Sexual Violence in Higher Education: Three Graduate Students Sue Harvard University

Kylie Horan, Staff Writer

*Trigger warning: This article contains discussions about sexual violence.*

Three graduate students are suing Harvard University for neglecting to protect its students in the face of sexual violence. Amulya Mandava, Lilia Kilburn and Margaret Czerwienski, all students of anthropology, accused the institution of continually downplaying or ignoring complaints about sexual misconduct by John Comaroff, Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology.

This is not the first time that Comaroff has been accused of predatory behavior. Harvard hired him well after he had developed a reputation at the University of Chicago as a “groomer.” Shortly after his arrival at Harvard, complaints against him came rolling in. Some of the allegations against Comaroff include making “ongoing sexual advances” towards an anonymous second-year graduate student advisee, including forced kissing, groping and repeated invasive texts inquiring who she had gone to bed with. This unnamed student reported Comaroff to the university’s Title IX office, and Czerwienski and Mandava reported him to faculty members, including the chair of the department. Yet, Harvard did not investigate Comaroff. 

The women’s move to warn other students put a target on their backs, with Czerwienski and Mandava stating that Comaroff intimidated Mandava by warning that they would both have “trouble getting jobs” if they continued to share information on his behavior. This exhibition of his power over female students was further confirmed by Kilburn, who endured “forced kissing, groping, persistent invitations to socialize alone off-campus and coercive control” at the hands of Comaroff, since before she was even rolled at Harvard. Comaroff also graphically described the various ways she and her partner would be raped if they traveled to South Africa, which is quite far from her area of interest, central Africa. The reports of non-consensual kissing, groping, intimidation tactics and sexually-threatening comments such as these do not stop there. The lawsuit states that several unnamed female students have come forward with their own stories. 

After years of dismissing allegations, Harvard finally investigated Comaroff in 2020, only after published news reports about sexual harassment allegations within his department forced its hand. Comaroff is not the first professor to be accused in Harvard’s Anthropology Department. There have been several allegations of sexual harassment in recent years, one resulting in the removal of longtime professor Gary Urton, who is now banned from campus and stripped of his emeritus status. Comaroff, though, received no such treatment. After a messy, “nightmarish” investigation, with Harvard allegedly obtaining Kilburn’s private therapy records and disclosing them to Comaroff, the plaintiffs say that “Harvard denied that Prof. Comaroff engaged in repeated sexual harassment or retaliation and allowed him to continue teaching after a slap on the wrist.”

A semester-long suspension, a ban from teaching required courses and the option for his advisees to switch to another faculty member was all that Harvard offered in the face of allegations of years of sexual misconduct. In fact, Harvard is accused of muddying the information on the accusations, with the unequal distribution of the facts of the case leading to some 38 Harvard professors signing a public letter of concern about how the university has treated Comaroff, singing his praises — signatures that some professors now wish to remove in light of the full story. His lawyers herald him as “a deeply caring person,” and possibly more important to the case, “a leading scholar in his field.”

Is prominent scholarship enough to excuse years of systemic abuse? Harvard’s consistent failure to follow up with Title IX allegations raises larger concerns about the power dynamic between esteemed academics and their pupils, and who deserves to be protected.

 “I am horrified to hear about this case,” one anonymous, female Villanovan student said. “It is definitely scary to be a woman in these kinds of situations, where you never know if you really are here on your own merit or if it’s just somebody’s ulterior motives. I hope those women get the justice they deserve.” 

The plaintiffs are seeking trial by jury, and this case is far from over. If one found this article triggering or are seeking support for sexual trauma, the University provides several resources such as a 24/7 SARC Coordinator on call at 484-343-6028, the University Counseling Center, the Title IX office and Public Safety.