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Anthropology Dept. Takes Stock of Gender Issues

2020 in Review: Three Anthropology Faculty Face Sexual Harassment Allegations

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This story is part of The Crimson's Ten Stories That Shaped 2020 series. To view other parts, click here.

An eight-month investigation by The Crimson uncovered allegations of sexual harassment against three senior faculty in Harvard’s Anthropology Department — Theodore C. Bestor, Gary Urton, and John L. Comaroff — and a department culture that allowed the professors to sometimes avoid investigations into their behavior while placing women in the department at a disadvantage.

The three faculty weathered allegations of sexual harassment — including some leveled by students — over the years in part due to their power within anthropology, a tight-knit field in which all three held prominent standing, the investigation found.

Within a week of the story’s publication, the department removed Urton from his post as Director of Undergraduate Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay placed him on paid administrative leave. Twenty-five members of the Harvard Anthropology faculty penned a letter requesting Urton’s resignation, as two more former students came forward with allegations that he sexually harassed them.

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Urton ultimately informed colleagues of plans to retire by the end of August, though FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane confirmed the investigation into Urton would continue. On Aug. 25, Gay also placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into the allegations against him.

In an early December interview, Gay declined to comment on whether the investigations remain ongoing.

A wave of student and alumni activism followed the revelations. Nearly 400 students demanded the University revoke tenure for the three faculty. Students, alumni, and other academics also petitioned the department to make transformative changes to its culture.

The department quickly formed a standing committee of undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty, and alumni to “work to dismantle” structures that contributed to “an environment in which abuses continue to manifest and go undetected.” In the fall, the committee formed eight subcommittees that will meet in the spring to develop recommendations in specific areas, such as professional development, advising, and accountability.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

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