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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
Returning from two years of administrative leave for allegations of sexual and professional misconduct, Harvard professor John L. Comaroff stood up to start teaching his first class back on campus Tuesday afternoon.
Then, five graduate students stood up and walked out of the classroom in protest.
Meanwhile, dozens of students congregated in the Science Center Plaza to decry Comaroff’s continued employment at Harvard on the first day of his course, African and African American Studies 190X: “The Anthropology of Law: classical, contemporary, comparative, and critical perspectives.” This week, Comaroff resumed teaching for the first time since University investigations found he violated sexual harassment and professional misconduct policies.
“Professors who harass shouldn’t be in class!” shouted students in unison at the rally organized by members of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers.
In a speech during the rally, organizer Courtney M. Whilden, a co-chair of the union’s feminist working group, said University administrators should hold faculty accountable for misconduct.
“It’s Harvard’s job to protect us from faculty when they do wrong,” she shouted to the crowd. “We should not have to rely on the whisper network to take care of ourselves as students on this campus.”
Tuesday’s protest comes roughly eight months after Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay placed Comaroff on unpaid leave and barred him from teaching required courses this academic year after a pair of University investigations found him to be in violation of its policies. Gay previously placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave in August 2020 after allegations that he sexual harassed students first emerged earlier that year.
After students learned Comaroff would resume teaching in the fall, HGSU-UAW circulated a petition demanding Harvard clarify its process for deciding what sanctions to impose on professors who violate sexual harassment policies, “up to and including the revocation of tenure.”
“Tenure exists to protect the academic freedom of scholars to cultivate a rich and vibrant academic community, not to protect the freedom of tenured individuals to erode the very conditions of mutual respect and safety required for such a community to exist,” the petition states.
The petition also called on Harvard to take “active and public steps towards” restoring trust in the University.
The petition, which has more than 250 signatures, stipulated that the union and its supporters would “commit to collective action” should the University fail to respond to their demands before the start of the fall semester.
HGSU-UAW member and Philosophy Ph.D. candidate Denish K. Jaswal argued for the union’s longstanding demand for “real recourse” — defined by the union as third-party arbitration of sex-based discrimination and sexual harassment grievances. Jaswal added that Harvard’s Title IX process is inadequate to stop serial abuse.
Following speeches from students in the plaza, dozens of attendees marched to the Northwest Building and stopped to chant outside of the room where Comaroff was teaching.
Ruth K. O’Meara-Costello ’02, one of Comaroff’s lawyers, wrote in a statement that though Comaroff recognizes the students’ rights to peacefully protest, “the protesters’ goals are incompatible with the values of fairness and due process,” claiming that the union’s demands are based on “untested accusations.”
Clare T. Canavan, another co-chair of the union’s feminist working group, said she felt the rally showed survivors that there are people willing to fight for their safety on campus.
“We’ve all been fighting this fight for a long time against Comaroff and just for better protections, and justice for survivors in general at Harvard,” she said. “And this is just one stepping stone in that fight.”
Max G. Ehrenfreund, an HGSU-UAW member and a Ph.D. candidate in History of Science, said Comaroff’s continued employment at Harvard demonstrates a need for structural change at the University.
“The Comaroff case is illustrative because he was found by the University’s investigation to have violated these policies, but nonetheless, there is no real accountability,” he said. “What we see is that even when there is overwhelming evidence, still the University does not act — and that shows the need for thoughtful reform.”
University spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment.
As of Sept. 6, FAS class enrollment data shows two students — one undergraduate and one graduate — are currently enrolled in Comaroff’s class.
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.
—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ArielH_Kim.
—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.
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