Common sense and gutlessness at Harvard

John Comaroff is a professor of African and American studies and anthropology at Harvard. Some female graduate students have accused him of sexual misconduct. Harvard responded by sanctioning him for allegedly violating its policies on the subject. He’s on unpaid leave, and barred from teaching required courses and taking on additional advisees through the next academic year.

Thirty-eight Harvard faculty members complained about the sanctioning in an open letter supporting Comaroff. The letter raised both procedural and substantive objections.

Substantively, the 38 profs said they were perplexed by the charge that Comaroff acted inappropriately when he told students that a lesbian couple traveling in an African country where homosexuality is illegal might face violence. This, they said, appears to be the only allegation as to which Harvard found merit. “How,” the professors asked, “can advice intended to protect an advisee from sexual violence be itself construed as sexual harassment?”

It’s a good, common sense question. However, nearly all of the Harvard professors who asked it (34 of the 38) have now retracted their support for the letter.

The retraction reflects poorly on them. If there’s something wrong with the letter, they were fools to sign it. If there isn’t, their retraction is pathetic.

The retractors, who include big names like Henry Louis Gates, explained their reversal this way:

Our concerns were transparency, process and university procedures, which go beyond the merits of any individual case. We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case.

Note the absence of any reason to believe that the concerns about transparency, process, etc. are unfounded. What the profs are saying instead is that their legitimate concerns are trumped by the feelings of students. In other words, it’s okay to railroad a faculty member — one who has served the university for five decades — if not railroading him will make some students feel unhappy or “triggered.”

As for the lack information, full information about the merits isn’t required to opine about (1) procedural problems and (2) the idiocy of finding sexual harassment based on a warning about the risks a lesbian couple might face in a country that despises homosexuality.

Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School is one of the few professors who stood by the letter he signed. A former law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall, he specializes in race and the law and is a longtime critic of academic critical race theory.

Kennedy defends the letter supporting Comaroff. He says “the initial open letter indicated deep concern, based on available information, about the university’s treatment of Professor Comaroff.”

Kennedy acknowledges that “of course the signatories did not know about everything that might be pertinent.” He adds, however, that if complete knowledge were a prerequisite for voicing concern, there might well be no suitable occasion for doing so. And he emphasizes that he’s not aware of any new information that erases the worries that prompted him to sign the letter in the first place.

The best explanation for the retraction might be the fact that 73 Harvard professors signed a letter “in strong opposition” to what their 38 colleagues wrote. Academics, even sensible ones, aren’t known for standing up to the mob.

Meanwhile, three graduate students who say Comaroff sexually harassed them have sued Harvard. Reportedly, their complaint includes the stuff about lesbian couples traveling in Africa, but also claims that, if true, amount to blatant sexual harassment — kissing, groping, and unwelcome sexual advances backed by threats to sabotage the plaintiffs’ careers if the students complained.

I gather that Harvard’s Office of Dispute Resolution found merit in only the lesbian-couples-in-Africa claim. However, the grad students are entitled to their day in court on the serious charges.

Even if they prevail, though, this would not mean that the 38 professors were wrong to voice the concerns they did. Or that 34 of them were right to back off under pressure.

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