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Harvard Cannot Investigate Itself

By Terry L. Karl

In 1983, I filed a formal complaint against Harvard University to ensure that the professor who harassed me would never physically or mentally harm another member of the educational community. I refused to sign any settlement at all until former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky agreed to certain conditions including (but not limited to) the Faculty Council’s development of “procedures appropriate to dealing with abuses of authority involving sexual pressure.”

Almost four decades later, it is evident that the procedures and penalties operative today have not worked—something which I have joined the women who have come forth with accusations of harassment before and after my case in trying to change. But this should not be our task; it is the responsibility of the Harvard administration to acknowledge that the system to prevent harassment and sexual assault is inadequate, and thus actively seek informed and independent outside assistance for remedies.

The gravity of the administration’s failure over decades should not be underestimated. In 1983, I specifically warned that this professor was a “repeater.” I reported that, to my direct knowledge, this professor had already harassed at least two students and one other assistant professor, which two of these women confirmed. I also reported that this professor had retaliated against an undergraduate who had fled his advances; the grade on her senior honors thesis was subsequently changed by a fair outside reviewer.

Still, I could not be more shocked to learn the extent to which this professor’s conduct was permitted to continue over the years. The fact that I was able to rebuild my career should not diminish in any way the distress my parents, students, professors, friends, family and I endured in order to secure the hard-fought safeguards won from Harvard in 1983. Because I did not want any other woman to experience what I had, I reported harassment and fought Harvard’s insufficient response. The protections achieved were supposed to shield potential victims from future harm.

Instead, Harvard’s administration sent a very different signal. The central office established to handle such complaints was dismantled after my departure, and procedures were later put in place that actively discouraged victims. Moreover, the harasser was visibly and effectively enabled. Although finding this professor “wholly responsible” for abuse of power, subsequent administrations at Harvard disregarded his past behavior and further empowered him by promoting him up to the level of vice provost for international affairs and eventually accepting a prize in his honor. It is sickening to me that had successive administrations and many of this professor’s colleagues acted differently, perhaps no other student, staff or untenured professor would have had to experience the acute betrayal of trust represented by sexual harassment at one’s own university.

Today, the current administration claims that it did not know about this behavior. How can this be? Many professors in the Government Department (both in 1983 and today) and countless others throughout the University knew about this well-publicized case, which appeared in the national media at the time. All that had to be done was Google his name. Instead, it fell to students over the years to warn each other not to be left alone with their own professor. Regardless of whether this administration knew or simply should have known about his abuse of power over decades, all students, staff and young faculty have a right to be protected in their own educational community.

On Feb. 27, the day the Chronicle of Higher Education published its article revealing details of my case and multiple new targets of harassment, I emailed University President Drew G. Faust some of the language in my 1983 agreement, reporting the guarantee of his dismissal should a recurrence occur. I subsequently re-sent this same language from my agreement to the Chair of the Government Department, asking her to forward it to the Dean of the Faculty and to President Faust. But to date, I only have received a letter from the president's office, which advised me that my name was given to the Title IX office. I have heard nothing further from the administration or the Title IX office.

Let me be clear: While I applaud the announced decision of the FAS to forward this issue to Title IX and I have always recognized the need to protect the due process of all concerned, the documents I hold are directly relevant to the choice of appropriate sanctions for repeated harassment and the full and fair investigation the University has promised to conduct. But the lack of a timely response to victims, the kicking of responsibility from one office or person to another, and the unclear notion of what constitutes a complaint or what protections exist for victims taking the risk to come forward creates the distinct impression of a policy of deliberate delay, indifference and/or “circling the wagons.” It also creates the false impression that this is an “exceptional case” even though “repeaters” are often the norm and other cases are known to exist at Harvard. Words alone cannot change this.

Thus, as 14 other women have written (without yet receiving any response from the Provost), more timely and appropriate actions must be combined with the specific efforts of the administration if what seems to be decades of harassment are to be changed. If the professor involved is not brought before the Harvard Corporation for dismissal and given other meaningful sanctions, what Harvard professor will ever be meaningfully sanctioned? This is a necessary, clear benchmark and deterrent for future cases. In addition, “make whole” remedies should be offered to all women who suffered from this situation, regardless of their status at the time.

Furthermore, neither the Government Department nor Harvard University itself can or should investigate itself. It is not alone in this respect. No university should claim special status above the corporate world, police departments, Hollywood, or any other major institution with a “climate problem”—as Michigan State’s terrible example has shown. A full and fair investigation of how decades of harassment could occur, even in the context of well-publicized prior notice, requires a fully autonomous and independent investigator or independent commission—with specific expertise in rooting out sexual harassment in employment and education. The recommendations that ensue should then be implemented.

Only these combined actions can begin to transform Harvard’s permissive climate of harassment and sexual assault into an exemplary zero-tolerance model of “best practices,” which ensure equal educational opportunities for all.

Terry L. Karl is a professor of political science at Stanford University. She and at least 17 other women have publicly accused Government professor Jorge I. Dominguez of sexual harassment over three decades.

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