You’d think Harvard professors would be more thoughtful than this

A Harvard anthropology professor, John Comaroff, had his wrists savagely slapped a few weeks ago for sexual harassment. This seems to be a common problem — many high ranking professors have vastly inflated egos, and I suspect it’s even worse at Harvard, where they already imagine themselves to be the smartest people in the world.

In 1986, a group of professors writing for the journal Current Anthropology found that the country’s most elite anthropology programs, including Harvard’s, operated based on a “hierarchy of prestige” dominated by powerful tenured faculty.

Nearly 35 years later, it is in part that very hierarchy that has allowed three of Harvard’s senior Anthropology faculty — former department chairs Theodore C. Bestor and Gary Urton and professor John L. Comaroff — to weather allegations of sexual harassment, including some leveled by students, according to people with knowledge of the matter and documents obtained by The Crimson.

All too often, a “hierarchy of prestige” is just a tall pile of assholes, which seems to be the case here. There’s a group of anthropology professors who have abused their position to make life hellish for some students — as usual, the pretty ones in an early and vulnerable stage of their careers. Ongoing investigations have been slowly trying to take apart a genteel collection of privileged jerks. Comaroff is the latest to get his comeuppance.

Comaroff was sanctioned by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay on Jan. 20 after University investigations found that he violated Harvard’s sexual and professional conduct policies. He is barred from teaching required courses and taking on additional advisees through the next academic year.

I would trust the review committee — after all, it’s made up of Harvard professors, so it must be the best and smartest committee — and they came down with this decision after reviewing a lot of confidential information, which I, of course, haven’t seen. That’s one of the difficulties of these kinds of investigations, because they are processing sensitive and confidential testimonies and evidence, which often neither party wants made public. Another problem is that typically a victimizer can be quite charming and helpful to the people who aren’t his victims. I know for a fact that many of the people I knew who did horrible things to other people were nice to me, and it was an unpleasant surprise when their actions were revealed. That’s how they last so long in positions of power.

It’s a lesson I learned late in life, so it ought to be no surprise that an incredible number of Harvard professors don’t get it. It is disappointing, though, that 38 of them got together to write an open letter that basically says, “John Comaroff was nice to me, therefore he couldn’t possibly have ever been bad to anyone else.

“We the undersigned know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen who has for five decades trained and advised hundreds of Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds, who have subsequently become leaders in universities across the world,” the letter said. “We are dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students.”

The letter was signed by some of Harvard’s most prominent faculty — including a former Harvard College dean and five University professors, who hold Harvard’s highest faculty distinction.

Humble students of human nature, they are not. Do they even understand the fallacy they are committing? Did no one in this group of almost two score “prominent faculty” stop to think that maybe the fact that Comaroff didn’t hit on me or stifle my career is totally irrelevant to the issue of whether he did harm to others? Are they really that self-centered?

Oh. Harvard professors. I may have answered my own question.


  1. sarah00 says

    I find the “I never saw this person do something so therefore they can’t have done it” rationale so strange. There’s lots of things that we never see people do, even those who we are close friends with, yet that doesn’t mean we deny they ever do them. Are Comaroff’s supporters next going to come out with a statement saying they’ve never seen him take a shit and therefore he couldn’t possibly have defecated in his life? Some things happen behind closed doors.

  2. PaulBC says

    You would? I wouldn’t and neither would you, it sounds like.

    I’ve long thought that all the debates about admissions policies at elite universities (affirmative action vs. legacy), questions about the education itself (does it promote a kind of conformity?), and scandals involving high prestige faculty all miss the real problem: the existence of elite institutions themselves.

    I don’t doubt that you get a better education at an Ivy League or equivalent like Stanford than at a middling public university. But it’s not so essential that it should be rationed for the tiniest segment of qualified applicants. You can also get an excellent education at some flagship state universities. In that case, the main thing you won’t get that you’ll get at Harvard are the social connections to other “elites”, mostly the already-privileged with a few lucky winners of the meritocracy olympics thrown in.

