If you work in academia you may have heard rumblings in the last few weeks about “the Harvard letter.” It was a shocking scandal that had people all over opining and tweeting and just generally being appalled. If you don’t work in academia, you might not have heard of it. But it was not a good moment for us. Some of the most influential people in their fields made what many saw as some serious mis-steps, and in the process laid bare some of the worst parts of academic culture. We like to think of the ivory tower as a place where we are striving for ideals like justice, equality, and progress, but weeks like the last two remind us that we are just as mired in the muck as anybody else.
Let me give you a quick primer as to what happened.
According to Kim Elesser,
Three graduate students sued Harvard University… over the university’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against anthropology professor John Comaroff. The students claim that Harvard knew that Comaroff had a history of sexual misconduct at his previous university, and they hired him anyway. Harassing professors moving from one university to another has become a problem that academics label “pass the harasser.”
The students’ complaint targets Harvard’s process for investigating their claims of misconduct, as well as the university’s decision to hire Comaroff. The students accuse Harvard of a “failure to protect students from sexual abuse and career-ending retaliation” and say that student complaints against Comaroff, which date back to 2017, were largely ignored. The accusations state that the university’s Title IX office admitted in 2019 “that Harvard had known about Professor Comaroff’s behavior for years.” Last month, Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave for the spring semester for violating the college’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. In a statement on his website, Comaroff denies any harassment or retaliation.
Among the other serious allegations in the 65-page complaint, the students allege that Harvard knew about Comaroff’s predatory behavior when they hired him. “From 1979 to 2012, Professor Comaroff worked at the University of Chicago. Graduate students and faculty there considered Professor Comaroff a ‘predator’ and a ‘groomer.’ At least one of them warned Harvard about Professor Comaroff while the university was considering Professor Comaroff’s candidacy. But Harvard welcomed him anyway,” the complaint alleges. Comaroff’s lawyers say, “Professor Comaroff was never the subject of any Title IX or other complaint at the University of Chicago.”
But Kate Briquelet reports,
Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava—the grad students behind the suit—say Comaroff “kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.” When women did seek help from university officials, the lawsuit adds, Harvard “brushed them aside and opted to protect its star professor over vulnerable students.”
It was the response to this investigation that was so upsetting.
Thirty-eight Harvard professors signed an open letter in support of Comaroff almost as soon as this information became public. Some of these professors are the most respected and well-known in their field. It seemed the institution was rallying around Comaroff.
According to Ryan N. Garajawala, an opinion writer for the Harvard Crimson,
The ensuing faculty revolt proved faster than the University investigation itself. Barely two weeks after Gay announced the sanctions, 38 of the University’s most eminent faculty members penned a letter questioning the process and personally vouching for Comaroff’s character. In doing so, they endorsed an account rooted almost exclusively on a press release authored by Comaroff’s lawyers, one in which he had been cleared of most allegations and punished exclusively for warning a graduate student of the risk of suffering gender-based violence if she traveled to certain parts of Africa as an openly BGLTQ woman. “Perplexed” by their narrow version of events, they expressed “dismay” at the sanctions, “concerned” over the professional criteria that led to the decision.
Suffice to say, our esteemed Harvard academics, professional thinkers, failed to critically engage with the source of this description — the accused’s lawyer! — and its inherent bias. They refused to acknowledge the bizarre racial politics of offering, unprompted, descriptions of sexual violence at the mention of Africa. Crucially, they also failed to fully acknowledge other sources, even while citing them in the letter: They failed to mention a more graphic description of events publicly available in the Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the Chronicle’s reporting, the student alleged Comaroff used the phrase “would be raped” (a detail Comaroff’s lawyers deny and the signers obviate). Comaroff, the student alleges, started musing about scenarios and places where she would suffer sexual violence, and did so in a bizarre tone, “a tone you would use if you were talking about a movie you liked”.
Taken at its best, the letter’s uncritical engagement with limited perspectives, voiced in such decisive and unambiguous terms, was hasty and uninformed. At its worst, we worry that it reflects a terrifying, deep rot: a faculty more concerned with jealously guarding their power, discouraging scrutiny, and protecting their professional buddies, than with the wellbeing and safety of the student body.
The Harvard student body was not the only group dismayed by the actions of these 38 intellectuals. Almost as quickly, there was a second open letter from other faculty condemning that letter.
The outcry across the academic world was loud and swift. In a world that has been shaken by #MeToo haven’t we learned to be sympathetic to accusers? These are people who, in many cases, have made their careers teaching and writing about systems of injustice and oppression, and when put in a real-life scenario, their first impulse was to rally around the man accused of sexual assault and marginalize those who had the audacity to come forward.
But what was perhaps most upsetting was that women across academia were mad, but not surprised. Women from all fields and disciplines shared their dismay, but also their experiences that made this totally believable. Women wrote about abusive advisors and department chairs, and professors along the way who had done everything from made them feel uncomfortable to straight up sexually assaulting them, and how they had either not told anyone for fear of retribution, or how they had told someone and their abuser had been protected by an institution designed to make sure that women and accusers never rose above their place.
