Three graduate students in Harvard University’s anthropology department are suing the school, claiming it failed to protect students from sexual abuse and career-ending retaliation by a professor, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The plaintiffs, Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava, allege that John Comaroff, a professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, “kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit further says that the university’s failure to act on reports of harassment by the professor demonstrates an “institutional policy of indifference: a system designed to protect the University, its reputation, and the faculty who sustain that reputation at the expense of its students.”
The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages to be decided by a jury trial, as well as attorney fees, according to the lawsuit.
In a statement to CNN, Harvard University said they dispute the allegations in the lawsuit, which they say are “in no way a fair or accurate representation of the thoughtful steps taken by the University.”
Attorneys for Comaroff, who is identified in the lawsuit but is not named as a defendant, said in a statement that he “categorically denies” ever harassing or retaliating against any student. He also denied allegations that he kissed or inappropriately touched a student.
“Professor Comaroff is not only a leading scholar in his field — he is a deeply caring person who has devoted his energy for decades to mentoring and advancing generations of students,” the statement reads. “Attacks on his career based on gossip and fantasy rather than actual evidence are shameful.”
University ignored misconduct of star faculty, lawsuit says
The lawsuit states that Mandava and Czerwienski informed faculty about Comaroff in the spring of 2017 after learning that a second-year graduate student, one of Comaroff’s advisees, told them about nonconsensual interactions she allegedly had with the professor.
The advisee reported the harassment to Harvard’s Title IX office, but the lawsuit alleges that the university chose not to investigate the reports.
Comaroff denies that he made advances on an unnamed second-year graduate student. His attorneys also stated that “no such student has ever sought an investigation of claims against him” and that Harvard never notified him of any such complaint.
Mandava also informed a faculty member that Comaroff had shown her unwanted sexual attention when she was a student at the University of Chicago and he was a professor there, the lawsuit says.
In addition to denying the allegation, Comaroff’s attorneys said in a statement that he was never subject of any Title IX or other complaints while at the University of Chicago and was a “sincerely devoted mentor to countless students.”
The University of Chicago said it could not share details about specific cases for privacy reasons, but told CNN that it is “committed to addressing and preventing incidents of unlawful harassment and sexual misconduct and makes substantial efforts to respond in a prompt, equitable and thorough manner whenever allegations occur.”
When Mandava met with Comaroff in October 2017 about a grant application, the lawsuit says, Comaroff allegedly threatened to retaliate against her and Czerwienski if they didn’t stop “spreading ‘nasty rumors’ about his sexual misconduct with students.” Comaroff, however, in a statement through his attorneys, “absolutely denies threatening Ms. Mandava or Ms. Czerwienski, during that meeting or at any other time.” The statement adds that “he was not even aware, during that meeting, of the rumors that the two were spreading about him.” Instead, according to the professor’s attorneys, he was offering general advice about the dangers of gossip in professional academic settings, which he says was relevant to Mandava’s academic topic.
According to the lawsuit, when Czerwienski reported Comaroff’s alleged threats to the university’s Title IX resource coordinator, the coordinator allegedly discouraged her “from filing a formal report with Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution (“ODR”) because, he said, doing so would be futile.”
Comaroff kissed Kilburn without her consent when she visited the Harvard campus in February of 2017, before she was even attending the school, the lawsuit alleges. After she started attending the university, she allegedly faced sexual harassment from Comaroff during the two years they worked together. Some of the accusations in the lawsuit include overly tight hugs, forced kissing and squeezing her upper thigh.
“Regarding Ms. Kilburn, Professor Comaroff did not kiss her or touch her inappropriately at any time. Harvard’s Title IX investigation, which lasted over a year and was extraordinarily thorough, concluded that the evidence simply did not support claims that he had kissed or touched Ms. Kilburn,” attorneys for Comaroff said in the statement.
In addition, Comaroff allegedly told Kilburn during a meeting about her dissertation topic, which was focused on Central Africa, that she would be raped and killed in South Africa because she had a same-sex partner, the lawsuit says.
The comments about the potential risk of sexual violence from her plan to travel openly in Cameroon with her partner were part of “a necessary conversation for her safety,” Comaroff’s attorneys said.
“Harvard’s deliberate indifference allowed Professor Comaroff to repeatedly and forcibly kiss Ms. Kilburn, grope her in public, imagine aloud her rape and murder, cut her off from other professors, and derail her academic trajectory,” the lawsuit reads. “It also allowed Professor Comaroff to threaten Ms. Mandava and Ms. Czerwienski, poison their reputations in their fields of study, and upend their careers.”
The lawsuit also argues that Harvard ignored warnings from a faculty member at the University of Chicago while they were in the process of hiring Comaroff.
