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Three graduate students file sexual harassment suit against prominent Harvard anthropology professor

From left, Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava, who are suing Harvard for its handling of sexual harassment accusations against an anthropology professorVanessa Leroy/NYT

Three Harvard University graduate students sued the university on Tuesday, alleging it ignored nearly a decade of sexual harassment and retaliation by a prominent anthropology professor and permitted a system that protects powerful faculty — and the university’s reputation — at students’ expense.

The suit, filed in Massachusetts federal court, alleges that Harvard ignored numerous warning signs, enabling renowned professor John Comaroff to sexually harass one student and damage her career, as well as the careers of two classmates who spoke in her defense.

The case raises larger questions about the potential risks of academic hierarchies that are inherently imbalanced, and in which tenured faculty members hold enormous sway over the careers of graduate students they advise.

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“This is a case about power,” said Russell Kornblith, an attorney representing the three plaintiffs, Lilia Kilburn, Margaret Czerwienski, and Amulya Mandava. “It’s about the power that the university has to make things right, and it’s also about the power that the university gives graduate student advisers over their graduate students.”

Comaroff has already been placed on unpaid leave by the university, a measure it took late last month after its own investigations found the professor violated the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. The complaint filed Tuesday, however, says the university’s findings, the details of which were not made public, set aside the most egregious allegations against him.

A spokeswoman for Harvard declined to comment on the suit.

Comaroff’s attorneys issued a statement Tuesday in response to the suit, denying “ever harassing or retaliating against any student.”

“Professor Comaroff is not only a leading scholar in his field — he is 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,” the statement said.

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The lawsuit alleges that Comaroff, on more than one occasion, forcibly kissed Kilburn, groped her in public, and graphically imagined her rape and murder aloud. It also alleges that the professor cut the student off from her other professors and derailed her degree process.

The complaint says the other two students reported Comaroff to the university and sought to warn other students about him. It alleges that Comaroff retaliated by ensuring the pair would have difficulty finding jobs in their field.

All three plaintiffs filed Title IX complaints with the university, but after a process that took more than a year, Harvard issued limited findings that downplayed the seriousness of the alleged conduct, according to the complaint. The university did not issue any findings on whether the professor kissed Kilburn, groped her, or derailed her degree, according to the complaint.

Responding to one incident mentioned in the lawsuit, Comaroff’s attorneys said the professor did speak with Kilburn about her proposal to conduct fieldwork in Cameroon while traveling openly with her same-sex partner. Comaroff warned the student about the risks that could pose, his attorneys said, including the risk of sexual violence. “This was a necessary conversation for her safety,” the statement said.

In response to the sanctions against Comaroff, a group of 38 Harvard professors, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Paul Farmer, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jill Lepore, rose to his defense, questioning whether his punishment was necessary.

Relying on a media report that discussed his warning the student about the travel in Africa, the professors who signed the letter questioned the implications for their own advisees.

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“Since we the undersigned would also feel ethically compelled to offer the same advice to any student conducting research in a country with similar prohibitions, we are perplexed,” they wrote. “How can advice intended to protect an advisee from sexual violence be itself construed as sexual harassment?”

But last week, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay, warned signatories of the letter supporting Comaroff that they did not have all the information.

“It would not be appropriate for me to provide specifics of Professor Comaroff’s behavior. However, I can tell you that the conduct at issue is not what you have described,” Gay wrote in a letter provided to the Globe.

Tuesday’s lawsuit appeared to have caught some of the letter’s signatories by surprise. Reached by e-mail Tuesday evening, several professors said they wished to remove their signatures. As of 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Gates, Farmer, Kincaid, and Lepore, along with professors Jay Jasanoff, Jacob Olupona, Jennifer Hochschild, Carolyn Abbate, Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Maya Jasanoff, Caroline Elkins, Ingrid Monson, Diana Sorensen, Homi Bhabha, Michèle Lamont, Sheila Jasanoff, Eugene Richardson, Sven Beckert, Jacqueline Bhabha, Evelynn Hammonds, Biodun Jeyifo, Lucie White, Stephen Greenblatt, Doris Sommer, and Ted Gilman said they wanted to retract their names from the letter. Professor Mariano Siskind said, “I deeply regret having signed the letter.”

“I signed the letter without properly considering its impact on students and, obviously, without fuller information. This was a serious lapse in judgment and I apologize unreservedly for my mistake,” wrote Maya Jasanoff in an e-mail.

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Mandava, one of the three plaintiffs, said she and the other two students tried for years to solve the problem quietly, through internal channels at Harvard, but only encountered dead ends and pushback.

“It is unacceptable to us that students who are brave enough to step forward when they are being harassed or retaliated against have to go through this burdensome of a process and be continually subjected to retaliation before, during, and after,” she said.

Mandava said university leaders and those who hold power in academia have a responsibility to change the system and rebalance the power.

“I’m hoping that a lot more people and voices of tenured faculty who have been in this game for decades . . . will step in and start collectively trying to solve this problem with us,” she said.

Comaroff was first placed on leave in August 2020, after the Harvard Crimson reported that three female students had alleged unwanted touching, verbal sexual harassment, and professional retaliation.

The suit alleges that, over a period of two years, Comaroff repeatedly kissed Kilburn, groped her, and invited her to socialize alone with him. When she tried to avoid him, he forbade her to work with her other adviser, the suit says.

The professor ended a meeting about her travels to Africa by reminding her of the power he now wielded over her career, the suit says, reminding her that he had “fought very hard for [her]” in the admissions process and saying she should trust him because he had been advising students for 50 years.

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In an earlier statement, Comaroff’s attorney said: “He maintains that it was not only his right, but his moral duty, to so advise her, because her proposed plans were objectively physically dangerous to her. The investigators found that he had no sexual or romantic intention.”

Comaroff is on unpaid leave for the spring semester. He will have limited duties in the upcoming academic year, according to the university.

The faculty letter said those who signed it “know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen who has for five decades trained and advised hundreds of PhD students of diverse backgrounds, who have subsequently become leaders in universities across the world.

We are dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students,” they wrote.

But the plaintiffs pointed to the letter as yet another example of retaliation, and of an academic culture that protects its own at the expense of students.

“Those letters show the power of networks in academia, the power of networks at Harvard, and those are the networks that our clients are trying to get into,” Kornblith, their attorney, said.

This story has been updated with additional names of professors who, after this story was first published, said they wished to retract their names from the faculty letter defending Comaroff.