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

Over the past two weeks, allegations of sexual harassment in Harvard University’s anthropology department have captured the public’s attention. A lawsuit filed last Tuesday claims Harvard knew Professor John Comaroff had a long history of student harassment, but repeatedly failed to take action. The allegations are deeply disturbing, but unfortunately they’re not all that different from other campus stories across the country. As the past decade of student organization in the United States has made clear, American schools – from elementary schools to graduate programs – too often turn a blind eye when students report harassment.

So why did the Harvard story blow up? Probably because of the unusually blatant manner in which the faculty has rushed to protect its own. Days before the lawsuit was filed, a group of 38 Harvard professors, including famous scholars like Jill Lepore, published an open letter defending Comaroff. Harvard had recently placed Comaroff on a semester of unpaid leave, and the undersigned faculty were “appalled by Harvard’s sanctions against him.” They defended the conduct for which they believed he had been sanctioned: advising a student that she would likely be raped if she traveled to South Africa. They wondered why Harvard had launched two separate investigations into Comaroff, rather than just one. And then they said they “know John Comaroff as an excellent colleague, adviser and committed academic citizen” – as if that meant he couldn’t be a stalker.

After the trial, and after Harvard provided a straightforward answer to their procedural question, nearly all of the signatories literally withdrew their support – although only a few apologized for signing. They were right to do so. Thirty-four admitted, in a second letter, that they “lack complete information about the case”. And, more importantly, the professors hadn’t foreseen the obvious signal that their letter would send to their students: that if a young person dared to come forward against a prominent scholar, the faculty would close ranks, damn the facts.

Because campus sexual abuse investigations typically take place behind closed doors, the public rarely gets to see how universities protect their “stars” — such as top academics or champion quarterbacks — from abuse. allegations of sexual harassment. The Harvard letter thus served as an unusually visible and unusually brazen demonstration of a dynamic that many survivors faced in private.

The letter also served as a frustrating example of the confusion in the US debate over due process for alleged harassers. Over the past decade, the United States has gone through a very public and painful record of both the prevalence of sexual harassment and the willingness of institutions – from schools to Hollywood to fast food restaurants – to punish sexual harassment. victims who come forward. In response, many critics have raised concerns about whether those accused of sexual harassment are being treated fairly now that these institutions are feeling some pressure to do good by survivors.

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

As I explain in my recent book Sexual Justice, these debates are a hodgepodge of good faith criticism and bad faith misappropriation. On the one hand, there are important questions to ask about how institutions can investigate misconduct – including, but not limited to, sexual harm – within them. In my research, I spoke to people who had been the subject of truly unfair investigations that served no one, accused or victim.

But sometimes people call for ‘due process’ when they really mean ‘impunity’. Last summer, for example, many argued that then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was being pressured to resign over allegations of sexual harassment without “due process”. But the pressure has reached a boiling point only because of the damning conclusions reached through a long independent investigation. For many years, a Georgia state legislator has raised a battle cry over alleged injustice toward men accused of sexual assault and racism on college campuses. All the while, behind the scenes, he tried to bully schools into getting particular results in particular surveys, as if that was fairer. In other words, as law professor Nancy Chi Cantalupo put it, “due process” has become, for some, a “dog whistle.”

This mix of meritorious and bogus criticism makes it difficult to discern which concerns are worth addressing and which are anti-feminist hysteria designed to derail progress. And that’s a shame, because you really have to make the distinction. If we dismiss procedural concerns out of hand, we will ignore real injustices. But if we treat every men’s rights activist’s hyperbole as a credible warning, we will be conscripted into their misogynistic scheme.

I will not claim to have devised a perfect test to differentiate valid criticism from apology. And I can’t say whether Harvard treated Comaroff unfairly, because I only know what has been reported publicly. But I will say that, from the outside, the procedural criticism of the open letter seemed more akin to a “dog whistle” than a legitimate concern.

For starters, Harvard provided a direct response to the professors’ objection to the dual investigation of Comaroff: Harvard, like many other schools, separates investigations into sexual harassment and other types of misconduct. (I think this bifurcation is bad for victims, for reasons I explain in my book, but that’s another matter.) That would have been clear to any faculty member who had read the public policies of the schools. I then wonder if the professors had any reason to believe that the Harvard investigation was procedurally unsound beyond the fact that they did not like the outcome – and therefore if the question they raised had a purpose other than to slander the allegations.

And it’s especially hard to credit these professors as champions of due process when they rushed for their own unfair judgment. They criticized the school for achieving a particular outcome in a particular case without, by their own admission, knowing the facts. They prejudged the allegations based on their personal affinity with the accused, that is, their bias. The letter can be read, perhaps without generosity, to pressure Harvard to modify the result of its investigation according to the weight of the titles of the signatories. So forgive me if I take his procedural criticism with a grain of salt.

Professors would have been better served had they heeded a fundamental principle of due process: that judgments should be rendered impartially. They might have realized that their affection for Comaroff made them particularly ill-placed to assess the allegations against him. They could have raised genuine concerns about Harvard policies through a separate channel, not tied to any particular case. They might have realized they should sit this one out.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.


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