In the Harvard drama reports are that one of the accusers went to a therapist, and Harvard got access to that therapist’s notes and turned them over to Comaroff, who in turn used them to gaslight her.
Can you imagine how violated she must have felt? Can you imagine the lengths to which the institution must have gone to protect the abuser at the expense of the accuser?
In the wake of the #MeToo movement there was a lot of talk about how the academy was due for a reckoning. That for all the talk about professors being so liberal and indoctrinating our students and preaching feminist dogma from the front of the classroom the ivory tower is steeped in a particularly odious and even dangerous brand of patriarchy. And it’s often easy to try to point to one branch of the academy – people want to say, “well, yeah, we know women in STEM have problems,” but that’s not it. Not all of it, anyway. The women who have been coming forward with harrowing tales of advisor abuse over the last week have been from all disciplines and fields. Those progressive humanities and social sciences are not immune to blatant, abusive sexism. They are just better at hiding behind their scholarship.
I don’t know that I know any women in academia who don’t have some story of some professor or advisor making them uncomfortable, belittling them, or more heinously, straight up harassing them. For many of us we have learned how to manage this behavior. When a man ignores our ideas or talks down to us, we either have to re-state it in a more plaintive and submissive way or suggest it in such a way that another man will pick up on it and it will get some traction that way. If we’re not “polite” enough we get scolded for being too aggressive or abrasive. If we dress fashionably and hip we’re seen as a target by sexually aggressive men, and if we dress conservatively, we’re ignored by pretty much everybody. There’s not a safe or good way to be.
I remember when I was an undergrad I was taking an American lit course. It was not a good course. Mostly because the professor took his job as a professor at a conservative Christian school very seriously and tried to teach American lit of the 20th century as if all writers were also conservative Christians. He made one of my incredibly embarrassed classmates read “She Being Brand” by e.e. cummings out loud in front of everyone and then demand he explain what it was about. My classmate was mortified and just mumbled he didn’t know. In case you’re wondering, it’s a poem about cars that is VERY obviously a metaphor about awkward sex with an inexperienced woman. When he couldn’t get anybody to talk to him about sex, because we knew it wouldn’t go over well, he threw up his hands and said, “It’s obviously about a marriage proposal!” and proceeded to tell us how the man is asking a woman to get engaged.
Listener, that interpretation makes literally no sense at all. I mean, NONE. I don’t even know how he got to that no matter how hard he stretched. But he was so desperate to NOT admit that sex is part of the literary canon that he just literally made something up.
This professor didn’t like me. He thought I talked too much. And he didn’t always like what I had to say. He actually preferred to hear from the men in the class, which was easy for him, because other than me, it was generally the men in the class who spoke up. The women generally kept to themselves.
All of this took place in Waco, TX. One thing you need to know about Waco is that it is hot. The fall is hot and the spring is hot. There are a few weeks in winter where it is wet enough to convince you it’s not hot, but for the most part, it’s hot and humid all year long. So people dress for the heat. People wear shorts and short sleeves almost all year long.
This particular day I was wearing a tank top. I think it had spaghetti straps, which was very much the style at that point. The point is, my shoulders were bare. I spoke up in class, as was my wont, and this professor walked over to me, and said, “Why don’t we let other people have a chance, to speak, hmm?” and he stood right behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.
He put his hands on my bare shoulders and just stood there. He silenced me by putting his hands on me so he could let the men in the class speak. I turned a terrible shade of red and didn’t speak the rest of the time. How could I dare? He literally had his hands on me. What was I going to do?
I didn’t know at the time how wrong that was. I mean, I knew how awful I felt. I knew how much I disliked him for it, but I had no idea that he had crossed a line other than my personal comfort. Because women aren’t taught that their personal comfort matters. Many of us aren’t even taught that our bodies matter.
So that’s why this thing like the Harvard letter is so significant. These women had the strength to say, hold on, I matter. You can’t treat me this way. You don’t get to abuse me just because. My body is mine. My space is mine. I am just as human as you are. And in some circles, that’s a bold statement for a woman to make. Not everybody is on board with those claims. Sadly, women have to be brave to make those kinds of proclamations.
So when the powerful immediately rally around the person who made it necessary for them to make those claims, who made it clear those were not assumptions, it can be devastating. It is a reminder that not everybody believes those things. It’s not implicit.
And while this is a story of what happened in the world of academia, this narrative is not specific to academic institutions. I mean, that’s what #MeToo was all about.
It’s one thing to not support a woman who claims she has been wronged – it’s quite another to rally around the person she is accusing. But that’s what patriarchy is. It seeks to maintain entrenched power. And the women who are bold enough to challenge that are nothing short of spectacular. Especially because so often they know what they are getting themselves into.
I didn’t challenge that prof who silenced me. I didn’t even know it was an option. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done if I had. But I know 20 years later I’m still mad about it. Imagine what the wounds are like for these women from Harvard. How can we help them heal?
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.