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Harvard is getting sued.
More than a year after The Crimson published a detailed account of sexual misconduct allegations against John L. Comaroff, Professor of Anthropology and African and African-American Studies, our university is facing legal consequences for its alleged negligence. Last week, three graduate students filed a lawsuit against Harvard, accusing the University of turning a blind eye on the accusations for years. The plaintiffs — Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava — are charging the University with mishandling numerous Title IX complaints related to his alleged physical and verbal sexual harassment.
The allegations at the center of the lawsuit are stunning, as is the amount of raw, disturbing detail within. The complaint, filed in a Boston Federal Court, features the word “forcibly” eight times, with “grope,” “kiss,” and their conjugated forms breaking double digits. “Threat” and its derivates appear on almost 50 different occasions.
It is not, by any means, a pretty read.
If part of the appeal of Harvard is its exceptional student experience, the lawsuit suggests that experience does not extend to alleged victims.
For survivors, it suggests that our institution doesn’t guarantee basic safety or try to fight for or alongside you when you are harmed under its watch. It’s another powerful reminder of how, too often, we prove too willing to set everything — career paths, ambitions, entire lives — on fire to shelter renowned figures; renowned white men, in particular.
Yet among all the disturbing allegations, amid the descriptions of harassment-themed brunches and retaliatory blacklisting, one detail stands out. High-level Harvard affiliates — including a Title IX Coordinator, a department chair, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Dean for Faculty Affairs and Planning — allegedly encouraged the complainants to talk to the press, not University investigators, if they wanted to see results. In the words of the lawsuit, faculty and administration members alike consistently relayed the same twisted message: “Only a public article” would give Harvard “cover to take action” against Comaroff.
That paradigm is beyond shameful. For one, it forces complainants going through scarring events to publicly reopen their wounds for the press, exposing them to public scrutiny. More egregiously, it subcontracts a crucial university duty to nearby newsrooms — including The Crimson, as noted in the lawsuit.
We closely follow, and certainly respect, the invaluable work done by our peers on the news side of the aisle. They have proved, over the years, their personal tenacity and professional commitment to collegiate journalism. But they are still — we are still — collegiate journalists: full-time, sleep-deprived undergraduates with overdue assignments and limited experience. Our reporters are not professional sexual harassment investigators or mediators. We are not, and we cannot be, a replacement for Title IX or other institutional complaint processes.
And yet, according to one of Harvard’s own Title IX Coordinators, that’s exactly what we’ve become.
The affiliates’ insulting, arguably well-meaning advice proved accurate. Within months of The Crimson’s story on Comaroff, the University placed him on paid administrative leave. Earlier this year, after decades of allegations, Comaroff finally paid a definitive, if temporary, professional price for the accusations levied against him. Talking to the press worked where institutional recourse had repeatedly failed.
That truth should haunt reporters and students alike. The advice given to Comaroff’s accusers underscores the extent to which the University, or at least the people who embody its power, know that complainants will face massive cultural and institutional barriers to being heard. If the lawsuit’s allegations prove true, the University’s reporting system would be exposed as borderline farcical — a courtroom where the judge, in an embarrassing sidebar, encourages plaintiffs to take justice into their own hands or accept defeat.
The rot — the permissiveness, the knowing inability to help — runs deep. Tweaking current guidelines and broken systems won’t fix that. Letting the fox guard the henhouse won’t work. We need, we demand, radical change.
Third-party arbitration for discrimination and sexual harassment complaints offers us the best shot at achieving it. Graduate students, particularly members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers, have championed the measure for years. It is no coincidence that all of the complainants have publicly boosted the union in the aftermath of the complaint.
Graduate students and their union know what Harvard faculty and administrators seemingly don’t: that those who regulate adequate behavior can’t have incentives to look the other way. Even if we ignored the lawsuit and its allegations (we shouldn’t), the public, aggressive faculty response to the incident alone shows the tendency of like to protect like in a dangerous, harmful way. Comaroff reminds us that asking a powerful institution to police itself, particularly when its reputation is at stake, is absurd. Only independent arbitration can change that.
Students experiencing sexual assault face daunting barriers to getting justice. According to the lawsuit, Harvard’s sexual harassment guidelines are failing them, repeatedly, and to some degree knowingly, exacerbating mistrust in the effectiveness of Title IX and institutional resorts and ensuring that more choose, out of a lack of better options, to remain silent. For that, for those who found no justice through official channels that know themselves to be dysfunctional, we are furious. You — faculty, students, and graduate instructors alike — should be, too.
We unambiguously stand with survivors; we support, and will support, their struggle for justice in any way we can. But we cannot be Harvard’s only real sexual harassment recourse; independent, non-Harvard arbitration must fill that void.
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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