The Nuclear Option: Why Harvard Tenured Professors Are Almost Never Fired

By Elias J. Schisgall and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers
By Sami E. Turner

In a video that racked up millions of views, a student rose from her seat in an overcrowded classroom to directly address John L. Comaroff, the Harvard professor accused of sexual misconduct.

“John Comaroff spent his career harassing, silencing, and retaliating against students,” the student said. “He does not belong at Harvard.”

On that January afternoon, she and more than 100 other students then stood up and walked out of the classroom and through Harvard Yard, chanting, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Comaroff has got to go!”

At the end of the march, organizers encouraged attendees to complete a form to send a pre-written email to Harvard’s top administrators demanding that the University fire the African and African American Studies and Anthropology professor. In the days following, more than 240 Harvard affiliates filled out the form.

Comaroff — who has repeatedly and consistently denied all allegations of harassment and retaliation made against him — is not the only tenured Harvard professor to face accusations of misconduct in recent years. In nearly every case, Harvard has also weathered fierce public scrutiny for what many saw as its unwavering protection of its faculty despite misconduct findings.

Every tenured Harvard professor embroiled in a recent controversy either chose to retire or remained a member of the faculty. The revocation of Comaroff’s tenure was never on the table, according to his attorney Ruth K. O’Meara-Costello ’02.

A 2020 investigation published by The Crimson uncovered allegations of sexual harassment by Comaroff and two other Anthropology professors: Theodore C. Bestor and Gary Urton.

Bestor stepped down from his position as director of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies following the investigation and continued teaching until he died in 2021. Urton was placed on administrative leave in June 2020 and announced his retirement the next month. Following his retirement, Claudine Gay — Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean and president-elect — stripped Urton of his emeritus status and barred him from campus.

In 2018, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 18 women accused Jorge I. Domínguez — then a Government professor — of incidents of sexual harassment and assault spanning nearly four decades. That same year, The Crimson reported that Economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr. was the subject of two Title IX complaints and under investigation by both Harvard and the state of Massachusetts.

Though his case was of a different tenor, then-professor Charles M. Lieber made national headlines when he was arrested — and later convicted — of lying to federal authorities about his ties to China, a felony offense.

Domínguez retired shortly after the allegations against him were made public. Lieber, who had been placed on administrative leave, quietly retired in February in advance of his sentencing. And both Fryer and Comaroff — who were placed on unpaid leave — have since returned to teaching.

Fryer and two of Lieber’s attorneys reached by phone all declined to comment on whether tenure revocation was ever considered in their cases. Domínguez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

If history is any indication, none of them were in any danger of being fired.

A Tool Never Used

Technically, it is possible for a tenured professor to be fired.

The Harvard Corporation — the University's highest governing body — meets in Loeb House. This governing body has the power to dismiss any officer in a teaching position, even a tenured professor.
The Harvard Corporation — the University's highest governing body — meets in Loeb House. This governing body has the power to dismiss any officer in a teaching position, even a tenured professor. By Julian J. Giordano

According to the website of the Office of the Provost, the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — has the power to dismiss any officer in a teaching position, even a tenured professor, “only for grave misconduct or neglect of duty.”

Neither “grave misconduct” nor “neglect of duty” are defined in the publicly available policy, a 289-word excerpt from the University’s charter detailing the “appointment of officers and staff of the University.”

In practice, however, this power has rarely — if ever — been exercised.

The Crimson could not identify any instances where the Harvard Corporation forcibly stripped a tenured faculty member’s position since the 1940s, when the American Association of University Professors formalized rules around tenure.

In 1979, then-freshman Helene S. York ’83 accused Government professor Martin L. Kilson Jr. of attempting to kiss her, in what The Crimson later wrote was the first reported case of sexual harassment by a student against a tenured professor.

In the aftermath, Henry A. Rosovsky, then the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, reprimanded Kilson. Rosovsky told Kilson that a repeated offense could be grounds for placing the case in front of the Corporation, Kilson told The Crimson at the time.

But, there was no second public allegation against Kilson and no available record of Rosovsky ever recommending that the Corporation revoke Kilson’s tenure. Kilson remained a professor until his 1999 retirement and died in 2019. Rosovsky died late last year.

A few years after Kilson’s case, Harvard took disciplinary action against another tenured professor, Domínguez, prompted by harassment allegations first made by former assistant Government professor Terry L. Karl and then by a Government Ph.D. candidate. Domínguez was stripped of his post as chairman of a minor academic committee but remained on the faculty.

