Harvard Prof. John Comaroff Faces New Allegations of Misconduct in Amended Suit

Harvard professor John L. Comaroff is facing new allegations of sexual harassment in an amended lawsuit.
By Meimei Xu

The Tozzer Anthropology Building and Peabody Museum house offices for Harvard's Anthropology department.
The Tozzer Anthropology Building and Peabody Museum house offices for Harvard's Anthropology department. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Content Warning: This article contains discussions and descriptions of alleged sexual harassment.

Harvard professor John L. Comaroff is facing new allegations of sexual harassment in an amended lawsuit that includes accounts of unwanted touching, kissing, and sexual remarks during his three decades as a faculty member at the University of Chicago, where he allegedly engaged in multiple sexual relationships with students.

The new allegations come as part of a lawsuit first filed against Harvard in February by three Anthropology graduate students who say the University ignored years of sexual harassment and retaliation by Comaroff.

Last Tuesday, the plaintiffs — Margaret G. Czerwienski, Amulya Mandava, and Lilia M. Kilburn — submitted an 89-page amended complaint detailing three new allegations of sexual harassment and four accounts of sexual contact Comaroff allegedly had with students, dating back to the 1970s. The complaint also includes new details about alleged retaliation by Comaroff and purported failures of Harvard’s investigatory process.

Comaroff, who is not named as a defendant in the suit, denies the allegations of misconduct.

Allegations against Comaroff first emerged when The Crimson published an investigation that reported at least three female students were in touch with Harvard’s Title IX Office about complaints of sexual harassment and retaliation. The dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay, placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave in August 2020 “pending a full review of the facts and circumstances regarding the allegations.”

A year and a half later, Gay placed Comaroff on unpaid leave and barred him from teaching required courses, among other sanctions, after a pair of Harvard investigations found that he violated the school’s sexual harassment and professional misconduct policies.

One of the students at UChicago with whom Comaroff allegedly had sexual contact was preparing to make a complaint against him around 2011, “which prompted Professor Comaroff to leave UChicago,” the suit says. After Comaroff received an offer outside of the university, some UChicago faculty members called on a dean to refrain from making a counteroffer, the amended suit claims, “effectively pushing him out of the school.”

Comaroff denies all the allegations of misconduct. In a statement, his lawyer, Ruth K. O’Meara-Costello ’02, wrote that all new claims in the amended complaint are “completely false.”

“The alleged interactions did not happen,” she wrote. “Professor Comaroff categorically denies inappropriate conduct with students at the University of Chicago or anywhere. Professor Comaroff denies engaging in any retaliatory conduct, either before or after the lawsuit was filed.”

New Allegations of Misconduct

The new accounts from Comaroff’s time at UChicago detail alleged unwanted kissing, unwanted touching and sexual contact, unwanted sexual comments, along with at least three sexual relationships with students at the school.

During a conference at Northwestern University in 1991, Comaroff allegedly sexually harassed a female first-year graduate student by “caressing her inner thigh inches from her pubic area,” the suit claims.

Between 2001 and 2005, Comaroff allegedly kissed a female graduate student at the University of Illinois who was working at UChicago without her consent twice — once in public view.

Between 1978 and 1982, Comaroff allegedly kissed a female undergraduate mentee on the lips and “subsequently initiated sexual contact that continued for several years,” the suit says. At one point, he hired the student as a live-in nanny.

Between 1978 and 1991, Comaroff also allegedly had sexual relationships with two graduate students in UChicago’s Anthropology Department — including one whom he had sex with in his office, according to the suit. During that time, he was seen repeatedly visiting an undergraduate dormitory at the school, the filing says.

The suit also implicates Comaroff’s wife, Jean Comaroff, who serves as a professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard.

After a first-year graduate student at UChicago reported her discomfort with receiving “unwanted kisses on the face” from John Comaroff and witnessing “the Comaroffs touching students’ bodies in a way that made her uncomfortable,” John and Jean Comaroff told her “that she would have to get used to such physical contact if she wished to conduct fieldwork in a Francophone country,” according to the suit.

