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On the Unnecessary Comaroff Letter

By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Another day, another snowstorm, another Harvard sexual misconduct scandal. Except this time around, the accused — John L. Comaroff, Professor of Anthropology and African and African-American Studies — has found himself surrounded by unlikely allies, prominent faculty members hailing from across Harvard schools. A diverse group of Pulitzer Prize winners, New Yorker staff writers, and public intellectuals who chose to close ranks.

Comaroff had been on paid administrative leave since August 2020, following disturbing allegations that he had harassed several university students. This January, over a year and a half after the news of the allegations broke, Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, and barred from teaching required courses or taking on new advisees in the upcoming academic year.

The ensuing faculty revolt proved faster than the University investigation itself. Barely two weeks after Gay announced the sanctions, 38 of the University’s most eminent faculty members penned a letter questioning the process and personally vouching for Comaroff’s character. In doing so, they endorsed an account rooted almost exclusively on a press release authored by Comaroff’s lawyers, one in which he had been cleared of most allegations and punished exclusively for warning a graduate student of the risk of suffering gender-based violence if she traveled to certain parts of Africa as an openly BGLTQ woman. “Perplexed” by their narrow version of events, they expressed “dismay” at the sanctions, “concerned” over the professional criteria that led to the decision.

Suffice to say, our esteemed Harvard academics, professional thinkers, failed to critically engage with the source of this description — the accused’s lawyer! — and its inherent bias. They refused to acknowledge the bizarre racial politics of offering, unprompted, descriptions of sexual violence at the mention of Africa. Crucially, they also failed to fully acknowledge other sources, even while citing them in the letter: They failed to mention a more graphic description of events publicly available in the Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the Chronicle’s reporting, the student alleged Comaroff used the phrase “would be raped” (a detail Comaroff’s lawyers deny and the signers obviate). Comaroff, the student alleges, started musing about scenarios and places where she would suffer sexual violence, and did so in a bizarre tone, “a tone you would use if you were talking about a movie you liked”.

Taken at its best, the letter’s uncritical engagement with limited perspectives, voiced in such decisive and unambiguous terms, was hasty and uninformed. At its worst, we worry that it reflects a terrifying, deep rot: a faculty more concerned with jealously guarding their power, discouraging scrutiny, and protecting their professional buddies, than with the wellbeing and safety of the student body.

Academia, on this campus and beyond, has no shortage of problems when it comes to pupil-professor dynamics. Huge age disparities, overemphasized credentials, and institutional clout create power differentials between students and their instructors. The so-called “star system,” which gives a handful of eminences the power to make or break careers, entrenches this asymmetry, impelling the ambitious to find and curry favor with the powerful. Female students in male-dominated departments stand to suffer most from this dependency, forced to contend with anything from exclusion by the old boys’ club to real, physical danger.

The well-documented, informal norms that lead American police officers to shield their colleagues from accountability have been dubbed a “blue wall of silence.” As we look at this ill-informed open letter, signed by 38 tenured faculty members, among them some of Harvard’s brightest stars, it is impossible for us not to worry that this power asymmetry continues because members of our faculty have erected their own wall of silence within our Cambridge campus.

In the long shadow of that wall, it can only grow harder for victims to come forward with their stories. Shielded from transparency or accountability, faculty-student power imbalances will continue to cause concrete harm.

We thus reaffirm our belief (rooted in a different, also disturbingly mishandled, set of accusations) that sexual misconduct should be grounds for revoking tenure. Though this open letter was an exceedingly poor way to raise doubts, we encourage the University to better educate faculty on Title IX policies and clarify any ambiguities that may remain. It does not escape us, however, that faculty entrusted to mentor and advise students should be able to tell the difference between what is and isn’t appropriate in their relationship with advisees.

By openly expressing support for Comaroff, 38 of our best-known affiliates failed their basic duty to take proper care of the students they are entrusted with. In a letter premature and distant from every source but Comaroff’s lawyer, the 38 signed away their credibility, indicating an unforgivable lack of judgment when handling sensitive, painful accusations. In one stroke, they sanitized and disseminated a challenged version linked to the accused, and diminished their credibility so as to make any future missive featuring their names less powerful.

Now — amid a fresh lawsuit filed with unsettling details, and a second letter, critical of the first — all but three of the 38 faculty members have issued a public retraction. Yet the rash signatories will have to live with the reality that, when push came to shove, with the most limited, slanted information, they sided with their colleague over his accusers. A quick retraction will not change that.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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