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More than 70 Harvard students and three student groups called on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to review Harvard professor John L. Comaroff’s membership in an open letter to the organization Saturday.
“Membership in the Academy of Arts and Sciences is a rare honor,” the letter states. “Professor John Comaroff’s repeated assaults on academic freedom, intellectual vitality, and a safe learning environment mean that he has failed to live up to the values and expectations of this position.”
Comaroff, a professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology, was placed on unpaid administrative leave by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay in 2022 after two University investigations found Comaroff in violation of the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies.
The letter points to the Academy’s rules stating a professor may be removed from the academy following an “institutional triggering event,” meaning “the individual’s employer or a reputable third party” took action against the scholar in question, arguing Gay’s sanctions on Comaroff constituted a triggering event.
“Per AAAS procedures, wherein Harvard’s finding of culpability should trigger an automatic investigation by the Academy, we call for the Board and Membership Committee to take appropriate action quickly and transparently,” the letter reads.
The letter also references a federal lawsuit against Harvard filed by three female graduate Anthropology students claiming the University ignored years of harassment allegations against the professor.
Referring to accounts of harassment in the suit, which is awaiting trial, the letter states that “harassing or assaulting students represents a significant disruption to their education and freedom of inquiry.”
Comaroff’s lawyers have consistently denied all allegations of sexual harassment and professional retaliation.
“The letter to AAAS is another publicity stunt in a relentless campaign by a small group of protestors to smear Professor John Comaroff,” wrote Comaroff’s attorneys, Harvard Law School professor Janet E. Halley, Ruth K. O’Meara-Costello ’02, and Norman S. Zalkind.
“This campaign against Professor Comaroff, which eschews fairness and due process, is based on allegations that have been either rejected in a full investigation or that are completely untested, anonymous, and second-hand at best,” they added.
In a statement, Will M. Sutton ’23, who helped draft the letter, said he trusted the Academy to make the correct decision and declined to respond to “those who have no bearing on the Academy’s internal process.”
Alison Franklin, the Academy’s chief communications officer, confirmed the letter was received in an email. She declined to comment further, citing a policy that membership proceedings are confidential.
Saturday’s letter follows a wave of student activism surrounding Comaroff after he returned to campus in fall 2022 to teach an elective course. The campaign has largely been lead by anti-rape culture student activist group Our Harvard Can Do Better, which signed the letter.
Connor Chung ’23, who helped draft the letter, said professors like Comaroff “have spent decades using their power to stifle free speech and undermine survivors and whistleblowers.”
In an interview, Sutton said part of the intention was to help build a coalition against sexual harassment in academia.
“What really sets this action apart – even though it is obviously about John Comaroff – is that we’re really here looking for allies and looking to open a conversation about academic freedom and its intersections with sexual violence and power-based harassment,” he said.
—Staff writer Darley A. C. Boit can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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