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You Can’t Retract The Damage of The Comaroff Letter

By Hana M. Kiros, Crimson Opinion Writer
Hana M. Kiros ’22, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is an Integrative Biology Concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Harvard Everywhere,” runs on alternating Mondays.

“We the undersigned know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor, and committed university citizen.”

It's rare for Harvard faculty members to assemble, like academic Avengers, to issue a proclamation. But last week, 38 chose to: releasing a letter declaring, in no uncertain terms, their support for their colleague.

The professors were “perplexed” by why sanctions resulted from the Title IX complaints of Lilia M. Kilburn — a Harvard graduate student who said in the Chronicle of Higher Education that Comaroff groped, kissed, and harassed her. They were “dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions,” which temporarily restricts Comaroff’s teaching and advising. And they took care to note that Comaroff has, “for five decades trained and advised hundreds of Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds.”

Why couldn’t Kilburn shut up and be like them.

Less than 36 hours after graduate students filed a federal lawsuit claiming Harvard ignored sexual misconduct allegations against Comaroff for decades, 34 of the star-studded faculty who painted Comaroff as the victim frantically shifted into reverse, issuing a retraction. Our slow-moving university grew legs.

I read the lawsuit with a sick feeling in my stomach, wondering when exactly professors I’ve taken and admired chose to retract. Maybe when it describes how, at an annual brunch, Comaroff allegedly cornered Kilburn and forcefully kissed her on the mouth for the second time that year, grinning as she pushed him away. Or when Kilburn alleges, with witness testimony, Comaroff groped her at a department forum. Maybe when graduate students Margaret G. Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava alleged that, because they reported his groping, Comaroff warned they’d have “trouble getting jobs.”

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay curtly explained why faculty should have refrained from uplifting Comaroff. “If you have not reviewed the full findings of an investigation,” it is hard “to assess the proportionality of the response.” Still they quickly embraced Comaroff’s lawyers’ account.

I don’t buy that so many faculty acted out of mere ignorance, unable to fathom that the University possessed knowledge they did not.

The professors that signed the letter — which included 20 percent of Harvard’s University Professors, the highest title the University can bestow upon faculty — acted fratty.

In choosing to highlight how respected of a scholar Comaroff is, they conveniently forget that many infamous perpetrators of sexual misconduct — Weinstein, Cosby — were emboldened precisely because their cup overflowed with talent, granting them the power to silence their victims.

The power imbalance between Comaroff and his advisees is obvious to anyone who has relied upon a teacher's endorsement. In academia, professors hold the keys to the kingdom. Tenure immortalizes. A graduate student on the receiving end of a lukewarm recommendation letter might as well bid academia farewell.

When consequences finally found Comaroff, he called in the cavalry — towering figures like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jamaica Kincaid — convincing them that he, not the complainants, was the real victim. And they came. Power quickly chose power.

Katherine M. Enright ’22-’23 has taken two Anthropology courses in which Kilburn was a teaching fellow, including her ethnographic methods tutorial, a requirement for Social Anthropology concentrators.

“In many ways, she was part of the introduction to the Anthropology department,” Enright said of Kilburn. “She was just an incredible instructor.”

To realize Kilburn was “contributing so much to the Anthropology department” while “facing so much harassment within the department was something very painful.”

For Enright and many others, it's been a tough week. Reading the lawsuit and the allegations was “angering, saddening, enraging to the point of distress and distraction.” It became difficult for her to do schoolwork and engage in classes.

Professor Jean Comaroff, Comaroff’s wife, is portrayed as an enabler of his abuse in the suit. “I know people who are in her class and just find that a very difficult dynamic to deal with.”

Enright is still waiting on a real apology, which I agree a retraction isn’t.

Enright plans on attending a walkout Monday to show support for Comaroff’s accusers. William M. Sutton ’23, an organizer with Our Harvard Can Do Better, is helping coordinate it.

“There’s an opportunity to shake Harvard awake here.” His group, alongside HGSU's Feminist Working Group, is concerned by how professors “closing rank” against a Title IX reporter could discourage others from reporting, damaging an already broken reporting system.

Sutton is not alone. In her response to the faculty letter, Gay wrote that we, “perhaps especially the tenured faculty,” should ask what the letter signals, “particularly to those making that difficult choice of whether or not to come forward.”

One-third of undergraduate women surveyed at Harvard in 2019 said they had experienced some form of nonconsensual sexual contact. National numbers look similar. Very, very few report it.

Now, students have something new to fear when they consider approaching the Title IX Office: that professors they admire could lock arms, rush to aid their colleagues and, inextricably, undercut their claims. That scares me. I’m sure it scares others.

Seventy-three faculty signed a letter renouncing the first one. Thirty-five of the 38 original signers attempted, almost immediately, to put the words back in their mouths.

Still, for the rest of their education at Harvard, Kilburn, Czerwienski, and Mandava will live in a house of mirrors — surrounded, at every turn, by high-powered professors who rebuked them.

Hana M. Kiros ’22, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is an Integrative Biology Concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Harvard Everywhere,” runs on alternating Mondays.

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