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Most defenders of Harvard anthropology professor retract letter of support after more allegations of misconduct emerge

Harvard University (Joe Difazio/WBUR)
Harvard University (Joe Difazio/WBUR)

Last week, 38 Harvard University professors came to the defense of their colleague John Comaroff and questioned the results of an investigation into alleged misconduct by the renowned anthropology professor.

This week, 34 of them have retracted their support in a letter submitted to The Harvard Crimson.

The new letter and apparent change of heart came after a lawsuit, which included much more damning allegations of Comaroff's behavior toward students, was announced on Tuesday. The suit includes details that an earlier university-led investigation did not corroborate.

"We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case," said the letter, which was signed by public figures from historian and journalist Jill Lepore to novelist Jamaica Kincaid.

The retraction did not include an apology to the affected students.

The professors initially signed an open letter of support that questioned the university's decision to place Comaroff on unpaid administrative leave for a semester and prohibit him from teaching courses until 2023.

The first letter focused on whether Comaroff was disciplined for telling an openly lesbian student that she could be raped if she and her partner were to travel through parts of Africa.

"What rules of professional conduct are broken by informing students of the risks of gender-based violence in the multiple locations around the world that do not recognize the rights of women and LGBQTIA+ individuals in the same manner as in the United States?" the supporters asked.

But as the lawsuit — filed by anthropology students Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava — argued, the problem goes beyond Comaroff's seemingly-innocuous advice to one student. The suit charged Comaroff of unwanted groping and kissing and retaliation. It also attacked the university for mishandling the Title IX investigation prompted by student complaints years earlier.

The initial letter signed by the 38 professors was cited in the lawsuit as an example of the professional retaliation the plaintiffs said they've experienced since coming forward with their allegations.

"By signing the letter, Harvard faculty further curtailed Plaintiffs’ narrowing universe of potential advisors: amongst the signatories are Professor Greenhalgh, Professor Elkins, and dozens of other faculty members," attorneys for the students wrote in the complaint.

Among the backlash stirred by the letter of support, 73 colleagues responded in the Crimson: "Without full knowledge of the facts of the Title IX and Professional Conduct investigations, the signatories have endorsed details provided by Professor Comaroff’s legal team, which has taken advantage of the confidentiality of these processes to publicize its view of the case."

In their retraction letter, the professors aligned with their 73 colleagues in demanding better procedures “without presuming to know the full findings of confidential investigations or acting in ways that intimidate students and inhibit them from divulging experiences of harm."

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Vanessa Ochavillo is a WBUR newsroom fellow.

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