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The Domínguez External Review Must Not Be A Whitewash

In May, the Harvard administration announced an external review into the institutional failures surrounding the case of former Government Professor Jorge I. Domínguez. The case garnered national media attention after 18 women spoke out about being sexually harassed by Domínguez, raising concerns that the University knew about his misconduct and failed to act. As graduate students in the Government department, we welcomed the news of an external review. Rebuilding trust in Harvard’s response to sexual harassment is an urgent task — especially when less than half of all Harvard students (roughly 47 percent) think it is “very” or “extremely” likely that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation into a report of sexual misconduct.

However, since the announcement, several worrying signs have emerged. First, the administration appointed a review committee that is not truly external. The committee chair, Susan Hockfield, held a visiting professorship at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2012 and is on the board of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Another committee member, Kenji Yoshino, spent six years on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, and served as its president in 2016-17. Only one committee member, Vicki J. Magley, is genuinely independent of Harvard. This violates the calls from survivors, graduate students, and the Government department’s Committee on Climate Change, which was set up in the wake of this scandal, for a fully independent investigation. We do not question the expertise and experience of these individuals. But their affiliations undermine the credibility of the review and may deter individuals with important information from coming forward.

Second, we are concerned that the administration is attempting to restrict the scope of the review. University President Lawrence S. Bacow explicitly stated that they are “not asking the committee to review the behavior or decisions of individual members of the Harvard community in regard to the Dominguez matter.” We agree that the focus of the external review should be on institutional failures. But institutions are composed of individuals, and institutional failures cannot be understood without examining individual behavior and decisions. Some may find it uncomfortable to be reminded of their own role in this decades-long case. But as Bacow himself once said: “There are both reassuring truths and unsettling truths, and great universities must embrace them both.”

Despite our concerns over the impartiality and the scope of the review, we still believe it can be successful — as long as the committee is willing to hold itself to a high standard of transparency and thoroughness. So far, the only communication we have received from the committee is that they will visit campus for one day in December. We do not know their mandate, their methodology, or their timeline. This falls far short of the standards set by other institutions, such as a recent independent investigation into sexual misconduct by a professor at Yale that lasted six months and received input from over 100 people.

Worse still, the committee has failed to arrange a meeting with the women who came forward, even when several of them offered to fly to the committee’s preferred location of New York City at their own expense. The committee has offered only two potential dates for the remainder of the calendar year, one of which coincides with the previously scheduled campus visit. If this committee fails to engage with survivors, they will do a disservice to the safety and well-being of our community. We owe it to Terry L. Karl, Suzanna Challen, Nienke Grossman, Yoshiko M. Herrera, Charna Sherman, and many more to demonstrate that their voices have been heard.

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To protect the integrity of the external review, we are calling on the committee to publicly address our concerns by taking the following actions:

First, ensure a basic level of transparency by announcing the mandate, methodology, and timeline of the review. Then, provide details on what measures are being taken to minimize potential conflicts-of-interest given the affiliations of the reviewers. And finally, commit to putting in the time and resources to conduct this review thoroughly, by holding more campus visits, proactively reaching out to individuals who may have been impacted by this case, and publicizing the channels through which individuals can provide input.

The external review will not fix the mistakes of the past, but it will help to build a common understanding that ensures those mistakes are never repeated. To do this, the external review must be transparent, it must be fair, and it must be thorough. We have dedicated countless hours to lobbying the administration for this review. To say that we are deeply invested in its success would be an understatement. But we will not participate in a whitewash. When we confront the failures of the past, the truths we uncover are unlikely to be reassuring — but we must embrace them nonetheless.

Reva Dhingra is a third-year graduate student in Government. Sophie E. Hill is a fourth-year graduate student in Government. Allison H. Myren is a third-year graduate student in Government. They are members of the Government Department Graduate Student Association’s External Review Working Group.

Correction: November 16, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Terry L. Karl's middle initial as "G" instead of "L."

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