One student said that Harvard anthropology professor John Comaroff told her she’d be “raped and killed” if she undertook research in South Africa.
Three graduate students have filed a lawsuit against Harvard, alleging that the university refused to investigate an anthropology professor for sexual harassment.
According to NBC News, the lawsuit was filed in a Massachusetts federal court earlier this week. The complaint takes particular issue with John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology and African-American studies.
Comaroff, notes NBC News, was placed on administrative leave last month.
However, the lawsuit asserts that each of the three plaintiff students—identified as Lilia Kilburn, Margaret Czerwienski, and Amulya Mandava—reported Comaroff for misconduct years before. In fact, the graduate students say they first complained about Comaroff five years ago.
Now, attorneys for the students say that Harvard’s decision to place Comaroff on unpaid administrative leave constitutes its own injustice, as school officials have yet to acknowledge the professor’s most “egregious” offenses.
In the investigation that led to Comaroff being placed on unpaid leave, Harvard found that he “engaged in verbal conduct that violated the FAS [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and the FAS [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Professional Conduct Policy.”
However, Harvard did not find Comaroff responsible for any unwanted sexual conduct, which the plaintiff students claim was “rampant.”
“He kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained,” the lawsuit states.
NBC News reports that much of the complaint centers on a single conversation Kilburn had on first day of graduate school. When Kilburn told Comaroff she intended to do research in Central Africa, he purportedly told her that she would likely be assaulted and killed for being in a same-sex relationship.
“During the meeting, Professor Comaroff repeatedly described various ways in which Ms. Kilburn would be raped and killed in South Africa – approximately 3,000 miles away from Central Africa – because she is in a same-sex relationship,” the lawsuit says.
Comaroff has thus far denied any and all wrongdoing, saying his review of potential safety hazards in South or Central Africa were a “necessary conversation for [Kilburn’s] safety.”
“Professor Comaroff vehemently disputes this conclusion, which would cripple faculty members’ ability to use their best academic judgment in advising students about essential safety issues,” Comaroff’s attorneys said.
In a statement issued by the professor’s legal team, attorneys said that Title IX investigators found Comaroff responsible for a single incidence of verbal abuse “arising from a brief conversation during an office hour advising session,” adding that the school found “no sexual or romantic intention.”
“Upon receipt of these results, Harvard opened a second, kangaroo court process – lacking the most elemental aspects of due process and artificially limited to a defective record – to reexamine conduct thoroughly investigated in the Title IX process,” they said.