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Lawsuit Against Harvard Over Professor Comaroff Harassment Allegations Will Move to Mediation

Highly Publicized Dispute Could End in Private Settlement

Protesters postered the John Harvard Statue in a March demonstration against professor John L. Comaroff's continued employment at Harvard.
Protesters postered the John Harvard Statue in a March demonstration against professor John L. Comaroff's continued employment at Harvard. By Julian J. Giordano
By Rahem D. Hamid and Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writers

The lawsuit alleging Harvard ignored years of sexual misconduct complaints against professor John L. Comaroff will move to mediation, according to court filings this month.

In a Nov. 20 court filing, U.S. District Court Judge Judith G. Dein referred the lawsuit to Magistrate Judge M. Paige Kelly for alternative dispute resolution. A mediation hearing is slated for Dec. 13, according to a Nov. 21 filing.

The lawsuit, initially filed against Harvard in February 2022 by one former and two current graduate students in the Anthropology Department, alleges that Harvard knew of sexual misconduct complaints when initially hiring Comaroff and insufficiently responded to student complaints of further sexual harassment.

An updated complaint, filed in June 2022, includes additional allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct from Comraoff’s time as a professor at the University of Chicago.

Comaroff, a professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology, was placed on a semester of unpaid leave by then-Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay after internal investigations found he violated Harvard’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies.

Comaroff, via his attorneys, has consistently denied the allegations in the lawsuit.

He is currently on medical leave, according to Ruth K. O’Meara Costello ’02, one of his attorneys. Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra said in an October interview that Comaroff remains bound by FAS sanctions.

Accusations of sexual misconduct against Comaroff — and two other senior Anthropology faculty — were first published in The Crimson in May 2020.

The professor’s first class following his return from leave in fall 2022 was met with a walkout and protest organized by Harvard’s graduate student union. The following semester, more than 100 students walked out of his first class in protest, kicking off a semester of activism that included an additional rally, an email campaign, and an occupation of University Hall.

Comaroff has rejected student activists’ characterizations of his behavior. Costello did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

The lawsuit featured prominently in student activism, with organizers pasting printouts of the complaint to his office door in the Barker Center during the second walkout and two of the plaintiffs speaking at a February rally. But if the parties reach a settlement, it will mark a decidedly private end to a highly-publicized legal dispute.

The move to mediation suggests a final outcome in the yearslong case may come behind closed doors.

In a pair of rulings in the spring, Dein allowed nine of the lawsuit’s 10 counts to proceed to discovery. Dein wrote in her ruling that the evidence supports “a finding that Harvard engaged in a long-term pattern and practice of indifference to complaints of sexual harassment against professors” in the Anthropology Department.

But the notice for the Dec. 13 mediation hearing notes that “the entire mediation process” is confidential. According to the filing, both Harvard and the plaintiffs are bound to “keep confidential all communications exchanged during the mediation process.”

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton and attorneys for the plaintiffs declined to comment on the move to mediation.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at rahem.hamid@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @eschisgall.

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