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Editorials

The Welcome Back We Didn’t Ask For

Harvard professor John L. Comaroff's office is located in the Barker Center.
Harvard professor John L. Comaroff's office is located in the Barker Center. By Julian J. Giordano
By The Crimson Editorial Board
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.

Harvard’s campus is extremely vast — some of us are particularly aware of this when we must venture from the Quad to the SEC and back again. But sometimes, Harvard’s campus doesn’t feel quite big enough, like when the course taught by an alleged serial assaulter is listed as one of the options to fulfill your concentration requirements.

This fall, Professor John L. Comaroff returned to campus after a two-year administrative leave. A tenured professor in the Anthropology and African and African American Studies departments, Comaroff was accused of sexual misconduct during his time at Harvard as well as during his prior three-decade stint at the University of Chicago. Comaroff has also allegedly threatened students who warned others of his sexually inappropriate behavior — an issue central to the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard in which three graduate students argue that Harvard should be liable for ignoring Comaroff’s threats of retaliation against them.

Harvard has since filed a motion asking for this lawsuit to be dismissed. Last Wednesday, however, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief arguing that the University could be liable for Comaroff’s threats to retaliate against the graduate student plaintiffs.

While we are not equipped to comment on the legal nuances of the amicus brief, as students, we are concerned by Comaroff’s return to campus and what this may mean for our community. Despite his two-year leave, the University’s lack of transparency surrounding any rehabilitative requirements for Comaroff’s return reflects only a superficial understanding of restorative justice and warrants our concerns that he may still be dangerous to our peers. We know we are not alone in this concern — during Comaroff’s first class on Tuesday, five graduate students walked out of his lecture in protest, while dozens of others gathered in the Science Center Plaza.

The administration must acknowledge and remedy the ways in which Comaroff’s return forces students into an unsafe learning environment. By allowing Comaroff to return as a teaching professor, Harvard sends the message that when it comes to academia, safety and well-being take a backseat to intellectual achievements and academic prominence.

Students should not have to find themselves between a rock and a hard place: taking a course with an alleged predator or rearranging their schedules to avoid any potential hazards. The burden of finding ways to feel safe in a classroom should not be placed on students’ shoulders.

Even if the University wasn’t liable for the harm done to students previously, it may certainly be held accountable for any potential harm done to students who are currently under the tutelage of a man accused of abusing those under his guidance. Indeed, this points to an even larger structural concern: The possibility that Harvard was aware (and even warned!) of accusations against Comaroff at the University of Chicago prior to his hiring in 2012 suggests problems in Harvard’s vetting process that warrant a closer look if the University is interested in preventing similar crises from arising in the future. As we have opined previously, the University should be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to Title IX protocols. Beyond the humiliation and confusion we feel while watching Harvard scramble every time a scandal breaks, it pains us to witness the harm done to community members in situations that could have been preempted.

It cannot be overstated how troubling it is that students, especially women, may not feel safe and comfortable within the classroom or even Harvard as a whole now that Comaroff has returned. No student should have to split their attention in the classroom between pursuits to satiate intellectual curiosity and fears for their physical and emotional safety. The classroom ought to be a sanctuary, not somewhere from which students need to seek refuge.

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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