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35 Harvard Professors Retract Support for Letter Questioning Results of Comaroff Investigations

Nearly all of the Harvard professors who signed onto an open letter questioning the results of misconduct investigations into John Comaroff last week have walked back their support for the message.
Nearly all of the Harvard professors who signed onto an open letter questioning the results of misconduct investigations into John Comaroff last week have walked back their support for the message. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Ariel H. Kim and Meimei Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: February 11, 2022 at 4:25 p.m.

Almost all of the Harvard professors who signed onto an open letter last week that questioned the results of misconduct investigations into professor John L. Comaroff have retracted their support for the message.

Thirty-four of the 38 faculty members who signed onto the letter, including some of Harvard’s most prominent scholars, signed a retraction letter Wednesday saying they “failed to appreciate the impact” their previous message would have. One other professor, whose name did not appear on the retraction letter, wrote in an email that he, too, retracted support for the original statement.

Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay sanctioned Comaroff last month after University investigations found that he violated the school’s sexual and professional conduct policies. Now on unpaid leave, he is barred from teaching required courses and taking on additional advisees through the next academic year.

The initial letter posed a series of sharp questions about sanctions levied against Comaroff, who it described as “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen.” But professors began to pull their support for the letter after a federal lawsuit filed against Harvard on Tuesday detailed years of sexual harassment allegations against Comaroff — some of which had been reported previously.

“Our concerns were transparency, process and university procedures, which go beyond the merits of any individual case,” the retraction letter said. “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.”

The initial open letter, which was sent to Harvard administrators, was signed by an array of well-known professors, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jill Lepore, Stephen J. Greenblatt, and former Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds.

Harvard Law School professors David W. Kennedy, Randall L. Kennedy, and Duncan Kennedy ’64 all declined to sign onto the retraction.

“I declined to retract my signature because I think the letter was and still is an appropriate response to the actions of the University in the case,” Duncan Kennedy wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon.

Randall Kennedy wrote in an email that his concerns about the University’s handling of the Comaroff case remained.

“The initial open letter indicated deep concern, based on available information, about the university’s treatment of Professor Comaroff,” he wrote. “Of course the signatories did not know about everything that might be pertinent. If complete knowledge was a [prerequisite] for voicing concern, there might well be no suitable occasion for doing so. No new information about which I am aware erases the [worries] that prompted me to sign the letter in the first place.”

University Professor Douglas A. Melton’s name was absent from the retraction letter’s list of signatories, but he wrote in an email Friday — almost two days after the retraction letter was first reported — that he no longer supported the initial message.

The initial letter sparked furor among Harvard graduate students and other faculty. On Tuesday, 73 other faculty members condemned the letter in a response published in The Crimson.

“As faculty, we should be demanding better protections and more expedient, transparent, equitable, and independent investigative procedures,” the response letter reads. “We must do so without presuming to know the full findings of confidential investigations or acting in ways that intimidate students and inhibit them from divulging experiences of harm.”

In a response sent to the signatories of the open letter last Thursday, Gay warned of “the obvious dangers of an asymmetry of information.”

“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,” Gay wrote.

Comaroff was first placed on leave in August 2020 after The Crimson reported that at least three female students were in contact with Harvard’s Title IX Office about allegations of unwanted touching, verbal sexual harassment, and professional retaliation.

After the lawsuit came out on Tuesday, apologies began rolling in from professors who signed the initial letter.

“I deeply regret having signed the letter,” Mariano Siskind, a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures wrote in a statement. “I don’t know John Comaroff personally. Initially, I signed because I agreed with the need to establish transparent, fair, and effective Title IX procedures. However, when I read Dean Gay’s response and considered more carefully the letter’s potential effect on those who had experienced sexual-based misconduct, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. I want to apologize to my students and I want them to know that I fully support all students facing the difficult decision to come forward with Title IX complaints.”

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,” she wrote.

The retraction letter was first reported Wednesday by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the most up-to-date version of a letter from 34 faculty members retracting their support for a statement questioning the results of misconduct investigations into professor John L. Comaroff. A previous version of the article included a copy of the retraction letter sent to The Crimson on Wednesday that listed Harvard Law School professor David W. Kennedy as a signatory. In fact, Kennedy did not sign onto the retraction letter. The previous version of the retraction letter did not list professor Lucie E. White as a signatory. She was later added, which is reflected in the updated iteration. The updated retraction letter was sent to The Crimson Thursday morning.

The story has also been updated to include information from University Professor Douglas A. Melton, who walked back his support for the original letter on Friday, after the retraction letter was sent to The Crimson.

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at meimei.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.

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