Nearly all of the 38 Harvard professors who signed an open letter defending the character of a colleague who has been accused of sexual harassing students reversed themselves on Wednesday, issuing a new letter titled, “We Retract.”
In the second letter, the professors wrote that they were “lacking full information about the case” when they signed their original letter in which they questioned the university’s investigation into the conduct of an anthropology professor, John Comaroff, and extolled him as “an excellent colleague, adviser and committed university citizen.”
“We read with horror additional details of what the students went through, and we talked with one another and wished to retract,” Ingrid Monson, a professor of African American music, said.
The retraction letter circulated after three female graduate students on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boston that accused Harvard of ignoring claims that Dr. Comaroff had sexually harassed students for years, and of allowing him to intimidate students by threatening their academic careers if they reported him.
One of the students, Lilia Kilburn, said that Dr. Comaroff had kissed her on the mouth during a campus visit.
After she made a point of using female pronouns to describe her partner, to deflect unwanted attention, she said that he told her that she could be subjected to “corrective rape,” or even killed, if she was seen in a lesbian relationship in certain parts of Africa. The rape comments that Ms. Kilburn says he made are a centerpiece of the lawsuit.
Lawyers for Dr. Comaroff have disputed the accusations, saying he “categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.”
In a statement, the lawyers said that Dr. Comaroff didn’t kiss or touch Ms. Kilburn inappropriately and that his comments about rape were advice about staying safe while traveling with her same-sex partner in Cameroon, which criminalizes homosexuality.
Harvard found that Dr. Comaroff had engaged in verbal conduct that violated policies on sexual and gender-based harassment and professional conduct. But he was not found responsible for unwanted sexual contact.
He was placed on administrative leave for at least the spring semester and barred from teaching required courses through at least the next academic year.
In the initial open letter, which was signed by 38 professors and published on Friday in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, the professors said that Dr. Comaroff’s discussion of rape was a legitimate warning about conditions in the areas where Ms. Kilburn would be doing her field work.
It said the signers were “perplexed” by her objects because they “would also feel ethically compelled to offer the same advice.”
They also took issue with Harvard’s decision to conduct two investigations into Dr. Comaroff’s conduct. “As faculty members,” the letter read, “we must know the rules and procedures to which we are subject.”
That letter was signed by some of the most prominent members of the faculty, including Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist; Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research; Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar, and Jill Lepore, a historian.
On Monday night, as the lawsuit was about to be filed, 50 or so other Harvard scholars issued their own open letter criticizing Dr. Comaroff’s defenders for being too quick to accept the facts as presented by his lawyers.
“As evident from the letters written in his support, Professor Comaroff is a scholar with a powerful network of friends and colleagues” who could discourage other students from coming forward, that letter stated.
By Wednesday, at least 34 professors who had signed the initial letter, including Drs. Farmer, Gates, Greenblatt and Lepore, had signed the second letter renouncing its sentiments.
“Our concerns were transparency, process and university procedures, which go beyond the merits of any individual case,” the second letter said.
“We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case,” the professors wrote. “We are committed to all students experiencing Harvard as a safe and equitable institution for teaching and learning.”