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Harvard students walk out in dispute over anthropology professor accused of sex abuse

Harvard University students publicly staged a walk-out of a class taught by Dr. John Comaroff, who was accused of having forcibly kissed and groped grad students in a lawsuit from three graduate students. 

Comaroff, an anthropology professor and expert on South Africa, had been on administrative leave following a university investigation into his conduct but returned to teach last fall when he also faced a walk-out.

The lawsuit, which has been backed on Title IX grounds by the US Department of Justice, alleged that the prestigious institution ignored sexual harassment allegations against a prominent tenured professor – who in one incident forcibly kissed and groped one of the women and told her that she could undergo ‘corrective rape’ while doing fieldwork in Africa if she took her girlfriend along. 

Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave in January 2022 after university investigators found that he engaged in verbal conduct that violated both the school’s sexual and gender-based and professional conduct policies. 

Harvard University students publicly staged a walk-out of a class taught by Dr. John Comaroff (pictured right), who was accused of having forcibly kissed and groped women in a lawsuit from three graduate students

Harvard University students publicly staged a walk-out of a class taught by Dr. John Comaroff (pictured right), who was accused of having forcibly kissed and groped women in a lawsuit from three graduate students

He has denied the accusations, with his attorneys telling DailyMail.com at the time of the lawsuit he ‘categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.’

Several activist organizations across campus, as well as the graduate student union’s Feminist Working Group, organized the protest.  

‘John Comaroff has spent his career silencing and retaliating against students — thereby undermining Harvard’s value of creating an equitable, safe learning environment for all,’ first-year student Rosie Couture said in a statement. ‘For the good of the university community and Harvard’s academic mission, it’s past time for Harvard to act.’

Plaintiffs Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava alleged that Comaroff for years ‘kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.’

The suit accuses Comaroff of musing to Kilburn that she could be subject to ‘corrective rape’ or murder if she were seen in a same-sex relationship while doing field work in Africa, a remark she told the New York Times was made with a ‘tone of enjoyment.’ 

The lawsuit says Kilburn was subjected to ‘a continuing nightmare that included more forced kissing, groping, persistent invitations to socialize alone off-campus, and coercive control.’ 

‘Regarding Ms. Kilburn, professor Comaroff did not kiss her or touch her inappropriately at any time,’ the statement from the professor’s attorneys said. 

Comaroff, an anthropology professor and expert on South Africa , had been on administrative leave following a university investigation into his conduct but returned to teach last fall, when he also faced a walk-out

Comaroff, an anthropology professor and expert on South Africa , had been on administrative leave following a university investigation into his conduct but returned to teach last fall, when he also faced a walk-out

Comaroff, an anthropology professor and expert on South Africa , had been on administrative leave following a university investigation into his conduct but returned to teach last fall, when he also faced a walk-out

Plaintiffs Margaret Czerwienski (pictured left), Lilia Kilburn (pictured center) and Amulya Mandava (pictured right) alleged that Comaroff for years 'kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students' careers if they complained.'

Plaintiffs Margaret Czerwienski (pictured left), Lilia Kilburn (pictured center) and Amulya Mandava (pictured right) alleged that Comaroff for years 'kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students' careers if they complained.'

Plaintiffs Margaret Czerwienski (pictured left), Lilia Kilburn (pictured center) and Amulya Mandava (pictured right) alleged that Comaroff for years ‘kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.’

Several activist organizations across campus, as well as the graduate student union's Feminist Working Group, organized the protest

Several activist organizations across campus, as well as the graduate student union's Feminist Working Group, organized the protest

Several activist organizations across campus, as well as the graduate student union’s Feminist Working Group, organized the protest

On another occasion in 2017, when she met with Comaroff to discuss her plans to study in Cameroon, he repeatedly said she could be subjected to violence in Africa because she was in a same-sex relationship, the lawsuit said.

‘Ms. Kilburn sat frozen in shock, while professor Comaroff continued for approximately five minutes,’ the suit said.

Kilburn tweeted out in support of the walkout, writing: ‘as someone who experienced Comaroff’s misconduct firsthand, I am so grateful to see others spreading the word. this direct action is essential because Harvard only announced its sanctions against Comaroff to two departments. but everyone needs information & safety.’ 

Comaroff said in a statement from his lawyers that ‘this was a necessary conversation for her safety’ and that ‘he was motivated only by his concern for Ms. Kilburn’s well-being and had no romantic or sexual intention.’ 

The other two plaintiffs, Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava, said when they reported Comaroff’s behavior to university administrators, he retaliated against them by threatening to derail their careers.

Comaroff denied ever threatening Czerwienski or Mandava, but instead ‘consistently made every effort to assist these students and to advance their careers.’

The lawsuit says the women first approached Harvard staff about Comaroff nearly five years ago. 

In a statement to DailyMail.com, Comaroff’s attorneys vehemently denied the allegations, saying their client ‘categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student’

‘All three plaintiffs repeatedly complained to Harvard administrators,’ said the suit.

‘But the university brushed them aside and opted to protect its star professor over vulnerable students,’ it added.

The lawsuit claims that Harvard stood by and watched as he retaliated by ensuring the students would have ‘trouble getting jobs.’

Comaroff, who joined Harvard in 2012, was not named as a defendant. In June, the Harvard Crimson reported a sexual misconduct claim against him dating back to his time at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. 

His lawyers — Norman Zalkind, Janet Halley, and Ruth O´Meara-Costello — in a joint statement said he ‘categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.’

Harvard had no comment. In January, it placed Comaroff on leave for the spring semester and barred him from teaching required courses after finding he engaged in verbal conduct that violated its sexual harassment and professional conduct policies.

The lawsuit claims that Harvard stood by and watched as he retaliated by ensuring the students would have 'trouble getting jobs'

The lawsuit claims that Harvard stood by and watched as he retaliated by ensuring the students would have 'trouble getting jobs'

The lawsuit claims that Harvard stood by and watched as he retaliated by ensuring the students would have ‘trouble getting jobs’

In January, it placed Comaroff on leave for the spring semester and barred him from teaching required courses after finding he engaged in verbal conduct that violated its sexual harassment and professional conduct policies

In January, it placed Comaroff on leave for the spring semester and barred him from teaching required courses after finding he engaged in verbal conduct that violated its sexual harassment and professional conduct policies

In January, it placed Comaroff on leave for the spring semester and barred him from teaching required courses after finding he engaged in verbal conduct that violated its sexual harassment and professional conduct policies

Those sanctions have divided the Harvard community, where nearly 40 faculty members signed onto an open letter questioning the investigation and calling him an ‘excellent colleague.’

All three plaintiffs said their academic trajectories and career prospects had been ‘profoundly altered’ and that Harvard violated Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which protects students from discrimination based on sex, and various Massachusetts laws.

In September, the Justice Department, in a rare filing in such a case, argued that Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, protects students’ ability to report sex discrimination without fear of reprisal.

‘For that to happen, schools must protect students who participate in the Title IX process from retaliation and respond effectively to known retaliatory acts of their employees,’ the department said.

‘Harvard´s continued failure to act on repeated reports of harassment against professor Comaroff -until spurred to do so by the media – demonstrates an institutional policy of indifference: a system designed to protect the university, its reputation, and the faculty who sustain that reputation at the expense of its students,’ the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial, unspecified damages, and a judgment that Harvard violated the women’s rights.

Source of data and images: dailymail

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