In Domínguez’s case, as in Kilson’s, Rosovsky again wrote a letter indicating his intent to recommend that the Corporation fire Domínguez if there was a repeated offense. But when an undergraduate filed a complaint against Domínguez for sexual harassment six years later, the new FAS dean — A. Michael Spence — did not ask the Corporation to strip Domínguez’s tenure.

The latter allegation — and over a dozen more — did not come to light until the Chronicle of Higher Education published an investigation into Domínguez in early 2018. During the intervening years, he had been promoted to head a major academic center and later to Vice Provost for International Affairs.

He was placed on administrative leave and then announced his retirement in March 2018, shortly after the Chronicle published their investigation. Following the conclusion of a Title IX investigation into Domínguez in May 2019, Gay stripped Domínguez of emeritus status.

Another instance of the administration disciplining a tenured faculty member came in 1985, when Government professor Douglas A. Hibbs Jr. was “forced” into resigning after being accused of sexual harassment by a student at MIT, according to The Crimson. While the Corporation did not revoke his tenure, Hibbs may have been the first tenured faculty member to leave the school as a result of misconduct.

Hibbs declined to comment, citing an agreement with the University not to do so. Spence did not respond to a request for comment.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton and FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment.

By Design

In a sense, tenure — an institution partially developed at Harvard — is working exactly as intended.

In his book “University Administration,” former Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, described one way of recruiting quality faculty: the school can “invite to full professorships men of proved capacity, industry, and intellectual productiveness.”

“To such men the university commits itself for life,” Eliot wrote.

According to Roger L. Geiger, a historian of higher education and professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, Harvard “led the way” in the establishment of tenure guidelines.

“There was kind of an unwritten rule that tenure was granted after a certain period of time and could not be revoked,” Geiger said.

Eliot’s book makes no mention of grounds to dismiss tenured professors.

When the American Association of University Professors codified the modern system of tenure in 1940, it called for faculty members to have “permanent or continuous tenure” and to be “terminated only for adequate cause” or extenuating circumstances.

According to Geiger, the “chief argument” for lifetime tenure was safeguarding academic freedom, an argument that proved particularly salient during the McCarthy era, where professors came under fire for suspected communist sympathies.

But in practice, the system has meant that a professor’s tenure is essentially impenetrable.

According to former Harvard President Derek C. Bok, “the only thing close to that” that he remembers is a “couple of cases involving misconduct of a fairly serious nature” in which the professor in question resigned before the Corporation could ever consider a vote to revoke tenure.

“Cases didn’t come up where the Corporation needed to get involved, even if they wanted to, because the facts were fairly clear,” he said.”Professors resigned their tenure and left so there really wasn’t much for the Corporation to talk about.”


Student activists leading protests against Comaroff — the embattled anthropologist — understand that it is unlikely the University fires Comaroff, at least while there is an ongoing lawsuit against the school.

Harvard students crowded into University Hall for eight hours in March to protest the school's harassment and conduct policies and employment of embattled professor John L. Comaroff.
Harvard students crowded into University Hall for eight hours in March to protest the school's harassment and conduct policies and employment of embattled professor John L. Comaroff. By Julian J. Giordano

According to Rachael A. Dziaba ’26 — one of the organizers of the anti-rape culture student activist group Our Harvard Can Do Better — the group has switched from calling for the University to fire Comaroff to demanding that he resign.

“At the end of the day, as an organization, we just want Comaroff off campus and to stop teaching, and I think that at a certain point, we realized or at least felt that Comaroff taking the step to resign would be a more realistic scenario,” she said.

In response to a request for comment, Comaroff’s lawyers said in an email that activist efforts against Comaroff “ignore any semblance of fairness or due process.”

“The suggestion that Professor Comaroff resign or be terminated is preposterous and would be inconsistent with Harvard’s own very thorough investigation whose findings largely exonerated Professor Comaroff. It would be outrageous—and a violation of contract—for Harvard to terminate any tenured or tenure track faculty member in these circumstances,” they wrote.

Dziaba said that it was unrealistic the University would fire Comaroff, citing the history of tenure at Harvard.

“Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, I feel like with allegations like this or instances where professors have come under public scrutiny, often they only leave of their own volition and Harvard administration has been hesitant to take action against tenured faculty,” Dziaba said.

Austin Siebold ’23, another Our Harvard Can Do Better organizer, said terminating Comaroff is off the table due to potential legal ramifications for Harvard.

“We know that Harvard cannot fire Comaroff without signaling fault in the lawsuit against Harvard,” Siebold said. “Harvard’s hands are tied, and I think it really goes to show just how much control Comaroff and others like him have at this university because Harvard can’t fire Comaroff.”

“It seems like tenured faculty are invincible,” Siebold added.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.

FacultyYear in ReviewUniversityProfessional MisconductTenure