promotions, improving the faculty gender balance, and monitoring employees with past violations.
Harvard has long given its tenured faculty, departments, and individual colleges significant autonomy, and that has meant that lower-level faculty and staff often felt at the mercy of their superiors and unable to speak out. Administrators may have failed to understand the full scope of the complaints against Dominguez because the grievances were reported to different parts of the university, the report said.
Harvard president Lawrence Bacow said the university has improved its Title IX sexual harassment reporting procedures in recent years, but is working to provide more extensive information about making complaints on its website and disclosing more data about the outcome of cases.
He apologized to Terry Karl, a retired Stanford University professor whose complaints against Dominguez while she was a junior faculty member led to the initial sanctions in 1983. Karl left Harvard the year after, saying that it remained difficult to interact with Dominguez, and her experience was reported in the Chronicle article.
“I apologize to Dr. Terry Karl for the University’s failure to assure that Domínguez met the conditions of his 1983 sanction. Harvard failed her,” Bacow said. “She deserved better, and she and others suffered greatly as a result. I also apologize to those whose subsequent sexual harassment might have been avoided if Harvard had taken timely and appropriate actions.”
Karl said she hasn’t had a chance to read the entire report, but appreciates the apology, which comes about 40 years after the harassment began.
“Apologies mean such a great deal when an institution, a university department, and a predator try to take away your dignity and your future,” Karl said. But most women who are sexually harassed don’t get apologies from their institutions, she said.
The Dominguez case triggered an outcry on the Harvard campus and a push from students for changes.
Harvard conducted an internal review in 2019 of how it handled the Dominguez case. That review found that Dominguez’s behavior was an open secret and that Harvard government students had warned each other to wear heavy clothing and avoid late-afternoon appointments with the professor.
Following the Domiguez case, Harvard students demanded that the university develop stronger protections against sexual harassment. Many faculty and students also faulted the culture at Harvard, where big-name professors are protected and feared, they said.
According to the external report, the power disparity in Harvard’s government department was partly to blame for keeping people silent about the behavior. Junior faculty worried that their careers would be “derailed or destroyed” if they complained, and students didn’t want to be branded as “troublemakers.”
Deans, provosts, and presidents who promoted Dominguez were aware of the initial 1983 sexual harassment case, but thought he had been reformed, according to the report. They said they were not aware of subsequent complaints, including one in 1989 that was in Dominguez’s personnel file.
Sophie Hill, a fifth-year doctoral student in Harvard’s government department who pushed the university to conduct an outside review, said the results show the extent of the problem at the university.
“It’s such a case study of how many people looking the other way can accumulate to this gross injustice,” Hill said. “It’s not about Dominguez but the frailty of our institutions.”
Harvard has several open investigations into sexual harassment by faculty.
The university placed former senior anthropology professors Theodore C. Bestor and John L. Comaroff on paid administrative leave after the student newspaper reported last summer on allegations of sexual harassment against them. Another anthropology professor, Gary Urton, retired last year after being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into harassment.