    I’m not anti-academic, but that’s not really the point. State universities are already powerhouses of research. The top universities create the myth of a fractional percentile who are better than everyone else and deserve special treatment. In fact, they may score at the top of some exams and in some fields like pure mathematics might outpace their colleagues in extraordinary ways. But education as a public good should address a large enough segment of the public to produce an educated citizenry, not an educational aristocracy.

    To be clear, I can’t think of an acceptable way to abolish elite universities, but I really don’t give a rat’s ass about their self-inflicted plights.

  3. DataWrangler says

    I’m increasingly aware and glad of just how large a bullet I dodged by NOT being hired by Harvard in the mid-’90s. It was bad enough being at UWO during Rushton’s most active years.

  4. leerudolph says

    Anthropology seems to harbor a lot of abusers and their enablers; Michael Balter covers a lot of that in his blog.

  5. says

    There are a lot of big names on that letter.

    From the linked Crimson article:

    …“Be aware that if you do not have access to the full review, and instead are relying on public accounts relayed through the media or only what is shared by one party to a complaint, you are necessarily operating without a comprehensive understanding of the facts that have motivated the response,” [Dean Claudine] Gay wrote.

    In her response on Thursday, Gay wrote that it “would not be appropriate” for her to disclose specifics about Comaroff’s case. “However,” she wrote, “I can tell you that the conduct at issue is not what you have described.”

    She wrote that some of the allegations against Comaroff required “further review” because they addressed policies outside of the Title IX process.

    “In my role as Dean, I cannot and I do not set aside the findings that are reached through that process,” she wrote. “But sometimes it is the case that some of the allegations in a complaint implicate policies outside of the Title IX policy and process, and require further review, particularly when the issues concern the well-being of the community. That was the case in this instance.”

    Gay concluded her letter by acknowledging the challenges of lodging a formal harassment complaint.

    “Behind every Title IX case are one or more complainants who made the difficult choice to come forward,” she wrote. “We should ask ourselves—perhaps especially the tenured faculty—what signal our reactions to the outcomes of these processes may send to our community, and particularly to those making that difficult choice of whether or not to come forward.”…

    Jennifer Hochschild, one of the signers, told the Crimson:

    What I signed the letter for was a desire to have a more open conversation about that issue. Are there certain issues we just should not talk to students about, even if we think it’s our professional responsibility? Are there ways of talking to students which are unacceptable?

    I mean, the letter is openly in support of Comaroff, not just about calling for a more open conversation about a specific issue (which itself would be fully valid, except that the issue in question has been framed for them by Comaroff’s lawyers).

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Dexter Morgan never murdered and dismembered me, so the accusations against him must be exaggerated. And Dr. Lecter is a victim of slander.

  7. says

    Sorry, the quotes are from the second link in the OP; I didn’t realize there were two Crimson links.

    From the first link:

    Bestor, 68, who studies modern Japan; Urton, 73, who specializes in pre-Columbian archaeology; and Comaroff, 75, who studies postcolonial Africa, are all tenured professors in the department.

    That was in 2020, so Comaroff is like 77 now.

  8. says

    Several of those interviewed said hiring practices like the ones outlined in the 1986 study on the “hierarchy of prestige” remain at the root of the problems female students face in the Harvard Anthropology department, pointing particularly to a lack of female faculty. Just three of 21 tenured faculty who hold appointments in the department are female. Within its archaeology wing, there are no tenured female faculty. Across FAS’s social sciences division, 32 percent of tenured professors are women, according to a 2020 Harvard report.

    And one of the three (this was in 2020, so there might be more now) is Jean Comaroff, who’s married to John Comaroff and co-authors books with John Comaroff.

  9. Walter Solomon says

    PaulBC @2

    I don’t doubt that you get a better education at an Ivy League or equivalent like Stanford than at a middling public university.

    What about the so-called Public Ivies?

    But education as a public good should address a large enough segment of the public to produce an educated citizenry, not an educational aristocracy.

    This makes me wonder if there’s a Chinese equivalent to the US Ivy League and UK Russell Group. And is it decided by state examination who gets to attend them?

    Either way, China seems to be pulling ahead of the West despite our academic ivory towers dotting the landscape.

  10. seachange says

    People I know who say to me that they have been to Harvard are not more thoughtful than this. I do not expect what you do expect.