Harvard Students Are Protesting a Professor. Here’s Why.

Anthropology professor John Comaroff was placed on leave, accused of violating the school's sexual harassment policies. He's teaching again, and students aren't happy.

Published September 20, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Harvard Students Are Protesting a Professor. Here’s Why.
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Vanessa Leroy / Bloomberg / Getty Images

  • Anthropology professor John Comaroff was first accused of sexual misconduct in 2020.
  • He was first placed on paid administrative leave and then unpaid leave.
  • Comaroff's administrative leave is over, and he is teaching a class this fall.
  • Students reacted with a petition to stop Comaroff from teaching and are now protesting his class.

Harvard professor John Comaroff returned to the classroom this month after two years on administrative leave following accusations of sexual misconduct.

During his first class on Sept. 6, a group of students walked out in protest of his return.

"I don't want to be taught by someone who has still not accounted for or made amends for their sexual misconduct. If you feel similarly, please join me in walking out of this classroom," a graduate student said in a video posted to Twitter by the Harvard Graduate Students Union.

Comaroff can be heard telling the group of students that they are "welcome to" leave.

Outside of Comaroff's classroom, students assembled with a megaphone to protest with a call and response: "If we don't get it, shut it down."

One student held a sign that read, "No Justice, No Peace."

Protests continued out onto the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where students walked through the rain chanting, "Real recourse now" and "Professors who harass shouldn't be in class."

Timeline of Accusations, Protests Against Camaroff

A May 2020 Harvard Crimson investigation into the school's anthropology department found that at least three students had contacted Harvard's Title IX office with allegations of sexual harassment against Comaroff.

In August 2020, Harvard Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave.

Once Harvard investigated the claims and found that Comaroff had indeed violated its conduct policies, the professor was placed on unpaid leave in January 2022 and barred from teaching required courses for the academic year.

Since he was first accused of misconduct, Comaroff has continually denied all accusations against him.

In early February 2022, the three graduate students who first accused Comaroff — Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava — filed a lawsuit against Harvard, alleging that the school had ignored years of sexual harassment and retailiation by the professor.

The lawsuit and its detailed accusations inspired a Feb. 14 walkout to protest Harvard’s response to the accusations against Comaroff.

“We must make it clear to Harvard, to our faculty, and to everyone else who needs to hear it, that we aren’t going to tolerate this indifference to harm on our campuses any longer,” Czerwienski told protesters, according to the Harvard Crimson.

In an amended suit filed last May, accusers included accounts of unwanted kissing and groping, threats of professional retaliation, and further unwanted sexual advances by Comaroff.

In response to the suit, Harvard last June filed a motion to have nine of the 10 counts against the school dismissed.

On Sept. 7, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus brief stating that Harvard is not "immunized from liability for the retaliatory acts of its own faculty members," despite the university's desire to have multiple counts of the suit dismissed.

Student Lists Demands As Comaroff Returns to Classroom

Last June, Harvard Law School added Comaroff’s course "The Anthropology of Law: Classical, Contemporary, Comparative, and Critical Perspectives," to its fall 2022 catalog.

The decision was met with immediate outrage from students.

The Harvard Graduate Students Union released a petition laying out three demands: that the university publicize its guidelines for imposing different levels of sanctions on professors found guilty of sexual misconduct, that the university immediately de-list Comaroff's course, and that the university acknowledge the need to facilitate healing for the community.

The petition has collected 285 signatures, as of Sept. 20.

Despite significant backlash and ongoing protests, Comaroff's class is still being offered this fall.