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Harvard University library

Students Protest Amidst Harvard Sexual Harassment Scandal

Hundreds of people turned up to show solidarity with three grad students suing the university over a professor’s alleged misconduct, while faculty who had previously spoken in the professor’s favor walk back their support.

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Catherine Offord

Catherine is a senior editor at The Scientist.

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Feb 15, 2022

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A rally that began at Harvard University’s Science Center Plaza was attended by hundreds of students yesterday (February 14), the latest event in a scandal that has engulfed the campus community.

The protest—one of the largest such gatherings at the university in recent years, according to The Harvard Crimson—was organized to show support for three graduate students who filed a lawsuit against Harvard University last week alleging that the institution had failed to act on allegations of sexual harassment and professional misconduct by anthropology professor John Comaroff.

“This case is not about three of us. This case is about all of us,” plaintiff Lilia Kilburn said at the rally, the Crimson reports. “This case is about Harvard’s failure to provide the prompt and equitable process for dealing with claims of harassment and discrimination that’s required by law.”

The students’ suit, filed last Tuesday (February 8), describes years of alleged harassment of Kilburn by Comaroff, and claims that the professor took actions to damage the career of Kilburn and two others who spoke in her defense. Comaroff, who was placed on unpaid leave last month after the university’s own investigation concluded that he had engaged in verbal conduct that violated its policies, is not named as a defendant. 

Even before the university’s investigation concluded, Comaroff had already spent more than a year on paid administrative leave after an article in mid-2020 in the Crimson described allegations by three female students of nonconsensual touching and harassment. In a statement issued by his lawyers in response to the suit, Comaroff rejected the accusations against him, saying that he “categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student,” WCVB reports.

The decision by some faculty members to speak out in support of Comaroff in recent weeks has only widened the fallout. In late January, 38 university professors signed an open letter calling him “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen” and saying that they were “dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students.”

Almost all of those signatories retracted their support within days of the new lawsuit being filed, with many claiming that they were not aware of the full extent of the allegations. Historian Maya Jasanoff, one of the signatories, tells The Boston Globe in an email: “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.” 

Attorney Russell Kornblith, who is representing the plaintiffs, tells the Globe that the case against Harvard “is about power”—that of the university, of graduate student advisors, and of academic culture more generally. The faculty letter in support of Comaroff shows “the power of networks in academia, the power of networks at Harvard,” he says. 

Harvard denies the claims in the students’ lawsuit, which seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, saying in a statement that the allegations “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.”