Anthropology Dept. Forms Eight Committees in Response to Harassment and Gender Bias Concerns
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Harvard’s Anthropology department has formed eight subcommittees — alongside hiring an external consultant and launching faculty outreach efforts — in order to address longstanding climate issues that surfaced this summer.
An investigation by The Crimson published in May revealed that three male faculty — former department chairs Theodore C. Bestor and Gary Urton and professor John L. Comaroff — faced allegations of sexual harassment, and that dozens of current and former students felt the department's culture placed women at a disadvantage.
In the ensuing months, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay placed both Urton and Comaroff on paid administrative leave pending investigations; Urton retired in August. In an early December interview, Gay declined to comment on the progress of the investigations or whether they are ongoing.
Three days after The Crimson’s story, the department announced the establishment of a standing committee in late May to “work to dismantle” structures that contributed to “an environment in which abuses continue to manifest and go undetected.” Alumni and current students also petitioned the department to make significant changes to improve its culture.
Anthropology chair Ajantha Subramanian wrote in an email Sunday that the committee’s work is progressing despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with a goal of releasing recommendations by the end of the academic year.
“While this effort was precipitated by allegations of misconduct, it is intended as much more than a reparative exercise,” she wrote. “Our self-study is a longitudinal analysis of key aspects of departmental culture and practice from admissions and hiring to curriculum reform, advising, community building, and professionalization.”
“We would recommend that every academic unit at Harvard take on a self-study of this kind,” she added.
Professor Christina G. Warinner, who is heading the full standing committee, said the committee members — which include 28 faculty, department staff, undergraduates, graduate students, museum staff, and alumni — spent a long time developing the committee’s structure to make sure people would feel safe reporting issues and confident those concerns would be addressed.
“Hearing directly from each other, from different people who are in different positions, is critical to identifying and solving problems, improving communication, and basically strengthening our community,” Warinner said. “So this was really important to have broad participation, and I’ve been so pleased with how many people have come forward and been willing to share and participate.”
Subramanian and Warinner both said their faculty colleagues have been receptive to the reforms and committee work.
The eight subcommittees each focus on a different domain identified as a need by the full committee, such as department diversity, advising, professional development, and accountability. They will each meet twice a month during the spring semester, beginning by collecting feedback through outreach and ultimately developing subcommittee reports that the full committee will integrate into its final recommendations.
Anthropology concentrator Madeline C. Heilbrun ’22, who is serving on the professional trajectories subcommittee, wrote in an email that she’s confident the standing committee will be able to effect “meaningful change.”
“Our efforts are not simply checking the box of responding to the allegations, rather we are diving deep into the issues and having difficult conversations in a supportive, open environment,” she wrote.
Still, some students said they feel the committee’s efforts are not expansive enough.
Ph.D. student Aurora F. Allshouse said the committee is doing its best but failing to address less overt forms of faculty misbehavior — including emotional abuse, bullying, racism, and misogyny — which she said still take place in the department.
“There is no oversight unless it reaches violence, there is no oversight just for the day-to-day bullying or harassment and stuff like that,” she said.
She and fellow Ph.D. student Melina Seabrook — who both serve on subcommittees — said they were explicitly told the standing committee could not address certain behaviors unless they crossed a certain line of severity. Allshouse and Seabrook said they worry that if faculty are allowed to get away with microaggressions and other less serious misbehavior, it will escalate into serious abuse such as sexual harassment.
“That’s how it starts — if he knows he can get away with, like, insulting and belittling and making small gendered comments to you, he knows he can get away with more,” Allshouse said.
Seabrook added that students are grateful for Warinner’s work on the committee and wish even more faculty would take up the cause.
“Tina has done such incredible work since she’s gotten here, but it is almost embarrassing that it is taking a young, untenured woman to come into this department and try and enact the change that should have been done 20 years ago,” Seabrook said.
Subramanian declined to respond directly to Allshouse and Seabrook’s statements, but wrote that it will take time for the committee to rebuild trust and empower vulnerable members of the department to speak out.
“The past nine months have revealed power dynamics and fault lines that are not limited to relations between faculty and students,” she wrote. “Understanding and addressing these dynamics takes time and we are working hard to do so while ensuring that we are continuing the critical teaching and advising work of an academic department.”
Beyond the standing committee, the department also hired a crisis management consultant, Edith Onderick-Harvey, to help organize the standing committee and assist with communications. Onderick-Harvey declined to comment for this story.
Anthropology has also been active in FAS’s cross-disciplinary cluster hire of three to four faculty specializing in ethnic studies, hosting two anthropologists to speak at virtual events in November as part of the search.
Separately, both the department's social anthropology and archaeology wings have organized speaker series to bring in outside scholars' perspectives. The archaeology faculty also created an informal career development seminar series and a Slack workspace for camaraderie.
In the spring, the department will host bystander, Title IX, and field research ethics training workshops and look to improve its advising, according to Subramanian.
Warinner, the standing committee chair, said she recognized the urgency of addressing many of the department’s issues, but noted the importance of spending time to find solutions which will endure.
“I know a lot of us wish we could move faster, but I think that in order to do our work well, we also need to take the time to really reach out, to listen, and to speak to a lot of people,” she said. “So that’s what we are taking the time to do.”
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.
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