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Letters

Letter to the Editor: My Own Experience of Inequity and Progress in Harvard’s Anthropology Department

By Smita Lahiri
Smita Lahiri is a former Anthropology professor at Harvard; she is currently a lecturer in Anthropology and International Affairs at the University of New Hampshire.

To the Editor:

Soon after I was hired by the Harvard Anthropology department in 2002, a tenured woman filled me in on the implicit expectations that were conveyed to her when she had stood in my shoes: perform brilliantly, prove your commitment with costly personal sacrifices, and you might get to stick around. Oh, and be a “dutiful daughter” to the institution: pick up the slack on department “housework” from entitled male colleagues as you gracefully manage their egos, and, possibly, their fumbling advances.

While reading The Crimson’s article on the Anthropology department (May 29), I heard that bitingly trenchant voice again in my mind’s ear. It was clear as day to me then, as it is now, that Professor Mary Steedly had no wish to recruit another “dutiful daughter.” As The Crimson reports, her use of the phrase was referenced in a 2015 lawsuit as an instance of a toxic department culture that enabled routine misogyny and ignored sexual harassment. But when Professor Steedly mentioned the phrase to me, it was to label the pernicious departmental culture she had survived — and it served to raise my defenses against a waning but hardly eradicated mindset.

All allegations of sexual harassment and abuse within the Anthropology department must be fully addressed without delay. But if the potentially transformative measures currently being eyed go forth, as I hope they will, they won’t be solely the outcome of such accusations, or even of new and dynamic departmental leadership. Decades-long efforts to shift institutional culture will deserve as much credit, including fleeting moments like the one described above.

As a junior faculty woman who was structurally vulnerable in the very ways detailed by the article, my first-hand experience of institutional transition adds an important layer to his account. (The reporter and I had planned to speak before his article appeared, but we ran into bad timing and circumstances on my end.) During the 2000s, I watched the tide turn towards gender justice in the Anthropology department and beyond. Like all institutional change, the process unfolded in fits and starts, not just within the department but in tandem with other units and levels of University administration.

This kind of progress is rarely linear. Back in 2007 the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs considered and eventually approved my request to spend research travel funds on childcare — the first time it had done so, I was told. (If this were to become standard practice, it would be a boon for women in disciplines that entail extended fieldwork.) Yet even as the Center eased the way for me to launch new research with my family in tow, its previous director, Jorge I. Dominguez, was apparently engaging in serial acts of sexual harassment, for which he was eventually sanctioned by the University.

By the time I left Harvard in 2011, largely for reasons unrelated to the matters at hand, several forms of implicit biases and barriers to women’s success were widely acknowledged. Clearly, abuses did not cease. But dissent, generational turnover, and leadership at several levels of the institution were forcing the renegotiation of norms and expectations affecting female Ph.D. students and junior faculty. Much of this was due to the University-wide efforts, formal as well as informal, of senior women like Professor Steedly, who had achieved promotion after running the gauntlet of rampant sexism and were determined to dismantle it. Male allies — yes, including some who later faced allegations — made positive contributions as well. It’s complicated.

I hope Harvard will hasten and support the Anthropology department’s current efforts to address gender inequity through new hires and support systems. The fact that Harvard, for better or worse, remains the cynosure of eyes across higher education only raises the stakes. I am keenly aware that resource-poor public universities like my current home institution probably won’t be in a position to follow suit. Still, Harvard’s actions either way will exert influence.

Smita Lahiri is a former Anthropology professor at Harvard; she is currently a lecturer in Anthropology and International Affairs at the University of New Hampshire.

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