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The Lack of Urgency to Combat Sexual Assault: The Harvard Story

by Izzy MacFarlane //

This piece was originally published in Issue 1: Secret Edition (Spring 2022). To see past print publications, click here.

The Backstory

A few weeks ago, news broke out about a sexual harassment scandal occurring at Harvard University. John Comaroff, a professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard University has been accused of the sexual harassment of three women: Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava. These women had been graduate advisees of his and had been subject to his harassment for years prior, even reporting his actions multiple times, yet Harvard had done nothing in response to them.

The harassment from Comaroff toward Kilburn, Mandava, and Czerwienski has been going on since 2017; however, there was a “decade of sexual harassment” and professional misconduct allegations against Comaroff” before then. After the lawsuit was filed, Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave from the school, a consequence that is objectively not harsh enough and does not truly express how atrocious an act he committed and has been committing for years now. As a man at a top tier institution, Comaroff was able to get away with countless offenses with no such kind of backlash. This move to file the lawsuit came five years after these three women had started reporting harassment by him, so, in every sense of the manner, it was their last ditch effort to receive some sort of justice.

The Signatures

This is just one other example of how, often, in cases such as these, if the perpetrator is a well-known and respected man, he has no problem gaining supporters in defense of him.

One aspect of this story that is quite disheartening is how Comaroff’s peers and other professionals from Harvard reacted to his punishment and to the news that he is a sexual predator and has violated handfuls of women. Many of the other faculty and staff members at Harvard University did not simply stay silent on the matter. However, they actually openly supported Comaroff despite his alleged actions. The day after Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave, a riot ensued among many faculty members at Harvard going against the school, saying that he did not deserve the punishments that he was receiving and these
allegations against him were false. This is just one other example of how, often, in cases such as these, if the perpetrator is a well-known and respected man, he has no problem gaining supporters in defense of him.

A letter was written in support of him and his character in which thirty eight other faculty members signed. The letter displayed him as an upstanding member of the community and called him an “excellent colleague.” It was stated in the letter that these faculty members were “dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own.” This outspokenness came from a place of ignorance and naivety, as was shown that, after more
specific details came out in the report against Comaroff, thirty-five of the thirty-eight original signatories removed their signatures. They were quick to blindly defend their colleague before knowing or having all of the information presented, which proves how, in privileged institutions like Harvard, those who have built a name for themselves tend to evade any malice placed against them, no matter the background of the situation or what they may have done. Although the faculty members at Harvard did not prove to show any support to these three women, the students at Harvard had a different response.

The Backlash

After the lawsuit was filed where all of Comaroff’s disgusting actions came to light and after Harvard had shown their response to the situation, the students at Harvard University took part in one of the biggest demonstrations on the school’s campus in years. Hundreds of students banded together and walked out of classes in order to protest Harvard’s role in the entire situation. A student who was a part of the protest proclaimed that “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.” As I mentioned earlier, this was not Comaroffs first, second, or even third time being reported for sexual misconduct, however it was the first time that any type of action was taken against him, and that was only because an official lawsuit was filed.

Harvard knew that Comaroff had a history of sexual harassment and failed to take action. They did not do anything within the university to combat any of these allegations, which places the victims of his assault in a terrible situation where they feel that their own institution does not support or care about their wellbeing. By refusing to condemn Comaroff, Harvard positions itself as perpetuating the violence of victim blaming. Further, after the lawsuit was filed, they even continued to deny claims about the specific actions that took place. For example, he was not found guilty of unwanted sexual contact, even though, in the lawsuit, the women specifically stated that he “kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual
advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.” These are clear examples of sexual abuse, however, Comaroff was only found guilty on the claim of verbal harassment.

Too many times the blame of harassment is placed on the victim with them being told that they shouldn’t have worn this, shouldn’t have said that, shouldn’t have drank as much, and countless other excuses as to why the perpetrator didn’t really do anything wrong.

What is Harvard going to do about it? Are they going to change their policies? Are they going to be more receptive to sexual harassment suits? Sexual assault is an ongoing issue in our society; it occurs all to time with rarely any consequences taking place. Women who are subject of sexual harassment are reluctant to come forward and report their assaults in fear of the backlash they may receive. Too many times the blame of harassment is placed on the victim with them being told that they shouldn’t have worn this, shouldn’t have said that, shouldn’t have drank as much, and countless other excuses as to why the perpetrator didn’t really do anything wrong. Because of this, women rarely feel satisfied and never truly recover from their traumatic experiences. They never receive the justice they deserve, as the law does not support them in any way. We have to change the feeling around sexual assault in a way that supports victims and makes them feel heard. From the Harvard example, we see the prevalence of this and the dire need to change the way society thinks about sexual harassment and the seriousness of it. Although the issue took much longer to be unearthed and discussed, the way that most of Harvard’s
students reacted to the problem shows that change will come if we keep coming together and pushing back.


Works Cited

“38 Harvard Faculty Sign Open Letter Questioning Results of Misconduct Investigations into Prof. John Comaroff.” The Harvard Crimson, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/2/4/comaroff-sanctions-open-letter/.

Brodsky, Alexandra. “Why Did Harvard Faculty Close Ranks to Defend an Alleged Abuser?” Al Jazeera, 18 Feb. 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/2/18/why-did-harvard-facultyclose-ranks-to-defend-an-alleged-abuser.

“Harvard Ignored Sexual Harassment by a Professor for Years, Lawsuit Claims.” NBCNews, NBCUniversal News Group, 10 Feb. 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/harvardignored-sexual-harassment-professor-years-lawsuit-claims-rcna15490.

“Hundreds Rally against Harvard’s Handling Comaroff Sexual Harassment Claims.” The Harvard Crimson, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/2/15/comaroff-allegations-rally/.