In order to get to her adviser’s office on her first day of graduate school at Harvard, Lilia Kilburn rode her bike there. When the adviser, John Comaroff, a known anthropologist and specialist on South Africa, complemented her on her helmet, she claimed to have felt a jolt of unease.
When she was subsequently interviewed, she said that she recalled his planting a kiss on her lips on a previous school visit. Consequently, she informed him that she had gone on a vacation with her partner that summer, and she specifically made a point of using female pronouns to describe her partner in order to distract undesired attention from herself and her partner.
The interviewee said how Dr. Comaroff started into a lecture on how she may be subjected to “corrective rape,” or perhaps murdered, if she was spotted in a lesbian relationship in some areas of Africa, which she described as “horrifying.” However, Ms. Kilburn noted that he stated it in “a tone of amusement,” and that “this was not standard office hours counsel.”
A federal lawsuit against Harvard University was filed on Tuesday by Ms. Kilburn and two other female graduate students in Boston federal court. The lawsuit accuses the university of both ignoring allegations that Dr. Comaroff had sexually harassed students for years and of permitting Dr. Comaroff to intimidate students by threatening their academic careers if they came forward with evidence of his misconduct. The alleged rape remarks that Mr. Kilburn made, according to Ms. Kilburn, are the focus of the case.
More than a year of charges against Dr. Comaroff have been parried back and forth in the case against him, with many of them first appearing in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The lawsuit is only the latest salvo in the ongoing saga. According to the three women, it adds on what has become a public campaign on their behalf and contains anonymous claims that stretch back to his days as a professor at the University of Chicago, before he joined the Harvard faculty in 2012.
Dr. Comaroff’s attorneys issued a statement in which they argued that the punishments were illogical. Although “he was motivated only by concern for Ms. Kilburn’s well-being and had no romantic or sexual intentions, the inquiry determined that his advise constituted sexual harassment,” according to the statement. According to the statement, “Professor Comaroff firmly disagrees this finding, which would severely restrict faculty members’ capacity to utilise their best academic judgement in counselling students about critical safety problems.”
Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist best known for his relief efforts in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake; Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research; Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar; Jill Lepore, a historian; and Randall Kennedy, a law professor, are among those who have signed the petition.
Furthermore, they expressed dissatisfaction with Harvard’s choice to launch two investigations, which, according to the letter, subjected Dr. Comaroff to a kind of double jeopardy. As faculty members, the letter went on to say, “we must be familiar with the norms and processes to which we are subject.”
It should be noted that Harvard is not the only institution dealing with these sorts of accusations. When a complaint is made under Title IX, the federal education statute that prohibits sex discrimination, colleges are required to investigate or otherwise identify what happened – a difficult undertaking that is not always straightforward. Faculty and students are often unhappy with the investigative process since the focus on secrecy results in a lack of openness in the proceedings.
Just last month, the University of Michigan fired its president for failing to reveal an affair with a subordinate, while the president of Florida International University resigned without explanation, apologising for having “created distress for a cherished colleague.”
When it comes to the other two women involved in the case, Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava, the court documents put them primarily in the position of whistle-blowers, whose jobs were endangered by Dr. Comaroff when they spoke out against his conduct.
Sanford Heisler Sharp is representing the women. The firm previously brought a similar complaint against Dartmouth, which resulted in a $14 million settlement for nine women in a sex assault case in 2019, and against Columbia, which resulted in the resignation of a veteran Greco-Roman historian in 2017.
In their own words, several faculty members admitted that they understood nothing about Dr. Comaroff’s situation beyond what was included in the letter of support that they had signed on the dotted line.
Professor Claudine Gay, the dean of Harvard’s college of arts and sciences, issued a warning to Dr. Comaroff’s supporters last week, stating that they may have made snap judgments about his actions without fully understanding the circumstances.
She defended the procedure for adjudicating sexual harassment accusations, stating that it was necessary to find a delicate balance in order to serve the diverse network of stakeholders at Harvard University.