During a meeting around 2002 about the student’s potential plan to conduct fieldwork in Senegal, the complaint alleges that John Comaroff told the student, “you can’t work in Africa and be openly homosexual,” but added: “You might not have to worry. You have the right Senegalese body type, and the men there will love you.”

In an email, Jean Comaroff wrote that the allegations are “false, and frankly absurd.”

Harvard was warned of John Comaroff’s alleged reputation, according to the updated filing, which claims that a graduate program coordinator of the school’s Anthropology Department brought concerns to administrators.

The coordinator — who attended graduate school at Boston University, where Comaroff was affiliated with an African studies center — was “repeatedly warned” that Comaroff “routinely had inappropriate sexual relationships” with students, the suit says.

When the coordinator heard about Harvard’s plan to hire Comaroff, the suit says, she warned Seth Avakian, then a prevention specialist at Harvard’s now-defunct Office of Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response; Mary M. Steedly, then the director of graduate studies of Anthropology; and the department administrator at the time. The coordinator also continued to warn Avakian — who now serves as a program officer for Title IX and professional conduct at Harvard — periodically after Comaroff arrived at Harvard, per the suit.

The suit said the coordinator “specifically warned Harvard’s Title IX Office” about Comaroff’s alleged misbehavior at UChicago “in or around 2012,” but “Harvard ignored these warnings and welcomed him anyway.” (Harvard’s Title IX Office was not formed until 2014.)

According to two of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Russell Kornblith and Carolin Guentert, more people at Harvard and other institutions came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Comaroff after the plaintiffs filed the original complaint in February.

“That’s pretty common when we file cases like this, that people who had secrets and thought they were alone come forward, because we recognize that they aren’t alone,” Kornblith said in an interview last Friday. “That’s certainly something that we want to encourage, because that’s how we prevent other people from being victimized.”

Allegations of Retaliation and of a Flawed ODR Process

The amended complaint also provides further details about Comaroff’s alleged retaliation against students who reported misconduct, as well as the Office of Dispute Resolution’s alleged failure to follow up on complaints or protect the integrity of its process from the effects of retaliation.

After Avakian, the University Title IX program officer, submitted an ODR complaint against Comaroff on behalf of the plaintiffs and another Harvard student in May 2020, the suit alleges he removed the allegations of the additional student in June 2020 after Comaroff successfully “bullied” the student into silence, “such that she was no longer willing to support her own complaint.”

The suit alleges Harvard never conducted a formal investigation of the student’s allegations and “refused” to consider “substantial evidence of her abuse” in the plaintiffs’ investigations.

Harvard denies the claims about its investigatory process in the suit. In a filing asking a judge to dismiss the case, the University claimed the original complaint demonstrated that Harvard has “robust policies and procedures” to handle sexual harassment complaints.

“Although it recounts only a portion of Harvard’s extensive response to Plaintiffs’ concerns, the Complaint makes clear that Harvard repeatedly took appropriate action, culminating in four thorough investigations, interim measures provided to Plaintiffs, and sanctions issued against Comaroff,” the memorandum stated.

Avakian did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment for this story.

Tuesday’s amended complaint renders moot Harvard’s motion in May to dismiss nine of 10 counts of the original complaint, per an order submitted by U.S. District Court Judge Judith G. Dein Friday. The order did not rule on the merits of the motion.

Guentert, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said Friday that the plaintiffs contend the University’s policies fail to recognize patterns of abuse and protect student complainants.

“We don’t contend that those processes exist. What we contend is that those processes don’t work,” she said. “The school knew that there was serial abuse by professor Comaroff for years, and for decades before that at the University of Chicago, and it’s just not acceptable to then hide behind these processes, hoist the responsibility onto individual students, and say, ‘You have to risk your academic career to get some justice here.’”

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at meimei.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.

FASAf Am DepartmentAnthropologyUniversitySexual AssaultTitle IXODRFront Middle Feature