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Citing Harvard’s Title IX ‘Failure’ in Comaroff Controversy, Former Anthro Chair to Depart Harvard for CUNY

The Tozzer Anthropology Building and Peabody Museum house offices for Harvard's Anthropology department.
The Tozzer Anthropology Building and Peabody Museum house offices for Harvard's Anthropology department. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Rahem D. Hamid and Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Anthropology professor and former Department Chair Ajantha Subramanian will leave Cambridge to teach at the City University of New York, citing a lack of support from Harvard’s administration in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against three Anthropology professors.

Subramanian was on temporary leave as chair when The Crimson reported in May 2020 that Anthropology professors John L. Comaroff, Theodore C. Bestor, and Gary Urton were facing complaints of sexual misconduct, including some levied by graduate students.

She announced last month in a tweet that she would leave Harvard for the CUNY Graduate Center. She confirmed in emails to The Crimson that she will start as a full professor on July 1, 2023.

In an emailed statement to The Crimson Wednesday, Subramanian wrote that “a major push factor” for her decision to leave Harvard was the “delayed administrative response to faculty losses in Anthropology.”

“This lack of adequate support seems directly related to the tumult in our department caused by faculty misconduct leading to three publicly disclosed Title IX complaints,” she wrote.

Subramanian also wrote that graduate students’ experiences in the Anthropology Department was “Exhibit A of the failure of Title IX at Harvard.”

“These experiences suggest that Harvard’s primary concern is to avoid litigation, especially by faculty,” Subramanian wrote. “This predisposes the institution to protect the rights of the accused over those of accusers.”

“The way the policy is administered generated distrust and hostility within our department and forced student complainants to upend their education, and possibly curtail their careers,” she added. “Instead of taking our experience as evidence of a deeply flawed system, the university has focused on containing the damage.”

In her statement, Subramanian took particular aim at Social Sciences Dean Lawrence D. Bobo, writing he was “neither encouraging nor supportive” of an internal Anthropology Department review launched in response to The Crimson’s reporting, instead telling department leaders to “‘calm things down.’”

“Apart from paying for a communications consultant, the social science dean essentially left us to manage the fallout on our own,” Subramanian wrote.

“The takeaway for me is this: Harvard is unwilling to help departments that try to address inequities and abuses of power meaningfully,” she added.

In an emailed statement, Bobo said he could not comment on private conversations with individual professors and that his success as dean is contingent on working with “vital and productive” faculty and departments.

“For me, that means assuring that each unit under my supervision has the resources and tools necessary for excellence in their research and teaching mission,” Bobo wrote. “It also means assuring that each unit lives as fully as we are able into a shared commitment to maintaining a Harvard community that is equitable, diverse, and inclusive.”

“Over the last several years our Anthropology department has faced challenging issues, which have spurred important conversations within the department and across the FAS,” he added. “I think meaningful change and progress has taken place in recent months, but much work remains to be done.”

History and African and African American Studies professor Vincent A. Brown, Subramanian’s husband, wrote in a Wednesday email that he had no plans to leave Harvard “in the immediate future.”

In The Crimson’s May 2020 investigation that reported allegations against the three Anthropology professors, Subramanian and the interim Department chair, Rowan K. Flad, wrote a lengthy statement where they reiterated their dedication to diversifying the department and responding to student complaints.

The committee tasked with conducting the internal department review released its report in July 2021, more than a year after the initial Crimson investigation. The report recommended sweeping reforms, including a departmental code of conduct, external reviews of allegations against senior faculty, and third-party arbitration for misconduct cases.

Subramanian said Wednesday that the internal review received resistance from “a subset of senior male anthropology faculty who preferred to see sexual misconduct as an isolated problem unconnected to a larger department culture.”

“Their actions prioritized protecting the department’s reputation and their own authority rather than addressing deeply problematic gender dynamics,” she added.

The current Anthropology Department chair, Matthew J. Liebmann, declined to comment.

In February 2022, 38 faculty members wrote a letter to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay questioning the sanctions Gay — now Harvard’s president-elect — imposed on Comaroff in January 2022. Subramanian and Brown were two of 73 faculty to respond in opposition. Soon after, 35 of the 38 faculty members retracted their signatures.

When three female Anthropology graduate students filed a lawsuit against Harvard alleging the school mishandled years of sexual harassment and professional retaliation complaints against Comaroff, Subramanian was among 15 tenured Anthropology professors who signed a letter asking the embattled African and African American Studies and Anthropology professor to resign.

This semester has seen a surge of campus activism against Harvard and Comaroff, including a walkout, an email campaign, a march, and most recently, a sit-in at University Hall on Wednesday.

In her statement, Subramanian wrote that Harvard’s focus on “containing the damage” fueled the recent wave of campus activism, and she called for a reevaluation of the school’s Title IX policies and procedures.

“Only a serious and far-reaching review of Harvard’s Title IX policy, and especially its practical implementation, will prevent this kind of crisis from recurring,” she wrote.

Subramanian also said that in the wake of The Crimson’s reporting, Harvard administrators failed to provide adequate support to Anthropology faculty.

She wrote that when asked for what she would like in a retention offer, she asked Bobo, the Social Sciences dean, “for enough faculty lines to improve working conditions” to help remove the burden on other Anthropology faculty as their colleagues left.

“Although one search was authorized this year, this is totally inadequate,” Subramanian wrote. “I am not convinced that the university is committed to rebuilding Anthropology.”

Subramanian wrote that her interests “are wonderfully aligned with the strengths of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Anthropology faculty.”

“The Graduate Center is more amenable to research and teaching than Harvard, which imposes a heavy administrative burden,” Subramanian wrote.

She will be teaching and serving as a Ph.D. adviser at CUNY and said she will likely be affiliated with CUNY’s Center for Place, Culture, and Politics.

Correction: April 2, 2023

A previous of this article incorrectly stated that current Anthropology Department chair Matthew J. Liebmann did not respond to a request for comment. In fact, Liebmann declined to comment.

—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 Twitter @eschisgall.

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