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Harvard professors drop support for colleague accused of sexual harassment

Harvard's Widener Library.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

Nearly all of the Harvard professors who signed a letter of support for their colleague John Comaroff have removed their names, saying Wednesday that their signatures were a grievous error in light of new allegations of sexual harassment levied against him.

Comaroff is a prominent anthropologist at Harvard who is on unpaid leave following a university investigation that found he violated the school’s policies on sexual harassment and professional conduct.

On Tuesday, however, three Harvard graduate students filed a lawsuit that alleges the professor’s misconduct went far beyond the university’s findings and blames the university for failing to protect them.


As news of the lawsuit broke late Tuesday, many of the professors who had initially voiced support for Comaroff began to reverse course, telling the Globe that they no longer wished to be associated with the letter.

On Wednesday, 34 of the original 38 signatories issued a new letter retracting their names. Retractors included prominent literary scholar, historian, and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr., medical anthropologist and global health physician Paul Farmer, novelist Jamaica Kincaid, and historian and journalist Jill Lepore, all leading public intellectuals.

“We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case. We are committed to all students experiencing Harvard as a safe and equitable institution for teaching and learning,” the new letter said.

The case involving Comaroff dates to August 2020, when he was first placed on leave following a report in the Harvard Crimson in which three female students alleged unwanted touching, verbal sexual harassment, and professional retaliation.

The lawsuit filed on Tuesday alleges that, over a period of two years, Comaroff repeatedly kissed one student, 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 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.

In a statement released late Wednesday, Harvard reiterated that it acknowledged the complaints made by the three students regarding Comaroff and conducted “thorough reviews,” which concluded he engaged in verbal conduct that violated the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. Sanctions were issued on Jan. 20 and included, among other measures, unpaid leave for the spring semester and limited duties next academic year.

“Harvard University disputes the allegations of the lawsuit brought by Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, which are in no way a fair or accurate representation of the thoughtful steps taken by the University in response to concerns that were brought forward, the thorough reviews conducted, and the results of those reviews,” the university’s statement said.

The original letter penned by the professors in support of Comaroff zeroed in on one incident where the professor is alleged to have warned one of the three students that if she were to carry out her plan to conduct research in Africa with her same-sex partner, she could put herself at risk of sexual violence.

The professors’ letter questioned why the university had disciplined Comaroff over this incident, asking what precedent it set for them and their own advisees.


“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 faced with news of the lawsuit, many professors said they regretted signing the letter without knowing more about the situation.

“I made a mistake signing this letter because I should’ve been more careful in evaluating the case and doing due diligence. What I really want to say is that I’m deeply sorry for that. And being sorry is, I know, insufficient,” Farmer wrote in an e-mail to the Globe that he sent from rural Rwanda.

Professor Carol Oja, a musicologist known for her work on American music and culture, wrote: “I now recognize that signing the original letter contributed to a culture that discourages students from reporting sexual harassment and assault. It was a mistake.”

Professors Randall Kennedy and Duncan Kennedy declined to remove their names from the original letter.

Randall Kennedy, a law professor, said he still has concerns about advisers’ ability to give advice to their students.

“No new information about which I am aware moots the worries that prompted me to sign the letter in the first place,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Attorneys representing the three women who sued Harvard have pointed to the initial letter as another example of how a powerful institution protects its own. In response to the retraction Wednesday, attorneys said it was the least the professors could do.


“The initial knee-jerk reaction to close ranks around a prestigious colleague shows that Harvard has a long way to go to create an environment in which survivors can come forward without fear of retaliation. No doubt many other survivors have been deterred from speaking up for just this reason,” said attorney Carolin Guentert in a statement to the Globe.

Comaroff, 77, is a professor of African and African-American studies and of anthropology at Harvard, which he joined in 2012. He has worked previously at universities around the world as well as at the University of Chicago. He was born in South Africa, according to his CV, and is known for his work on the anthropology of crime and policing and the anthropology of the colonial and postcolonial state, as well as on contemporary African political and legal systems, according to his Harvard biography. His wife, Jean Comaroff, is also a leading anthropologist at Harvard.

The faculty retractions were met with outrage on Wednesday by some, who said they did little to erase the message sent by the professors’ original letter.

“It is striking to me, and others, how the professors who signed the open letter committed the same sins of which they seemingly accused Harvard. They rushed to judgment,” said Alexandra Brodsky an attorney who specializes in civil rights abuses at educational institutions at Public Justice, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization.

“Retraction or not, students have learned a terrible lesson: If they report sexual harassment by a prominent professor, the faculty will close ranks to protect their own,” she said in an e-mail.


This is not the first time that accusations of sexual harassment and workplace hostility have been leveled against the Harvard Anthropology Department.

Anthropologist Kimberly Theidon unsuccessfully sued Harvard in 2015 after she was denied tenure, alleging that the denial was retaliation after she spoke publicly about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the department. Two federal courts ruled that she failed to prove that the university discriminated or retaliated against her.

In 2013 Theidon, who now teaches at Tufts University, called Harvard a “sexually hostile environment” in the comments section of a Harvard Crimson article, the Crimson reported in 2019.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Theidon said there should be a “full, open and external investigation” of Harvard’s handling of sexual harassment and discrimination complaints.

“What is so disgusting is that, from the time I spoke out in 2013 until now, how many more women were harassed or forced out of their careers in that department because [the university] did nothing,” she said.