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Anthropology, African and African-American Studies Students Call for ‘Transformative Change’ in Petition to Department Heads

The Tozzer Building on Divinity Avenue houses the Anthropology department.
The Tozzer Building on Divinity Avenue houses the Anthropology department. By Sanjana S. Ramrajvel
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

Anthropology and African and African American Studies students distributed a petition Monday outlining steps toward “radical, truly transformative change” to department structures they say facilitated abuse, beginning with the removal of three faculty accused of sexual misconduct.

The petition to administrators in both departments — along with a letter sent by 39 alumni to Anthropology faculty Sunday — comes in response to an investigation by The Crimson last month, which identified allegations of sexual misconduct against three senior Anthropology faculty, as well as a department culture in Anthropology that put men at an advantage.

One of those faculty, Gary Urton, was placed on administrative leave last week. Twenty-five Anthropology faculty have called on him to resign.

As of Thursday evening, the student petition had garnered 396 signatures from graduate and undergraduate Anthropology and AAAS students, students in other Harvard departments, and academics outside the University.

The petitioners called on the two departments to repair harm through a transformative justice approach, a philosophy that focuses on supporting victims and dismantling structures that facilitated abuse rather than punishing perpetrators.

To begin that process, the students demanded that the three professors accused of sexual misconduct — Urton, Theodore C. Bestor, and John L. Comaroff, who holds a primary appointment in AAAS — be removed from their departments and have their tenure revoked before the fall semester begins. Of the three, the University’s Office for Dispute Resolution has only substantiated that Bestor committed sexual misconduct.

The students wrote that departmental issues identified by The Crimson’s reporting were “horrifying but unsurprising.”

“This is merely the tip of an immense iceberg of suffering and abuse which far surpasses the individuals named in the article, as other accusations emerge,” they wrote.

The students wrote that faculty should acknowledge their complicity in “putting students in harm’s way” by issuing a public apology.

“The Anthropology department has repeatedly refused to engage students’ complaints over the years, operating through private conversations, whispers and half-hearted commitments that were never formalized,” they wrote.

Anthropology chair Ajantha Subramanian and interim chair Rowan K. Flad announced the formation of a standing committee late last month to dismantle long-standing internal structures they said allowed for abuses of power.

The students called for the committee to be “appropriately paid,” be granted decision-making power, and include external members and members from the marginalized groups in the department.

The petitioners also demanded that both departments’ policies allow for anonymous reports, or “public secrets,” to prompt an investigation. They urged that department policies should require interim measures be implemented during an investigation, including removing the accused professor from all student committees and informing all department members of an ongoing investigation.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that many of the students’ demands lie outside the purview of Subramanian, Flad, and AAAS department chair Tommie Shelby. Only the FAS can remove a professor’s appointment in a department, and only the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — can vote to revoke a professor’s tenure upon the recommendation of the school’s dean and the University President.

The FAS, not departments, can implement interim measures under Title IX, though a department can implement “local management measures,” she added.

Responding to the students’ demand that investigations be publicly revealed, Dane wrote that confidentiality is an “important part of a fair investigative process.”

FAS policies already address some of the students’ demands, according to Dane.

Anonymous reporting can prompt an investigation if a Title IX coordinator decides to forward it to the ODR on individuals’ behalf. In order to participate as a witness in the investigation, however, the complainant must identify themself.

In addition, Title IX coordinators already contact all direct advisees of a faculty member who are subject to a complaint and offer them the option to switch advisors. Many students would find a requirement to change advisors or committee members “incredibly disruptive to their studies,” Dane wrote.

In the petition, the students also called on the departments to publicly endorse an independent third party grievance procedure for sexual harassment complaints pushed by Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers in its ongoing contract negotiations with the University.

In their separate letter Sunday, the 39 alumni suggested several steps the department should take to correct “systemic issues” identified by The Crimson’s reporting, some of which they wrote they noticed as students.

“Concerns about faculty diversity, tenure processes, the gendered dynamics of field work, graduate examinations, and student retention have been highlighted by students and other members of the community for years, and we feel now is the time for substantial, structural action,” the alumni wrote.

Like the students, the alumni expressed concern that the new standing committee would be ineffective without financial compensation for members and the inclusion of external, independent observers.

They wrote that the committee should clearly communicate a timeline and scope for investigating the sexual misconduct allegations, and should also examine faculty attitudes characterized by toughness and hostility — which they termed a “bro culture.”

The alumni letter also expressed concern that Harvard hired Comaroff with tenure in 2012 despite “allegedly existing complaints filed against him” at the University of Chicago, his previous place of work.

Comaroff wrote in an email Wednesday that “the claim that I had to answer to Title IX complaints filed at Chicago is simply false.” He added that no charges have been filed against him by Harvard’s ODR, and he has not been “accorded any due process whatsoever.”

In their letter, the alumni also urged Anthropology to make “serious and concrete commitments to faculty diversity, particularly in the archaeology wing and the senior social anthropology faculty.” Currently, three of the department’s 21 tenured faculty are women, none of whom specialize in archaeology.

The alumni also suggested the department improve awareness of the Title IX reporting process for graduate and undergraduate students through handbook changes and training sessions.

“We also suggest the creation of an in-department office staffed by a nonmandatory Title IX reporter for students, staff, or faculty to discuss their options regarding potential harassment,” they wrote.

In response to both the student and alumni petitions, Flad and Subramanian wrote that they are conscious of the urgency to address the department’s “long-standing problems.”

“We will take on board the recommendations made by students and alumni that are within our power to address in the department as we come together to engage in a thoughtful and deliberative process of enacting change,” they wrote.

The chairs “unequivocally” condemned harassment they said has been directed at students who worked with the accused faculty.

Shelby, the AAAS chair, referred to Dane’s comments in response to the student petition.

In closing their petition, the students recommended steps to dismantle “heteropatriarchal cultures” in both departments: hiring diverse faculty, redesigning introductory courses they said held a colonialist perspective, and considering reparations for a history of “harmful research.”

They also urged the departments to “abolish the levers of control which contribute to an unequal academic culture of patronage,” including eliminating the requirement for recommendation letters in applications. The Crimson’s investigation, and subsequent accounts of additional women accusing Urton of sexual misconduct, found that the threat of receiving negative letters of recommendation discouraged some women from reporting alleged harassment.

The students noted that recent movements for Black liberation around the world gave them “courage” to put forth a list of demands they knew may seem “too ambitious to many.”

“We owe it to past students, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to future students,” they wrote. “We demand nothing short of radical, truly transformative change.”

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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