This is one of those ethics stories that is so convoluted and unresolved that it is impossible to delineate who the villains are, except that, as in the famous case of the human toe found in the plug of tobacco, res ipsa loquitur. Someone has done something wrong.
I’ll try to explain this mess in sequence, with what conclusions I can safely draw noted along the way.
1. May, 2020. The Harvard Crimson, the daily student paper, publishes the results of investigative reporting showing that the college’s esteemed Anthropology Dept. had a history of covering up sexual harassment allegations and incidents on the part of some of its most renowned professors. Among them was Prof. John Comaroff, then 75. The paper reported,
Three current female students told The Crimson this month that they are actively in communication with Harvard’s Title IX office regarding allegations against Comaroff. Last November, the department asked Comaroff not to use his office in the Tozzer Anthropology Building and removed him from an Anthropology course he was scheduled to teach, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Crimson….
In a May 26 emailed statement, Comaroff denied ever having engaged in sexual misconduct or retaliated against a student.
“I have not behaved inappropriately toward any Harvard student, nor ever engaged in professional retaliation. I am at a loss as to why such things should be alleged, let alone reported in The Crimson in the absence of any due process, if there is to be one,” he wrote. “For the record, I have not been banished from the Department of Anthropology, my office, or my teaching, nor informed of any formal charges.”
… [D]ozens of people who passed through the department over the last two decades told The Crimson that the problems women face there stretch beyond the allegations against individual professors.
Observations: Who are we supposed to believe? The reporters are students: are amateur journalists more or less trustworthy and ethical than professional journalists? The professor’s accusers were anonymous in the story. University cover-ups of faculty stars who prey on students are far from rare, and Harvard has had its share. That does not mean that this particular claim (two other anthropology professors were implicated in the article) is accurate.
2. August, 2020. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay placed Anthropology and African and African-American Studies professor John L. Comaroff on paid administrative leave following the Crimson story, saying,
Due to the seriousness of these allegations, and in accordance with University and FAS policies, I write to announce that the FAS has placed Professor Comaroff on paid administrative leave, pending a full review of the facts and circumstances regarding the allegations that have been reported…
I believe that sexual harassment constitutes a form of discrimination that is both personally damaging for those who experience it and is an assault on our faculty’s fundamental commitments to equity and academic excellence.
Professor Comaroff continued to deny the allegations. “Today’s announcement is prejudicial to the fair determination of any claims against him, punitive without any factfinding, defamatory, and a violation of the Harvard University Sexual Harassment Policy and Proc[e]dure’s confidentiality rules,” he wrote.
Observations: In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, #MeToo and the Obama DOE “Dear Colleague” letter, universities operate using a guilty until proven innocent standard. This is unethical. As with any situation where someone is accused of wrongdoing, there has to be transparency and due process before any sanctions occur. This action by Gay was a punishment in and of itself.
3. January, 2022. Harvard placed Anthropology and African and African-American Studies professor John L. Comaroff on unpaid administrative leave after University investigations determined that he violated the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. He will be barred from teaching required courses and taking on any additional graduate student advisees through the next academic year, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay announced in an email.
The professor’s legal team responded that a separate inquiry stemming from Title IX complaints found Comaroff responsible for a single incident of verbal sexual harassment “arising from a brief conversation during an office hour advising session, and that investigators found “no sexual or romantic intention.” The press release went on to state that
“Upon receipt of these results, Harvard opened a second, kangaroo court process – lacking the most elemental aspects of due process and artificially limited to a defective record – to reexamine conduct already thoroughly investigated in the Title IX process…This process resulted in an illegitimate finding that Professor Comaroff was responsible for alleged unprofessional (but entirely non-sexual) conduct in another office hours advising session. Even in the latter proceedings, the factfinder concluded that the alleged harm ‘may not have been intended.’”
Observations: Yes, he was on leave for more than a year as Harvard investigated.
In matters of sexual harassment, intentions are irrelevant. That spin makes me suspicious of the vociferous defense by Comaroff’s lawyers.4. February 2, 2022. Thirty-eight members of the Harvard faculty signed and released an open letter protesting the treatment of their colleague:
Although Comaroff had been accused by three students, only one
allegation was found by Harvard’s Office of Dispute Resolution to have any merit. Based on the student’s account in the Chronicle of Higher Education the allegation concerned Comaroff’s advice that openly traveling as a lesbian couple in a particular African country where homosexuality is illegal could lead to sexual violence. Since we the undersigned would also feel ethically compelled to offer the same advice to any student conducting research in a country with similar prohibitions, we are perplexed.
How can advice intended to protect an advisee from sexual violence be itself construed as sexual harassment?
What rules of professional conduct are broken by informing students of the risks of gender -based violence in the multiple locations around the world that do not recognize the rights of women and LGBQTIA+ individuals in the same manner as in the United States?
We also seek to understand why the FAS did not accept the final results of its own Title IX investigation and opened a second investigation in the Fall of 2021…As faculty members we must know the rules and procedures to which we are subject.
We the undersigned know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen who has for five decades trained and advised hundreds of Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds who have subsequently become leaders in universities across the world.
Observations: The last paragraph is nonsense, essentially “We know him and he would never do these things.” The friends of Harvey Weinstein and the rest all could and many did make similar testimonials. The signatories also took as fact the representations of the professor’s lawyers. They should know better than that.
If the account of the verbal sexual harassment offense reported by the Chronicle is accurate, that is an absurd justification for sanctions, and the letter’s questions are justified. If.
