Why did Harvard faculty close ranks to defend an alleged abuser?

The now-retracted open letter, published in defence of Professor John Comaroff, shows how confused the American debate around due process for alleged harassers has become.

Students and pedestrians walking through Harvard Yard, Cambridge
Students and pedestrians walk through the Yard at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, March 10, 2020 [Brian Snyder/Reuters]

During the past two weeks, allegations of sexual harassment in Harvard University’s anthropology department have captured significant public attention. A lawsuit filed last Tuesday asserts that Harvard knew Professor John Comaroff had a long history of harassing students, yet repeatedly failed to take action. The allegations are deeply worrisome, but they, unfortunately, aren’t so different from other stories from campuses across the country. As the last decade of student organising across the United States has made clear, American schools – from elementary schools to graduate programmes – too often look the other way when students report harassment.

So why did the Harvard story blow up? Probably because of the unusually blatant manner in which the faculty rushed to protect their own. A few days before the lawsuit was filed, a group of 38 Harvard professors, including celebrity academics like Jill Lepore, released an open letter defending Comaroff. Harvard had recently placed Comaroff on one semester of unpaid leave, and the undersigned faculty were “dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him”. They defended the conduct for which they believed he was sanctioned: advising a student she would likely be raped if she travelled to South Africa. They questioned why Harvard had launched two separate investigations into Comaroff, rather than one. And then they declared that they “know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen” – as though that meant he couldn’t be a harasser.

After the lawsuit, and after Harvard provided a simple answer to their procedural question, nearly all of the signatories retracted their support of the letter – though only a few apologised for signing. They were right to do so. Thirty-four admitted, in a second letter, that they “were lacking full information about the case”. And, most importantly, the professors had failed to foresee the obvious signal their letter would send to their students: That if a young person dared to come forward against a prominent academic, the faculty would close ranks, facts be damned.

Because campus investigations into sexual abuse usually happen behind closed doors, the public rarely gets the chance to see how universities protect their “stars” – such as high-profile academics or champion quarterbacks – from allegations of sexual harassment. The Harvard letter, then, served as an unusually visible and unusually brazen demonstration of a dynamic that many survivors have confronted in private.

The letter also served as a frustrating example of how confused the American debate around due process for alleged harassers has become. During the last decade, the US has gone through a very public and painful reckoning about both the prevalence of sexual harassment and the willingness of institutions – from schools to Hollywood to fast food restaurants – to punish victims who come forward. In response, many critics have raised concerns about whether people accused of sexual harassment are being treated fairly now that these institutions feel some pressure to do right by survivors.

Some alleged harassers, they say, have been deprived of their right to due process – to tell their side of the story, to be heard by an impartial decision-maker, to be judged according to the facts and not external demands.

As I discuss in my recent book Sexual Justice, these debates are a morass of good faith critiques and bad faith deflections. On the one hand, there are important questions to ask about how institutions can investigate misconduct – including, but not limited to, sexual harms – within their midst. In my research, I talked to people who had been subjected to genuinely unfair investigations that served no one, accused or victim.

But sometimes people cry out for “due process” when they really mean “impunity”. This past summer, for example, many contended that then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was being pressured to resign over allegations of sexual harassment without “due process”. But the pressure reached a boiling point only because of damning findings reached through a lengthy independent investigation. For many years, a Georgia state legislator raised a battle cry about alleged unfairness towards men accused of sexual assault and racism on college campuses. All the while, behind the scenes, he tried to bully schools into reaching particular results in particular investigations, as though that were fairer. In other words, as law professor Nancy Chi Cantalupo has put it, “due process” has, for some, become a “dog whistle”.

This mix of meritorious and trump-ed up critique makes it difficult to discern which concerns are worth engaging, and which are anti-feminist hysteria designed to derail progress. And that’s a shame, because we really do need to distinguish. If we dismiss procedural concerns out of hand, we’ll ignore real injustices. But if we treat every men’s rights activist’s hyperbole as a credible warning, we’ll be drafted into their misogynistic project.

I won’t pretend I’ve devised a perfect test to differentiate valid critique from apologism. And I can’t say whether Harvard treated Comaroff unfairly, because I only know what’s been reported publicly. But I’ll say that, from the outside, the open letter’s procedural critique seemed closer to a “dog whistle” than a legitimate concern.

For starters, Harvard has provided a straightforward answer to the professors’ objection to the dual investigations into Comaroff: Harvard, like many other schools, separates out inquiries into sexual harassment and other kinds of misconduct. (I think this bifurcation is bad for victims, for reasons I explain in my book, but that’s a separate matter.) That much would have been clear to any faculty member who perused the schools’ publicly available policies. I’m left to wonder, then, whether the professors had any reason to believe Harvard’s investigation was procedurally unsound beyond the fact that they didn’t like the result – and so whether the question they raised had any purpose but to cast aspersions on the allegations.

And it’s particularly hard to credit these professors as champions of due process when they rushed to their own unfair judgement. They critiqued the school for reaching a particular outcome in a particular case without, by their own account, knowing the facts. They prejudged allegations based on their personal affinity for the accused – that is, their bias. The letter can be read, perhaps ungenerously, to pressure Harvard to change the result of its investigation based on the weight of the signatories’ titles. So forgive me if I take its procedural critique with a grain of salt.

The professors would have been better served if they had heeded a basic tenet of due process: That judgments should be rendered impartially. They might have realised that their affection for Comaroff rendered them particularly ill-suited to assess the allegations against him. They might have raised any genuine concerns about Harvard’s policies through a separate route, untied to any particular case. They might have realised they should sit this one out.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.