‘A Permissive Culture’: Six Takeaways on Harvard’s Failure to Prevent Decades of Domínguez Harassment

In a 26-page report released by the University on Thursday, an external committee reviewing sexual harassment at Harvard detailed a “permissive culture regarding sexual harassment” at the school. Here are six key takeaways.
By Jasper G. Goodman and Kelsey J. Griffin

Advocates placed posters in the Center for Government and International Studies lobby in 2019 calling for an external review of the circumstances that allowed former Government professor Jorge I. Domínguez to sexually harass women at Harvard for nearly four decades. The results of that external probe were released Thursday.
Advocates placed posters in the Center for Government and International Studies lobby in 2019 calling for an external review of the circumstances that allowed former Government professor Jorge I. Domínguez to sexually harass women at Harvard for nearly four decades. The results of that external probe were released Thursday. By Awnit Singh Marta

On August 2, 1983, Henry Rosovsky, the then-dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, placed a letter in the personnel file of Government professor Jorge I. Domínguez following an investigation that found Domínguez had sexually harassed assistant Government professor Terry L. Karl.

The letter stated that if Domínguez repeated the offense, the FAS should recommend to the Harvard Corporation that Domínguez be fired.

Six years later, after an undergraduate student alleged additional misconduct by Domínguez, the termination recommendation was never made.

Instead, Domínguez was well on his way to rising through the University’s ranks, padding his resume to eventually serve in a slew of prominent leadership positions, including as the vice provost for international affairs.

By 2018, Domínguez had gone on to sexually harass at least 18 women at Harvard — a pattern of behavior that was known among his peers in the Government department, according to an external review into sexual harassment at Harvard published Thursday.

The allegations against Domínguez first surfaced publicly in reports published by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2018. Days after the accusations were reported, Domínguez announced he would retire. In 2019, after an investigation, FAS Dean Claudine Gay stripped him of his emeritus status and barred him from the FAS campus.

In a 26-page report released by the University Thursday, an external committee reviewing sexual harassment at Harvard detailed a “permissive culture regarding sexual harassment” at the school that enabled Domínguez to continue rising through leadership as he sexually harassed female students and colleagues with all but no penalty.

The review, conducted by a committee led by former MIT President Susan Hockfield, included an analysis of confidential files and the Chronicle articles, in addition to interviews with Government department faculty and students, University administrators, faculty and staff members whose work relates to Title IX, and four women harassed by Domínguez.

Here are six key takeaways from the committee’s report.

University Officials Neglected Past Harassment Allegations Made Against Domínguez

In the years following Rosovsky’s 1983 letter, numerous women made similar complaints alleging inappropriate behavior by Domínguez.

Their disclosures of misconduct, however, never triggered the consequences that Rosovsky had laid out.

In 1989, an undergraduate student “disclosed issues concerning Domínguez” to an assistant dean, who communicated the allegations to the Dean of the College and University counsel. By that time, Domínguez held numerous leadership positions, including serving as director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Following the student’s disclosure, no action was taken by the University, despite Rosovsky’s 1983 recommendation that FAS move to terminate Domínguez if further revelations of misconduct came about.

By Crimson News Staff

“This inaction is troubling,” the report says, “as the activity described in the 1989 letter, if true, could have triggered a dismissal recommendation to the Corporation under the terms of the Rosovsky sanctions.”

University officials failed on other occasions to record harassment complaints they received in any official file.

Years later, top University officials were aware of the original 1983 allegations against Domínguez — but not the subsequent 1989 disclosure — when they selected him for higher leadership roles, the report states.

Under FAS Dean William C. Kirby, University President Lawrence H. Summers, and University Provost Steven E. Hyman, Domínguez became chair of the Harvard Academy in 2004 and then the inaugural vice provost for international affairs in 2006.

Administrators considering Domínguez for higher-up positions discussed the 1983 allegations with the leadership of the FAS, the University, and the Government department, but decided that he “had reformed his ways, and that he should not be further punished for past misbehavior,” per the report.

Those administrators told the committee they would not have considered Domínguez for the positions had they known about his continued harassment.

“These individuals expressed profound distress and regret that they had not uncovered evidence of Domínguez’s ongoing harassment,” the report said.

Harvard’s Decentralized Structure Inhibited Knowledge of Disclosures

Though top officials were aware of the 1983 complaints when they selected Domínguez for high-profile roles, the report concluded that administrators could have been uninformed while vetting him for leadership positions because Harvard lacks a centralized repository for personnel files.

Several complaints were recorded in two different locations, making it difficult “for even a well-intentioned reviewer to locate records of past misconduct with confidence,” the report said.

Reports from 2015 accusing Domínguez of misconduct were housed exclusively in files held by the Title IX office, while records from the disclosures in 1983 and 1989 lived only in his faculty personnel file.

“The lack of a centralized repository could have impeded the University’s efforts to vet him for the positions he held,” the report reads.

The decentralization, however, does not leave University officials without blame given that “some individuals made disclosures to University officials that were not recorded in either official personnel file,” the report states.

The report recommends the creation of a “centralized, comprehensive, searchable personnel record,” which Harvard currently lacks. Such a database, the report continues, “would have considerable utility in vetting candidates for leadership roles. It would also allow the University to monitor individuals with past sanctions more effectively.”

Harvard Suffers from a Lack of Communication about Disclosure Procedures and Subsequent University Action

Had Harvard more clearly communicated its processes for reporting sexual harassment and publicized the 1983 sanctions against Domínguez, his subsequent misconduct “might have been reported and addressed sooner,” the report states.

