Faculty letters support one professor while drawing condemnation from others

In a open letter published last week, a group of Harvard University faculty condemned the university’s process of investigating a faculty member disciplined for misconduct – a move that some members of the Harvard community say will discourage vulnerable people to complain.

The letter from the professors, first reported by The Harvard Crimson, was signed by 38 scholars, including some of the most famous in the country: Paul Farmer, Henry Louis Gates, Jill Lepore and Jamaica Kincaid among them. The letter questioned Harvard’s decision to sanction John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology and African and African-American studies, who was placed on unpaid leave for the spring semester, along with other sanctions, after that the university said he violated his sexual harassment and professional conduct. Strategies. The letter also attests to his reputation as an “excellent colleague, advisor and committed academic citizen.”

“As concerned faculty, we seek to clarify Harvard’s professional standards for us as advisors,” they wrote. “We are appalled by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students.”

Comaroff was investigated by Harvard’s Title IX office in 2020 and later by its Dispute Resolution office. A dean announced his sanctions in January.

The Chronicle wrote in 2020 about some of the allegations that spurred the Title IX investigation. In their letter, the Harvard professors focused on an incident, in which a Harvard graduate student said Comaroff, her adviser, told her she would be raped or killed if she went to certain places. The professor’s conversation and tone made the student deeply uncomfortable, according to her complaint to Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution. She alleged that Comaroff kissed her on the mouth in a previous meeting, when she was a future student. Two people confirmed with The Chronicle that she told them about the alleged kiss. Through his attorneys, Comaroff denied kissing her.

Comaroff’s attorneys wrote in a press release after Comaroff was disciplined that Harvard concluded “the evidence does not support” the “unwanted sexual touching” charges. The lawyers wrote that Comaroff had been found liable for “verbal sexual harassment resulting from a brief conversation during an office hour counseling session.” They wrote that “he maintains that it was not only his right, but his moral duty, to advise her thus, since his proposed plans were objectively physically dangerous to her.”

In their letter, the Harvard professors wrote that they “would also feel ethically obligated to offer the same advice to any student conducting research in a country with similar prohibitions.” They wondered how such advice could be construed as sexual harassment.

A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment or provide more information on the investigation.

It’s unclear exactly why Comaroff was disciplined, but Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s liberal arts college, wrote in a reply to the professors’ letter that this particular incident was not the conduct that prompted Harvard’s response.

Gay warned academics against relying on a one-sided account of the university’s investigation and asked them to consider the effect their letter might have on students who come forward with allegations of misconduct.

“Occasionally, some of the allegations in a complaint involve policies outside of the Title IX policy and process, and require further investigation, particularly when the issues relate to the well-being of the community,” Gay wrote. “It was the case in this case.”

More than 50 professors from colleges and universities around the world have joined Harvard faculty members in questioning Harvard’s treatment of Comaroff. In another letter published in The Chronicle last week they challenged Harvard’s second investigation. They wrote that the investigator was allowed “to scour the Title IX proceeding’s record, looking for evidence of ‘unprofessional conduct,’ one of those charges vague enough to be applied almost at will.”

The signatories of the letter published in The Chronicle wrote that they “regarded Harvard’s second proceeding as a kangaroo court, in effect a show trial designed to allow Harvard to save face at the expense of one of its best faculty members”. Comaroff’s attorneys also called the second process a “kangaroo court.”

IIn his response letter to Harvard scholars who questioned the university’s sanctions against Comaroff, Gay wrote that behind every Title IX case were people who had chosen to press charges.

“We should ask ourselves — perhaps tenured faculty in particular — what signal our reactions to the outcomes of these processes may be sending to our community,” Gay wrote. “Especially to those who make that difficult choice whether to come forward or not.”

Two of the Harvard faculty members who wrote the letter, Ingrid Monson and Kay Kaufman Shelemay, both professors of music and African and African-American studies, said they were surprised by this part of Gay’s response.

“We are in no way anti-students,” they wrote in an email. The Chronicle. “We are for a fair trial for accusers and defendants.”

In a follow-up statement Monday, Monson and Shelemay said they were concerned their letter was “read as an attempt to discourage students from filing Title IX complaints.” That was not the intention, they said.

“We are of course not in a position to pass judgment on sanctions without having access to the appropriate facts,” they wrote. “And that was not our goal. The purpose of our letter was to advocate for improved processes to ensure the integrity and fairness of Title IX investigations for students and faculty, whether accuser or accused.

Other Harvard professors read their colleagues’ letter with dismay. Alison Frank Johnson, a history teacher, said she was shocked that her colleagues signed a letter without knowing everything about the investigation. She was worried about the repercussions for complainants and people considering coming forward.

“We work in a hierarchical environment where two people who have no power or control over each other can find each other collegial and non-threatening,” Frank Johnson said. “It makes no sense to assume that these professors are collegial and do not threaten anyone else.”

She added that she had received text messages from distraught students.

“One message that I think is crystal clear is kind of not understanding what a safe and fair university looks like for all its members,” Frank Johnson said. She noted that Title IX doesn’t cover all forms of inappropriate behavior, so it was no surprise the university was investigating other allegations.

Faculty members like Frank Johnson felt they had to speak out against their colleagues’ letter. They circulated another letter on Monday noting that Comaroff has a powerful network of supporters. This begs the question, they said, of why “students would go public with their complaints against him and voluntarily submit to protracted, grueling and potentially deadly investigations.”

Koby Ljunggren, a biophysics graduate student and president of Harvard’s Graduate Student Union and whose pronouns are them and them, said when they first saw the people’s names on the letter, they reserved judgment. .

“I trust a lot of these people,” they said.

But the wording of the letter sounded like a betrayal of Ljunggren. They agreed with professors that the Title IX process is often too opaque. The graduate student union argued for a more transparent process.

But in defending Comaroff’s role as a colleague, advisor and academic citizen, Ljunggren said, the professors’ letter went beyond procedural issues.

“We the public do not know the facts of the case that prompted this decision,” they said. Ljunggren said Harvard usually has a high bar for punishing professors, so the fact that there was a discovery in this case “means there must be something big and substantial behind it.”

Ljunggren saw a disconnect between noting how little known the process is to the public and supporting any of the people involved.

“Dean Gay said it well,” they said. “This is going to have implications for anyone who wants to move forward in the future.”

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