Harvard’s Sexual Harassment Lawsuit is About Free Speech for Students

Nicole Bedera, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies sexual violence on the structural level, tells Teen Vogue she believes the signers’ actions constitute “a form of harassment” she says is likely to have a chilling effect on future victims coming forward. This creates a truly un-free situation for speech, in the opposite direction of what the professors may have intended.

“If students see their classmates mistreated and retaliated against when they come forward, that will inform their own decisions about whether to report,” says Alexandra Brodsky, staff attorney at Public Justice and author of Sexual Justice. “It’s incumbent on the open letter’s signatories, and the Harvard administration, to act swiftly and smartly to remedy the letter’s chilling effects. An unapologetic retraction is unlikely to cut it.”

Commentators like Nicole Froio, Ph.D., who studies sexual violence and masculinity, contextualized Czerwienski, Kilburn, and Mandava’s lawsuit as representative of a structural tendency in academia to enable and perpetuate the exploitation of grad students. The complaint describes that allegedly hostile environment in detail: It claims that Harvard already knew about sexual misconduct allegations against Comaroff at his previous institution before hiring him in 2012; stalled on its own investigation until the Crimson was preparing its 2020 report; that Comaroff retaliated against those speaking out; and that Harvard obtained Kilburn’s therapy records and gave them to Comaroff, who then used that material to disparage her.

Comaroff’s legal team tells Teen Vogue he “categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student,” and says he “was never the subject of any Title IX or other complaint” at his previous institution. He also says, via his legal team, that he did not request access to any medical records and “[takes] strong issue with Ms. Kilburn’s representation, in the complaint, of the role the records played in the ODR process.” 

Harvard also issued a statement, on February 10, disputing the allegations in the lawsuit and standing behind its findings. The statement detailed the university’s policies surrounding the sharing of medical records, noting that all guidelines were followed, in response to the allegations related to Kilburn’s therapy records.

Sofia Andrade, Harvard sophomore and arts chair of the Crimson, tells Teen Vogue the ripple effect of the crisis is already being felt on campus. “As a student looking to soon start the thesis-advising process, it was incredibly concerning to read those 38 professors, many of whom my friends or I could have once considered advisors, so vehemently defend someone who has had credible allegations against him from multiple women, even since his last job,” Andrade says. “More than anything, it really makes you question who academia serves.”

Title IX, the federal civil rights law that dictates how schools that receive federal funds should address gender disparity, is an imperfect system; its shortcomings, and the larger questions raised by stories like that of Comaroff, are felt at higher-education institutions nationwide. “This story is a lot bigger than Harvard. This is the normative experience of victims who try to report sexual harassment, especially if they are graduate students in a tightly knit program,” says Dr. Bedera, who tweeted a thread detailing suggestions for how faculty can support students around sexual misconduct.

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