The committee found that since the initial sanctions against Domínguez in 1983, Harvard has developed “thoughtful anonymous procedures” for handling sexual harassment disclosures.

But a lack of clarity about the protections granted to individuals impacted by alleged incidents under the policies has left harassment victims with concerns of “losing control of the process,” dissuading disclosures.

“We repeatedly encountered individuals who feared that they would be named and thereby opened to retaliation,” the report reads.

The committee also spoke to several individuals who stated they were aware of Domínguez’s harassment, but did not report it because they were concerned the University would impose “unduly severe” sanctions.

Harvard currently has two pathways for responding to sexual harassment complaints. Affiliates may either file a disclosure — which allows for anonymity — with the Title IX Office or file a formal complaint — which requires identification — with the Office for Dispute Resolution. Formal complaints may trigger full investigations, whereas disclosures are intended only to “convey information” about an alleged perpetrator.

Harvard’s policies also grant the University discretion to scale its responses to fit the severity of the alleged misconduct and the accused individual’s history.

The committee recommended the University undertake a “widespread educational effort” to inform affiliates how the process for reporting harassment works in order to assuage concerns.

But in the case of Domínguez, the University’s communication troubles extended beyond a lack of procedural clarity.

Adhering to its policy at the time, Harvard kept the 1983 investigation and sanctions against Domínguez confidential. Publicizing these sanctions might have motivated those who witnessed or experienced misconduct to report it and would have ensured the terms of the sanctions were enforced, the external committee posited.

Just two years after Rosovsky barred Domínguez from bearing any administrative responsibilities in the Government department for three years, the department appointed Domínguez as the chair of its Special Appointments Committee, in violation of the sanctions.

“The failure to publicize sanctions led to confusion and consternation across generations about whether Domínguez had been punished at all,” the report reads. “Publicizing the sanctions to the community might have increased the probability of their enforcement.”

The report also argues that increasing transparency around investigations and their results will encourage individuals to report harassment.

“Such transparency enhances the psychological safety of future impacted parties by demonstrating that their reports will be taken seriously, will not entail risk to them, and will result in concrete action,” it reads.

The Government Department Failed to Take Action Against Domínguez

While Domínguez ascended through various administrative and leadership positions, whispers of his misconduct circulated throughout the Government department.

Individuals interviewed by the committee reported “severe” power disparities between senior faculty and other members of the department, including junior faculty, staff, and students.

“In this culture, junior members feared their careers could be derailed or destroyed if they triggered the displeasure of a senior member,” the report reads. “Even in the absence of direct retaliation, students worried about being branded as ‘troublemakers’ by powerful members of the community.”

The imbalance of power kept individuals from coming forward with complaints of misconduct, per the report.

“One individual stated that she was reluctant to bring her harassment complaint about Domínguez to her faculty mentor because that mentor was untenured,” the report reads. “She believed that asking him to take her side (as she believed he would) could jeopardize his career.”

This pattern of inaction extended throughout the department.

Following the 1983 accusations against Domínguez and two other accusations against Government professors within a span of six years, the department did not conduct an internal review to prevent future incidents of sexual harassment.

Rather, senior members of the department reportedly knew of Domínguez’s harassment and made no apparent effort to stop the misconduct.

“A whisper network clearly held knowledge of Domínguez’s misconduct, which suggests that at least some senior faculty had some level of awareness about his behavior,” the report reads. “Nonetheless, no one stepped forward to arrest it.”

One student highlighted in the report said she complained about Domínguez to a FAS harassment counselor, who she said implied he knew of ongoing misconduct.

“The counselor told her that if the student identified the Department, the counselor could guess the faculty member,” the report states.

The committee recommended the University conduct internal reviews of its departments every three years to create accountability within department leadership and to closely examine sexual and gender-based harassment issues.

Harvard Does Not Have a System to Monitor Individuals Accused of Misconduct

Following the 1983 sanctions, the University and the FAS did not monitor or reevaluate Domínguez’s behavior. No such monitoring policies currently exist.

The committee wrote the University does not have a duty to remove all harassers from the school, but suggested Harvard create “scaled processes” to oversee the conduct of employees previously accused of sexual harassment.

“The University has the responsibility to monitor individuals who have been found to have committed misconduct so that any subsequent infraction can be detected and addressed,” the report states.

Under the committee’s proposed monitoring system, the University would notify individuals found guilty of misconduct that their behavior will be watched and that any disclosures against them “will be escalated to top levels of authority.”

University offices that receive complaints would also be able to check the names of individuals facing accusations against a database of offenders. The presence of previous offenses would trigger a formal investigation.

A ‘Permissive Culture Regarding Sexual Harassment’ Helped Enable Years of Misconduct

In some of its most damning conclusions, the report contends that “a culture permissive of sexual and gender-based harassment can be recognized in each part” of its analysis.

The report put blame on cavernous faculty gender imbalances within the Government department for the underreporting of sexual harassment. Just 9 percent of Government faculty were women in 1980, though female representation in the department has since improved to 31.3 percent as of 2019.

The report also found many individuals opted not to report harassment because they “were concerned that the University was being deliberately inattentive to it.”

Top administrators’ failures to adequately consult Domínguez’s personnel files before his appointment to high-level positions could also be “viewed as a symptom” of the permissive culture, the report states.

“Precisely because we acknowledge the scale of the problem, we urge Harvard to mobilize its vast intelligence and ingenuity to solving the problem of sexual harassment not only for itself, but as an example for all institutions of higher education,” the report concludes.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at kelsey.griffin@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

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