It’s time to fix the vast power disparity between university graduate students and advisers, critics say

Left to right, Lilia Kilburn, Margaret Czerwienski, and Amulya Mandava, who are suing Harvard over its handling of alleged sexual harassment by an anthropology professor. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

A lawsuit alleging abuse and retaliation by a prominent professor in the Harvard anthropology department has sparked a new round of calls for reform to a system where tenured professors have the power to make or break the careers of their graduate students.

In the wake of the recently filed suit, PhD students in other departments at Harvard have spoken out, describing an environment where they do not feel comfortable raising grievances for fear of retaliation from tenured faculty who often have the backing of the university and its vast resources.

“Tenure bestows life-time job security and a broad grant of immunity,” students in Harvard’s department of African and African American studies wrote in an open letter in the weeks following news of the lawsuit. “While senior faculty bear most of the blame, the academy incentivizes a culture of abuse over subordinates — and a culture of silence about those abuses — at all levels.”

The suit alleges the school ignored numerous warning signs, enabling prominent anthropology professor John Comaroff to sexually harass one student, Lilia Kilburn, and damage her career, as well as the careers of two classmates, Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava, who spoke in her defense. Harvard has declined to comment on the suit.

Across academia, many systems of tenure and graduate-student advising entrust a vast amount of power over a young scholar’s future to just a few people. And when those in power abuse their position, systems built to address problems are often inadequate. Any complaint can leave the student without a champion, politically vulnerable in a cutthroat academic environment where success relies largely on who you know.

“Academia is a very hierarchical, almost sort of guild-like profession that is fertile ground for this kind of power relation,” said Celene Reynolds, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University and a leading expert on Title IX, the federal antidiscrimination law that governs sexual harassment accusations on college campuses.

At the University of Michigan, scientific researchers have alleged that the institution’s system for reporting abuse is ineffective and deters students from making reports. At the University of Florida, a tenured engineering professor was placed on leave last year after his graduate student accused him of academic misconduct and abusive behavior before the student died by suicide.

In 2019, Dartmouth College settled with nine women who said they were raped, sexually assaulted, or harassed by their professors, who they said used their power over students’ careers to silence them. Female graduate students at Columbia University have also accused professors of a pattern of harassment over the span of decades.

The University of Minnesota last year formed a new task force to address abusive faculty behavior following a petition from the graduate student government. It was difficult to galvanize student support, said Mattea Allert, who was then speaker of the student government, because even students who supported the effort feared retribution if they signed the petition. Progress has been slow, she said.

“Hopefully there are going to be changes in the next few years, but I don’t know,” said Allert, who is still a graduate student there but has stepped down from student government.

Harvard itself has dealt with similar issues in the past. In 1998, following the suicide of a chemistry graduate student, the university adopted major changes, including a three-member thesis committee, The New York Times reported at the time. Before he died the student left a note recommending such changes, saying “professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students.”

To many students, the graduate studies system increasingly feels archaic and out of sync in a transformed academic landscape, making a longstanding power differential seem even greater. Up-and-coming scholars are much more diverse in terms of race and gender, but older white men still hold many of the tenured faculty positions and still act as the gatekeepers. Meanwhile, the market for secure jobs is so cutthroat that only a small number of those who devote years to research and teaching can expect to have a secure job with solid benefits at the end of the day.

In the private sector, a worker with a problematic manager can change jobs much more easily than a graduate student can change universities.

“We have very little mobility once you start your program,” said Mandava, one of the three Harvard complainants. “You’re basically locked in for seven years.”

Advisers not only guide students’ research, but they also serve as a liaisonwithin the university and wider academic community. Advisers can also help graduate students publish scholarly articles, invite them to conferences, or ask them to submit a chapter for a book — all crucial steps to securing tenure. And they are instrumental in helping advisees obtain book deals.

Advisers also help students access funding they need for their research, and, crucially, they must sign off on a student’s work for them to graduate. After graduation, an adviser can be a direct line to a prestigious job, especially at elite universities.

By filing the lawsuit, the three Harvard women have risked their potential to get jobs after they graduate. Despite the support they have found, they say speaking out comes at an undeniable cost.

Margaret Czerwienski, Amulya Mandava, and Lilia Kilburn are suing Harvard for its handling of sexual harassment accusations against an anthropology professor. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“It’s impossible not to feel like this is going to affect us and our careers forever,” Czerwienski said. “It feels like we are radioactive.”

The suit is only the latest controversy in the anthropology department, which has been in tumult for several years following accusations of sexual harassment against two other professors. A group of faculty, including the department chairwoman, Ajantha Subramanian, have called on Comaroff to resign.

The turmoil has drastically changed the mood in the anthropology building, students said. What was a convivial atmosphere has largely disappeared. Now the atrium is quiet, they said. People whisper behind closed doors, and professors largely decline to discuss the controversies.

The university has temporarily sanctioned Comaroff after it conducted its own investigation and found that he violated the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. The suit, however, says the university’s findings set aside the most egregious allegations against him. The university has not made the full results of the investigation public.

The accusations against Comaroff have roiled graduate students across the university, especially after a letter of support for him was signed by 38 of Harvard’s most renowned professors.

Even though most of the signatories hastily withdrew their names after the lawsuit revealed more details about the allegations, the letter made clear the lengths to which faculty will go to protect one another.

Students in the English department also wrote a letter in the wake of the lawsuit, saying that nearly half of graduate students in that department reported in a 2021 survey that they would not feel comfortable “coming forward with complaints/grievances about discourteous or offensive behavior” due to a fear of retaliation.

Graduate student representatives declined to discuss the letters.

In response to a request to the university for comment on whether changing norms warrant a change in mentorship structures, a Harvard spokeswoman pointed to the work of Emma Dench, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who has launched The Advising Project, an attempt to improve the advising experience of master’s and PhD students.

The ongoing initiative aims to provide more information to faculty about “basic expectations for advisers and advisees,” spokeswoman Rachael Dane said. It also aims to provide more training for faculty and staff to serve as mentors and has conducted meetings with students, faculty, alumni, and administrators across programs to identify common challenges and potential solutions.

One way to address the power imbalances could be for institutions to move away from a sponsorship-type approach, Czerwienski said.

Universities should also reexamine their reflexive deference to hierarchy, which leads to failures to hold tenured faculty accountable, she said.

“The university could set a tone that that kind of behavior will not be tolerated,” she said, ”that tenure does not protect you, that if you use your power to harm students, that there will be consequences.”

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