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Comaroff Shows That At Harvard, Ethics Take a Backseat to ‘Brilliance’

By Annabelle J.L. Finlayson, Crimson Opinion Writer

A new year, a new professor’s abuses exposed. In my freshman year, we were collectively horrified by the news of Government professor Jorge I. Dominguez’s sexual offenses. My sophomore year, our horror turned to Economics professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. And now, in my senior year, we’re talking about Anthropology professor John L. Comaroff.

Amid ongoing abuses, students have taken these professors’ classes and been assigned their readings. From these recent cases alone, it is abundantly clear that when it comes to faculty who have committed sexual offenses, Harvard’s hiring and disciplinary practices have forced students to face unfair, harmful, and frustrating choices.

Do we submit ourselves to inherently power-imbalanced relationships with those who have a history of emotionally or physically abusing people that look like us? Should we enter a class where we might expect to be discriminated against? Which of our professors are currently harming students and are just a Crimson article away from being exposed? Whom should we avoid being alone with in office hours? What do we lose when we are forced to give up a powerful connection or a prestigious letter of recommendation? Do our identities preclude us from the possibility of meaningful relationships with some professors altogether?

As students, we shouldn’t be forced to decide between our academic and career aspirations and our safety. Even if a professor never harms us directly, it is psychologically traumatizing to face — let alone be immediately subordinate to — someone who has a history of objectifying, sexually assaulting, or discriminating against people like us.

Perhaps equally as insidious as a handful of discriminatory and abusive professors is the apparent widespread tolerance of perpetrators, both new and old, at the College. The 38 faculty members who signed a letter disputing Comaroff’s forced unpaid leave effectively discredited the women brave enough to speak up.

These 38 professors claimed to be concerned about the effects of the Comaroff decision on their “ability to advise [their] own students.” This would be hilariously ironic if it wasn’t such a disturbing betrayal. If these professors were so worried about being good mentors and advisors, they wouldn’t undermine students who have been victimized.

To those professors: I, too, am worried about your ability to advise your own students.

The open letter disputing Comaroff’s unpaid leave praises his great influence while expressing “dismay” at his punishment. This argument on Comaroff’s behalf aligns with the University’s priorities all too well. Harvard’s slap-on-the-wrist responses to abuses of power demonstrate that for the University, ethics often take a backseat to ‘brilliance’ and intellectual progress.

Harvard knew about Comaroff’s abusive habits before they hired him, according to the lawsuit recently filed by three graduate students in the Anthropology department. In 2010, Harvard rehired renowned economic expert Lawrence H. Summers as a professor even though he had resigned from his position as University President in 2006 following an uproar over his sexist comments, in which he suggested that women are naturally worse at STEM subjects than men.

Harvard allowed Fryer, a rising star in the field of economics, to return to teach undergraduates despite the fact that he sexually harassed subordinates. Harvard virtually ignored years of disturbing abuse at the hands of Dominguez until, after he had already retired from his position in the Government department, they belatedly stripped him of “emeritus status.”

And these are merely cases that have made it into The Crimson in recent times. Just as we carefully require rules of ethics in scientific discovery, we must not let the intellectual feats of “star” faculty overshadow our ethical obligations to student safety. As summarized in the graduate student lawsuit, Harvard’s current system is “designed to protect the University, its reputation, and the faculty who sustain that reputation at the expense of its students.” Harvard must not tolerate or dismiss discrimination and harm, and while I believe that people can change, the risks and injustices of quickly forgiving and forgetting faculty abuses are high. And frankly, students shouldn’t be the guinea pigs for historically harmful professors’ character growth.

I appreciate the faculty response letter — signed by nearly twice as many faculty as the first — which condemns the open letter supporting Comaroff. I am warily grateful for the many retractions from the signers of that original open letter. I’ve been touched and heartened by the tenacious work of my co-organizers in Our Harvard Can Do Better and HGSU’s Feminist Working Group as we’ve mobilized for change at Harvard. I hope that together, we can root out Harvard’s poisonously permissive practices that have repeatedly placed students at risk.

Ultimately, we, as a Harvard community — administrators, tenured faculty, undergraduates, deans, graduate students, house administrators, all of us — must not prioritize intelligence over ethics, reputation over truth, personal job security over believing survivors, or our ambitions over our own dignity and safety.

Annabelle J.L. Finlayson ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Adams House and a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better.

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