Ds Scholarship

Faculty Letters Support a Professor While Drawing Condemnation From Others

In an open letter published last week, a group of Harvard University professors condemned the university’s process for investigating a faculty member who was sanctioned for misconduct — a move that some members of the Harvard community will discourage vulnerable people from coming forward with complaints.

The professors’ letter, which was first reported by The Harvard Crimson, was signed by 38 scholars, including some of the most famous in the country: Paul Farmer, Henry Louis Gates, Jill Lepore, and Jamaica Kincaid among them. The letter questioned Harvard’s decision to sanction John Comaroff, an anthropology and African and African American studies professor, who was placed on unpaid leave for the spring semester, along with other sanctions, after the university said he violated its sexual-harassment and professional-conduct policies. The letter also attested to his reputation as “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen.”

“As concerned faculty we seek clarification of Harvard’s professional criteria for us as advisors,” they wrote. “We are dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students.”

Comaroff was investigated by Harvard’s Title IX office in 2020, and then by its Office for Dispute Resolution. A dean announced his sanctions in January.

The Chronicle wrote in 2020 about some of the claims that spurred the Title IX investigation. In their letter, the Harvard professors focused on one incident, in which a Harvard graduate student said Comaroff, her adviser, told her she would be raped or if she traveled to certain places. The conversation and the professor’s tone made the student deeply uncomfortable, according to her complaint with Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution. She alleged that Comaroff had kissed her on the mouth in a previous meeting, when she was a prospective student. Two people confirmed with The Chronicle that she told them about the alleged kiss. Through his lawyers, Comaroff denied kissing her.

Comaroff’s lawyers wrote in a press release after Comaroff was sanctioned that Harvard found that the “evidence did not support” accusations of “unwanted sexual contact.” The lawyers wrote that Comaroff was found responsible for “verbal sexual harassment arising from a brief conversation during an office-hour advising session.” They wrote that “he maintains that it was not only his right, but his moral duty, to so advise her, because her proposed plans were objectively dangerously dangerous to her.”

In their letter, the professors wrote that they would also ethically feel compelled advice to any student offer the same research in a country with similarions.” They wondered how such advice could be construed as sexual harassment.

A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment or provide more information about the investigation.

It’s not clear for what, exactly, Comaroff was sanctioned, but Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s liberal-arts college, wrote in a response to the professors’ letter that this particular incident was not the conduct that motivated Harvard’s response.

Gay alert the scholars against relying on a one-sided account of the university’s investigation and asked them to question the effect their letter could have on students who came forward with claims of misconduct.

“Sometimes it is the case that some of the claims wrote in a complaint implicate policies outside of the Title IX policy and process, and require further review, particularly when the issues concern the well-being of the community,” Gay. “That was the case in this instance.”

More than 50 professors from colleges and universities around the world joined the Harvard faculty members in questioning Harvard’s treatment of Comaroff. In another letter published in The Chronicle last week, they took issue with Harvard’s second investigation. They wrote that the investigator was allowed to “scour the record from the Title IX procedure, seeking evidence of ‘unprofessional conduct,’ one of those charges sufficiently vague to be applied nearly at will.”

The signers of the letter published in The Chronicle wrote that they “consider Harvard’s second procedure a Kangaroo court, indeed a show trial designed to allow Harvard to save face at the expense of one of its own, finest, faculty members.” Comaroff’s lawyers also called the second process a “kangaroo court.”

In her response letter to the Harvard scholars who questioned the university’s sanctions against Comaroff, Gay wrote that behind every Title IX case are people who made the choice to file a complaint.

“We should ask ourselves — perhaps especially the tenured faculty — what signal our reactions to the outcomes of these processes may send to our community,” Gay wrote. “Particularly to those making that difficult choice of whether or not to come forward.”

Two of the Harvard faculty members who authored the letter, Ingrid Monson and Kay Kaufman Shelemay, both professors of music and African and African American studies, said they were taken aback by that part of Gay’s response.

“We are not in any way anti-student,” they wrote in an email The Chronicle. “We are for a fair process for both accusers and accused.”

In a follow-up statement on Monday, Monson and Shelemay said that they are concerned that their letter has been “read as an attempt to discourage students from filing Title IX complaints.” That was not the intention, they said.

“We are, of course, in no position to pass judgment on the sanctions without having access to the appropriate facts,” they wrote. “And that has not been our purpose. The goal of our letter was to advocate for the improvement of processes guaranteeing the integrity and fairness of Title IX investigations for students and faculty, whether they be accusingrs or accused.”

Other Harvard professors read their colleagues’ letter with dismay. Alison Frank Johnson, a history professor, said she was shocked that her colleagues would sign a letter without knowing everything about the investigation. She worried about the repercussions for complainants and people considering coming forward.

“We work in a hierarchical environment where two people who don’t have any power or control over one another might find one another collegial and nonthreatening,” Frank Johnson said. “It doesn’t make sense to assume that those faculty are collegial and nonthreatening to everyone else.”

She added that she’s received text messages from students who are distraught.

“A message that I think is crystal clear is somehow not sinking in about what a safe and equitable university looks like for all its members,” Frank Johnson said. She noted that Title IX does not cover all forms of inappropriate behavior, so it was not a surprise that the university might investigate other claims.

Faculty members like Frank Johnson felt they had to speak out against their colleagues’ letter. They circulated another letter Monday noting that Comaroff has a powerful network of supporters. This raises the question, they said, of why “students would go public with their complaints against him and willingly subject themselves to protracted, grueling, and potentially career-ending investigations.”

Koby Ljunggren, a biophysics graduate student and president of Harvard’s Graduate Student Union and whose pronouns are they and them, said that when they first saw the names of the people on the letter, they reserved judgment.

“I trust a lot of these people,” they said.

But the text of the letter felt like a betrayal to Ljunggren. They agreed with the professors that the Title IX process is often too opaque. The graduate-student union has advocated for a more transparent process.

But in championing Comaroff’s role as a colleague, advisor, and university citizen, Ljunggren said, the professors’ letter went beyond procedural issues.

“We, the public, don’t know the facts of the case that went into this decision,” they said. Ljunggren said Harvard generally has a high bar for sanctioning professors, so the fact that there was a finding in this instance “means there has to be something big and substantial behind that.”

Ljunggren saw a disconnect between noting how little is publicly known about the process and supporting one of the people involved.

“Dean Gay said it well,” they said. “This is going to have implications for anyone who wants to step forward in the future.”

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