Students and professors at Harvard Law School are demanding the university punish a 77-year-old anthropology professor over allegations of sexual misconduct that Harvard’s own Title IX office has dismissed, according to a July 26 petition from Harvard’s Graduate Student Union.
The petition demands that the law school cancel a class taught by John Comaroff, a renowned anthropologist who has spent the past two years battling allegations that he sexually harassed three graduate students. Harvard’s Office of Dispute Resolution concluded that most of those allegations—including an allegation of sexual assault—were without merit. It found only a minor violation of Title IX, an off-color comment by Comaroff that investigators conceded had “no romantic or sexual intention,” according to Comaroff’s lawyers.
The petition nonetheless accuses Comaroff of sexual “violence” and argues that his presence in the classroom would pose “a serious risk of continued harm.” Its signatories include Harvard Law professor Nikolas Bowie, who sits on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, as well as a dozen law students who’ve worked for public defenders.
“It is shocking that an employee union is calling for a Harvard employee to be summarily punished and cast out of the University community based upon allegations that the University’s process found him not responsible for or that have never been investigated,” one of Comaroff’s lawyers, Ruth O’Meara-Costello, said in a statement on Friday. “And it is shocking that signatories to the union’s petition, including law students and a law professor, would join in this demand to substitute mob justice for due process.”
Both ironies reflect a broader identity crisis within legal nonprofits and labor unions, which have begun to take positions at odds with their core missions. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has challenged efforts to strengthen due process protections in campus Title IX proceedings. And from the New York Times to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, unions at liberal institutions have welcomed the termination of employees who run afoul of progressive shibboleths, as activist organizers replace the old guard.
Harvard’s Graduate Student Union is a microcosm of that process. The three women who accused Comaroff of harassment—Lilia Kilburn, Amulya Mandava, and Margaret Czerwienski—are all active in the union, which has for years lobbied Harvard to take a tougher stand on sexual misconduct. In February, Mandava and Czerwienski were elected as the union’s vice president and sergeant-at-arms, respectively, amid a well-publicized battle with the university over its handling of the Comaroff case.
At least 12 of the law students who’ve joined their cause have worked with groups that promote due process rights for the accused, according to the students’ LinkedIn profiles and personal websites. The petition’s signatories include Christopher Dietz, a former paralegal for the Innocence Project; Dane Underwood, a former law clerk for the Los Angeles Legal Aid Society; Alex Brown, who has clerked for public defenders in four different states; and Sarah Blatt-Herold, who has worked with the Brooklyn Defender Services as well as the “prison abolitionist” group Black and Pink.
Reached for comment, Underwood defended his decision to sign the petition.
“I see no tension between my work in legal services—which supports people caught in systems over which they have little power—and my opposition to the class taught by John Comaroff—a tenured professor at a $53 billion university, who used his position of power to sexually harass students,” Underwood said. Bowie and the other students did not respond to requests for comment.
The Comaroff controversy began in May 2020 when Kilburn, Mandava, and Czerwienski lodged a Title IX complaint against the 77-year-old anthropologist. The complaint contained a litany of lurid allegations: that Comaroff had kissed and touched Kilburn without her consent; that he’d fantasized aloud about her being raped; and that he retaliated against Mandava and Czerwienski for attempting to bring his conduct to light.
Harvard investigators determined that Comaroff never touched Kilburn inappropriately, but had warned her against traveling to Cameroon with her same-sex partner—because, he said, gay people in the country are often targeted for “corrective rape,” a practice that has been documented extensively by human rights groups and the U.S. government.
The school also found that Comaroff, who grew up in South Africa and studies African society, violated Title IX by conveying that warning in an inappropriate tone, and that some of his comments to Mandava violated the school’s guidelines for “professional conduct.” It did not find that he retaliated against any of the women. Harvard placed Comaroff on leave in January for the Spring 2022 semester and barred him from teaching required courses for at least a year.
But those sanctions didn’t satisfy Comaroff’s accusers, who in February filed a lawsuit alleging that Harvard had “ignored” their harassment. They also made new accusations against him on the basis of “information and belief”—legalese for second-hand information that the plaintiff can’t verify.
The new accusations have “have not been proved or even investigated,” O’Meara-Costello’s statement said, “and their credibility is extremely doubtful.” That didn’t stop the petition from treating them as fact, asserting that “the public evidence in Comaroff’s case warrants further steps toward harm reduction.”
The first step, the signatories say, is “an open acknowledgment” that Comaroff’s “multiple acts of sex-based discrimination” went “unchecked for years.” They also call on Harvard to “de-list” Comaroff’s Fall elective, “the Anthropology of Law,” and hint that he should have his tenure revoked.
“Tenure exists to protect the academic freedom of scholars to cultivate a rich and vibrant academic community,” the petition reads, “not to protect the freedom of tenured individuals to erode the very conditions of mutual respect and safety required for such a community to exist.”
The signatories demand that Harvard make public its policies on revoking tenure, a punishment they say may be necessary to “stop discrimination.”
Comaroff’s lawyers say the petition bodes ill for the university.
“Everyone who works, studies, and teaches at Harvard, including the signatories to this petition,” O’Meara-Costello’s statement said, “should be gravely concerned by the idea that untested accusations should lead, without investigation, to serious adverse actions like those demanded in this petition.”
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