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Anthropology Department Committee Formed Following Sexual Harassment Allegations Issues Final Report

The Anthropology department formed a Standing Committee for a Supportive Departmental Community last year following an investigation by The Crimson that revealed three male faculty faced allegations of sexual harassment.
The Anthropology department formed a Standing Committee for a Supportive Departmental Community last year following an investigation by The Crimson that revealed three male faculty faced allegations of sexual harassment. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writer

A committee examining the climate within Harvard’s Anthropology department recommended in a final report this month that the department establish a code of conduct, allow access to third-party arbitration in misconduct investigations, and order an external review when “powerful” figures in the department are accused of sexual misconduct.

The department formed a Standing Committee for a Supportive Departmental Community last year following an investigation by The Crimson that revealed 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 past students said the department’s culture disadvantaged women.

Following The Crimson's reporting, Harvard suspended both Urton and Comaroff, and barred Urton from campus last month. Bestor died this month.

Alongside the release of the committee’s final report on July 1, Anthropology chair Ajantha Subramanian wrote in an email to the department that it constitutes the “beginning of a long and challenging process of cultural change.”

“While the department does not have the authority to investigate and sanction abuse, we are determined to foster an environment where even the most powerful departmental members are held to account for everyday incivilities and sustained abuses, and where those who experience harm feel empowered to speak out and be heard,” Subramanian wrote.

Approximately 50 faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduates, and alumni participated in the committee, organized into eight subcommittees — each tasked with evaluating the department’s strengths and weaknesses in an area. One subcommittee identified problems with University policies and processes related to Title IX, while other subcommittees assessed department diversity, career preparation, advising, curriculum, accountability, and engagement.

Anthropology professor Christina G. Warinner, who chaired the full committee, said in an interview she believes the “enormous amount of work” the committee put in over the last year as “absolutely worth it.” She noted the process to implement recommendations is just beginning.

“Over the course of this past year, we’ve really listened to each other in a way that, I think, maybe hadn't happened in a while,” she said. “I think many of those recommendations are things we can do.”

The committee created departmental diversity and values statements and suggested creating interdisciplinary tracks for students to work with a range of faculty, developing guidelines for professional working relationships, and organizing an annual faculty retreat to discuss goals.

The committee also contributed to the creation of a department-wide climate survey on topics including discrimination, department activities, and career trajectories sent to current department members and alumni. Current and recent department members were invited to participate in the survey, which was administered by external consultant Edith Onderick-Harvey.

Thirty-three percent of graduate students who responded to the survey reported feeling disrespected by faculty other than their primary advisor. Fifty-seven percent of department staff respondents reported feeling disrespected by faculty, and 43 percent reported being disrespected by department leadership.

Some department affiliates involved with the committee raised concerns about how it was run.

Bridget Alex, a Ph.D graduate who served on the subcommittee examining department engagement, said she was concerned the lack of compensation for members of the standing committee impacted its inclusivity. Alex said she and other alumni requested compensation for serving on the committee, but their request was denied.

“We did make several intentional requests that, like, ‘Look if you really want people to help out and be dedicated to this, you need to pay them,’” she said. “We spend our time working on this stuff, while we could be working on other things like academic articles that actually advance our careers instead of meeting in committees and committees to write reports that nobody looks at.”

Warinner wrote in an email that the department shared the request for financial compensation with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences administration and it was denied. College spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the potential for compensation for committee members.

Six Ph.D students and one faculty member resigned from their respective subcommittees before the completion of the report.

Jessica McNeil, one of those Ph.D students, said she resigned because she did not feel the committee could make the rapid changes she felt were necessary.

The goal of the committee — to undertake a long-term evaluation of the existing structures in the department — was “wonderful,” McNeil said, but her desire was to “knock these things down.”

“I simply wasn’t able to participate in a way that was productive or measured, because I was too fueled by this desperation and sort of rage that I wanted to see things changed,” she said. “I didn’t want to negotiate with these structures.”

Paul Clarke, another Ph.D student who resigned, wrote in an email that he left his role because he felt committee members lacked “equal say on how the department would be structured going forward.”

“In February, it became clear that the committee was not as democratic as it was sold to be, and that the [head of the committee] had the power to set the agenda and shape the final result,” he wrote. “They were not open to changing that structure to be more democratic, so I resigned.”

According to Warinner, the final report “directly reflects the voices of the members” of the standing committee.

“Each subcommittee had a flat structure with an administrative chair, and decision making was determined by consensus,” she wrote in an email. “The writing of the report was collaborative, and all members were able to contribute to their subcommittee report, and all standing committee representatives were able to contribute to the overall report.”

Carrie J. Brezine, a Ph.D graduate who served on the subcommittee focused on reviewing institutional resources, said power dynamics, such as those between students and faculty, made collaboration difficult.

“Efforts were made to try to create a level playing field and try to bring everyone in as equals, as collaborators ... and I do believe that the people involved sincerely wanted that to be the case,” Brezine said. “But if you are a student, it is — even when that is the stated premise — it is very difficult to tell a cadre of tenured professors what your actual experience is.”

“That power dynamic doesn’t go away just because someone has stated that, ‘We're all equal collaborators in this system,’” she added.

Warinner wrote in an email that the department will continue its work to address challenges associated with student-faculty relationships. She also wrote that the department is resolute on implementing the final report’s recommendations and is preparing for the next iteration of the standing committee.

“The standing committee will continue its work, and the department is already in the process of preparing for the 2021-2022 standing committee, which will form at the beginning of the fall academic term,” she wrote. “The goal of the 2021-2022 standing committee next year and in future years is to implement the short-term and long-term changes recommended by the standing committee report.”

But Brezine said she is concerned about how the department will implement the report’s recommendations.

“I understand that many of the changes that are being asked for feel threatening — they feel threatening to established faculty, they may feel threatening to people that, in one way or another, have the benefits of many of these structural inequalities,” she said. “But at the same time, that is something that is going to need to change if the community is going to move forward.”

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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