5. February 3, 2022. Dean Gay issued a response, saying, in short, that the professors didn’t know what they were talking about, and stating,
I want to note the obvious dangers of an asymmetry of information in a situation like this. If you have not reviewed the full findings of an
investigation, it is hard to assess the proportionality of the response. Be aware that if you do not have access to the full review, and instead are relying on public accounts relayed through the media or only what is shared by one party to a complaint, you are necessarily operating without a
comprehensive understanding of the facts that have motivated the response.
She added, puzzlingly,
…the factual findings that are reached through Title IX procedures are binding. In my role as Dean, I cannot and I do not set aside the findings that are reached through that process. But sometimes it is the case that some of the allegations in a complaint implicate policies outside of the Title IX policy and process, and require further review, particularly when the issues concern the well-being of the community. That was the case in this instance.
Behind every Title IX case are one or more complainants who made the difficult choice to come forward. Whatever your view of our current Title IX policy and procedures (which, like all policies, can and should be improved over time), we can all agree that the decision to lodge a formal complaint is a challenging experience. We should ask ourselves—perhaps especially the tenured faculty—what signal our reactions to the outcomes of these processes may send to our community, and particularly to those making that difficult choice of whether or not to come forward.
Observations: Nope, not good enough. If a professor is going to be punished and his reputation damaged, full transparency is called for, indeed ethically mandatory. The “I did it for the well-being of the community” justification is meaningless without a full explanation. That could justify virtually anything. The last paragraph is, nothing but “believe all victims” bias, and reflects a presumption of guilt. The accusers had the courage to accuse, so we must not question their motives, facts, perceptions or conduct, and due process for the accused can be minimized. Not ethically, it can’t.
6. February 8, 2022. 73 other faculty members signed a letter condemning the signatories of the protest letter, saying in part,
We are dismayed that these faculty members would openly align themselves against students who have lodged complaints about a tenured professor…This raises the question of why three graduate students would go public with their complaints against him and willingly subject themselves to protracted, grueling, and potentially career-ending investigations. In lauding Professor Comaroff’s reputation while failing to consider the complainants’ perspectives, the signatories imply that the students have fabricated their accounts of harassment and retaliation….
The letter …suggests that the minimal protections that now exist at the university to allow redress for harm have gone too far in undermining the rights of faculty. But there is ample evidence that the available institutional procedures for investigating complaints of sexual and gender-based harassment and professional misconduct are, conversely, far from adequate for the effective adjudication of such abuses of power.
…and so on.
Observation: The letter endorses the concept of the ends justifies the means, as well as the guilty until proven innocent approach to campus sexual harassment and assault allegations that Obama’s Department of Education pushed on institutions. Men in powerful positions are not to be presumed guilty because they are men in powerful positions, and women who accuse them should not be presumed to be telling the truth, or not telling the truth.
Yes, there is still more…
7. Also on February 8, 2022…Three female Anthropology Department graduate students, Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava, filed a lawsuit against Harvard alleging that the school ignored years of sexual harassment and retaliation by Professor John L. Comaroff. It alleges that Harvard mishandled Title IX complaints, allowing Comaroff to intimidate students who threatened to report him, including the plaintiffs. The suit claims that Comaroff committed physical and verbal sexual harassment including unwanted kissing and groping, and in the 65-page filing, says that Harvard“watched” as Comaroff retaliated against accusers and “allowed its investigatory process to be used in service of Professor Comaroff’s campaign of professional blacklisting.”
Comaroff’s lawyers responded that he “categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.” A Harvard spokesperson disputed the filing’s claims, saying that the University
…disputes the allegations of the lawsuit …which are in no way a fair or accurate representation of the thoughtful steps taken by the University in response to concerns that were brought forward, the thorough reviews conducted, and the results of those reviews.
Observation: Lawsuits are not facts.
8. Today, February 9, 2022. Thirty-four of the 38 of the Harvard professors who signed the open letter challenging the handling of the investigation into professor John L. Comaroff conduct retracted their support for the statement.
Why? They say they “failed to appreciate the impact” their previous message would have. The retraction letter said,
Our concerns were transparency, process and university procedures, which go beyond the merits of any individual case. We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case. We are committed to all students experiencing Harvard as a safe and equitable institution for teaching and learning.
In keeping with the letter, history professor Maya Jasanoff wrote that she “signed the letter as an advocate of transparency and due process in university affairs,” but added that she “totally failed to consider the signal it would send to our students. This was a serious lapse of judgment and I apologize for my mistake.”
Observations? Creepy. How does “sending a message to students” justify a lack of due process and transparency? If the 34 faculty members were witnesses in a criminal trial and they did something like this, the first question that would come to mind is “Who got to them?”
Summary: What’s going on here?
I have no idea.
At least not yet.
All of these players, or only one of them, could be ethics villains:
- The Anthropology Department. There have been many cases of University departments protecting their “stars.”
- The Crimson. How fair was the original reporting?
- Comaroff. He’s of the sexual harassment generation, and many professors go trolling among their students, many more from his generation.
- One or more of the accusers.
- Dean Gay. Harvard has been in the grip of near-fatal wokeness for more than a decade. Is she an adherent of “believe all women?’
- The professor’s lawyers. They are litigating in public. If they misrepresent facts, that’s unethical.
- The signers of the original letter, if they blindly supported their colleage without checking the facts.
- The signers of the counter-letter, which read like slap-down from the “believe all victims” camp.
- The retracters.If transparency and due process is important, and it is, why did they cave?
- And, of course, Harvard…if the lawsuit’s allegations are confirmed.