He allegedly had a reputation with graduate students and faculty as being a “predator” and a “groomer” over his 20 years at the university, the lawsuit says.
Comaroff allegedly had similar incidents of inappropriate comments and groping, according to the lawsuit, and threatened at least one graduate student with lack of career support after she shared her experience with another student.
It’s also alleged in the lawsuit that an unnamed University of Chicago faculty member warned the chair of Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies of Comaroff’s alleged conduct. The lawsuit doesn’t say if other Harvard administrators were aware of the discussion.
After a lengthy investigation, the Office of Dispute Resolution ultimately found that the comments about Kilburn being raped and killed constituted “severe” sexual harassment, according to the lawsuit. Harvard also told CNN that Comaroff “engaged in verbal conduct” in violation of the school’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and the Professional Conduct Policy.
But the lawsuit says that, with respect to the other allegations of sexual harassment and abuse toward Kilburn and the retaliation claimed by Mandava and Czerwienski, investigators concluded that Comaroff had not violated Harvard’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy regarding these claims.
After Mandava, Czerwienski and Kilburn appealed, an appeal board held up the ODR decision and said, according to the lawsuit, that no “procedural violation occurred.”
In response to the university’s findings as to Mandava and Czerwienski’s allegations, the statement from Comaroff’s attorneys reiterates that “Harvard’s thorough Title IX investigation found that not only had he not retaliated against either student,” and added that he “consistently made every effort to assist these students and to advance their careers.”
In response to the university’s findings as to Kilburn’s allegations, a statement to CNN from Comaroff’s attorneys reiterates that “Harvard’s Title IX investigation, which lasted over a year and was extraordinarily thorough, concluded that the evidence simply did not support claims that he had kissed or touched Ms. Kilburn.” The statement adds that, with respect to his comments to her about her travel plans in Africa with her same-sex partner, numerous faculty witnesses testified to investigators that his advice was appropriate and investigators “found that he was motivated only by concern for Ms. Kilburn’s well-being and had no romantic or sexual intention.” Harvard’s Title IX investigators still concluded that the comments constituted sexual harassment, a conclusion he “vehemently disputes.”
In a letter provided to CNN, Dean Claudine Gay announced to students on January 20 that Comaroff had been placed on unpaid administrative leave for the spring semester and was not allowed to teach required courses for the 2022-2023 academic year. He is also not allowed to take on any additional graduate students, advise graduate students who do not have at least one other co-adviser or chair a dissertation committee for the 2022-2023 academic year as well, according to the letter. Current graduate students who have Comaroff as an adviser will be able to switch, the school added.
Gay will decide how to proceed after the end of this time period, she said.
Roadblocks to reporting abuse
In the process of reporting Comaroff’s alleged abuse to Harvard University, the lawsuit says the three anthropology students faced continuous roadblocks from school administration.
According to the women, the school’s Title IX office either discouraged them from filing reports or didn’t take substantive action in stopping the alleged conduct. Professors they confided in frequently didn’t report what they were told, the women allege, mostly because of misunderstanding the mandatory reporting process.
While Comaroff’s advisee and Kilburn complained to the Title IX office in 2017 and 2019 respectively about the alleged sexual abuse, and Czerwienski complained to the office in 2017 about Comaroff’s threats of retaliation, the lawsuit says that the office said Kilburn, Czerwienski and Mandava only formally submitted complaints in 2020.
During the actual investigation by the school’s ODR, the lawsuit says that Comaroff used professors and academic figures that were important to Kilburn to testify as part of his defense. This was an attempt by Comaroff to retaliate against the women and ruin potential career contacts for them, the lawsuit says.
Comaroff’s attorneys told CNN that allegations that Comaroff attempted to harm Kilburn’s career are “entirely false,” and that any professors or academics he suggested as witnesses were relevant to the case. The individuals that were called had relevant experience or information in the areas Kilburn wanted to travel to, they continued, and could give relevant context on the situation. The attorneys also said that the people who testified “do not work on the same academic topics as Ms. Kilburn and would never have been feasible advisers for her,” and that she never expressed interest in working with them while Comaroff was her adviser.
At no time did Comaroff share the identity of the students with those testifying, the attorneys said.
ODR also allegedly got notes from Kilburn’s therapy sessions without her permission and then withheld the full notes from her and included a redacted version in the final report, according to the lawsuit.
ODR does not contact a person’s medical provider during investigations unless they indicated there is relevant information they want their office to consider, the university said, and only accesses it with the person’s permission. They also added that their office relies on providers to obtain necessary HIPPA-compliant permission from their clients. A party has a right not to have ODR consider documents in a case and is able to see what is included in versions of the draft report, according to the university.