Austin Siebold was browsing through Harvard University’s course catalogue when an intriguing subject caught her eye.
“I saw this class, it was on colonialism, post-colonialism and de-colonialism, and I thought that sounded really interesting,” she recalls, “And then I clicked on it and it was taught by John Comaroff and I was like, ‘Holy…'”
John Comaroff is a professor of African and African American studies who was accused of sexually harassing and assaulting several graduate students. The university conducted an internal investigation into the 78-year-old’s behavior and found him guilty of verbal misconduct in violation of its guidelines on sexual and gender-based harassment and professional conduct.
No wonder Austin was shocked to see that Harvard had quietly let the fox back into the hen house.
Rape Culture At Harvard University
“The reality is that our campus promotes a culture of sexual abuse, a culture of misogyny and harassment and discrimination,” explains student activist Rosalie Couture.
Couture’s view is supported by the fact that in February 2022, 38 faculty members including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jamaica Kincaid signed a letter questioning the findings of the Comaroff investigation. Its closing paragraph states, “We the undersigned know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen […]”
This is a typical example of the bystander betrayal that marginalizes victim-survivors of sexual assault. The self-serving arguments usually sound like:
- (S)he’s nice to me so (s)he deserves a pass.
- (S)he makes money for the company/institution so (s)he deserves a pass.
- Their work benefits me so they deserve a pass.
- Their songs/movies entertain me so they deserve a pass.
It is also an example of how manipulators excel at grooming their social circles into blindly supporting them, even in the face of glaring evidence of their wrong-doing and convictions.
However, when the facts about Comaroff came to light, the faculty members who supported him were left red faced. A week after the publication of the letter, 34 of the signatories withdrew their support.
Did Rejection Trigger A Rant About Corrective Rape?
Lilia Kilburn told The New York Times that Comaroff kissed her lips without her consent. She informed him that she was in a same-sex partnership to repel further advances from the professor. Instead of backing off, she says Comaroff began ranting that in some parts of Africa she and her parter would be targets for so-called corrective rape or femicide.
For his part, Comaroff’s attorney say that he “categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.” He acknowledged that he discussed rape with Kilburn but claims to have done so in a paternal way to warn her of the dangers women in same-sex couples might face in Cameroon.
Unsurprisingly, Kilburn and two other graduate students, Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava are suing Harvard University for dismissing repeated allegations that Comaroff was harassing students and ignoring claims that he leveraged his position of power to frighten the students with threats of sabotaging their careers if they report his aggression.
Students Do Not Feel Safe With Comaroff On Campus
Students were horrified to learn that Comaroff was allowed to return to teach at Harvard for the fall 2022 semester. They launched a protest over his present on campus which Harvard ignored because they welcomed Comaroff back to teach for the Spring 2023 semester.
Harvard is sending a clear message that, when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, the institution will protect itself and its faculty but students are on their own. Ultimately, the student uprising is a demand for the right to study in peace without fear of sexual harassment or assault from those in positions of power.
Student activist Rebecca Araten says, “This man is not safe to interact with undergraduate students.”
Is Harvard University An Abuse Enabler?
Austin spearheaded the second demonstration against Comaroff on February 25, 2023. After she saw his course in the catalogue, she says, “I enrolled in the class and used information I was able to gather from that to help me plan this.”
She alerted Our Harvard Can Do Better, a student association that aims to dismantle rape culture at the school. They collaborated with Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers’ Feminist Working Group. The action received support from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the Student Labor Action Movement.
In their official statement, Our Harvard Can Do Better, repudiated Harvard for hiring Comaroff in 2012 despite allegations of sexual misconduct that stretched back to the 1970s. They described the school’s enabling of the disgraced professor as “shameful.” Furthermore, they are accusing Harvard University of being “systematically biased in favor of abusers.”
Taking Matters In To Their Own Hards
Per The Harvard Crimson, over 100 students attended Comaroff’s Colonialism and its Postcolonial/Decolonial Afterlives: Critical Readings class on January 25. As soon as the professor started to speak, the students stood up and shouted in unison, “Justice for survivors!”
As the protesters exited the classroom, Comanoff responded to their demonstration with a smirk. One of the students confronted him and said, “Smile in hell, asshole!”
The students then marched to the Baker Center where Comaroff’s office is located. They taped pages from Kilburn, Czerwienski and Mandava’s lawsuit to his door.
The student activists are demanding Comaroff’s resignation and calling for an end to Harvard’s “cultures of harassment, misogyny, and discrimination.”
Will their calls for justice continue to fall on deaf ears? And, if so, should Harvard University retain it’s status as an elite institution when it is failing to keep students safe and many of its most esteemed faculty members are so barbarously ignorant about rape?
- Boit, D.A.C., Hamid R.D., and Schisgall E.J. (2023, January 25) ‘More than 100 Students Walk Out of Embattled Harvard Professor Comaroff’s First Class of Semester.’ The Harvard Crimson.
- Alaimo, K. (2022, February 14) ‘Harvard professors’ initial letter of support for John Comaroff sends a disturbing message.’ Think – Opinion, Analysis, Essays. NBC News.
- Hartocollis, A. (2022, February 8) ‘A Lawsuit Accuses Harvard of Ignoring Sexual Harassment by a Professor.’ The New York Times.
- Kim, A.H., Xu, M. (2022, February 10) ’35 Harvard Professors Retract Support For Letter Questioning Results of Comaroff Investigations.’ The Harvard Crimson.
- Our Harvard Can Do Better. PRESS RELEASE: 100s of Students Shut Down Abuser’s Class. January 24, 2023.
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