Twelve women who have accused Harvard faculty of sexual harassment or misconduct penned a letter to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay Friday requesting representation on a new committee being formed to review the FAS’s interim sexual harassment policy.
The U.S. Department of Education’s new Title IX regulations prompted the University and the FAS to revise their sexual harassment policies this summer. Both released interim policies that they said they intend to review over the next year; Gay announced Sept. 14 that she would form a committee “in the coming weeks” to do so.
The women wrote in Friday’s letter that Harvard’s existing procedures for investigating sexual harassment complaints had “failed” them. They said their insights from interacting with Harvard’s Title IX office and Office for Dispute Resolution should inform changes.
“In our experience, the current process is unfairly tilted toward the interests of the respondent over the complainant,” the women wrote. “The procedures were not developed to consider or sanction patterns of behavior over time or to handle groups of complainants; they divide survivors of serial predation by one faculty member; and they provide no adequate representation or support for complainants.”
“It is only by incorporating the experiences and insights of individuals for whom Harvard’s Title IX policy has failed that a better policy can be created, and that the process and outcome will be viewed as legitimate, effective, and inclusive,” they wrote.
The women requested that at least one seat on the committee be granted to a Harvard alumna with experience going through the Title IX process who can “speak freely about her experiences without fear of reprisal,” as well as one current student with such experience.
“These individuals have unique perspectives to contribute on how the Title IX process can function in light of power asymmetries, narrow professional circles in academic subfields, and the professional and personal risks involved in reporting,” they wrote.
FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the letter, pointing to Gay’s announcement of the formation of the committee in September. Gay noted then that the “committee will establish channels for collecting input from the FAS community on this important issue.”
The letter’s signatories include women who have accused former Government professor Jorge I. Dominguez, Anthropology professor emeritus Gary Urton, and Anthropology and African and African American Studies professor John L. Comaroff of sexual harassment and misconduct. In the last three years, several of the signatories have filed Title IX complaints, several are currently in investigatory proceedings, and several declined to file complaints after raising concerns about the ODR process.
The Crimson first reported in May that both Urton and Comaroff faced accusations that they had sexually harassed students. Gay placed Urton and Comaroff on paid administative leave in June and August, respectively.
Urton retired in August, the same month ODR found he had abused his power by propositioning then-graduate student Jade d'Alpoim Guedes to join him in a hotel room in 2012. He subsequently filed a retaliation complaint against Guedes for sharing ODR’s draft findings on Twitter, though he withdrew it roughly two weeks later.
The letter’s authors took issue with the policy language that allowed Urton to file the retaliation complaint.
The women wrote that the confidentiality clause of the existing ODR procedures, which notes that sharing information they learn during ODR proceedings opens up a complainant to a retaliation complaint, leaves the complainant “in the dark even about whether a sanction will be issued against her harasser.”
Anthropology Ph.D. student Margaret G. Czerwienski, who first came forward publicly about her Title IX complaint against Comaroff in an August Chronicle of Higher Education story, said she signed Friday’s letter because the current ODR procedures left her feeling pressured to drop her complaint.
Czerwienski said she believes the process creates a “major disparity” between faculty and students, both with regard to the information at their disposal and the risk they assume. Faculty can usually afford legal counsel while students cannot, something she hopes the committee will address. Since 2015, Harvard Law School students who file sexual harassment complaints are guaranteed access to an attorney, paid for by the Law School, during stages of their case.
Though the Title IX rules prohibit retaliation against a complainant, Czerwienski said that, in practice, students take on massive professional risk by pursuing the process because powerful tenured faculty can destroy a student’s career through informal networks.
“Many of the flaws in the odr process that I mentioned have the effect of discouraging students from engaging in the process and of burdening victims with additional, but unnecessary, exposures and risks,” Czerwienski added in a follow up message. “Without someone on the committee reminding Harvard officials to think of the special needs and vulnerabilities of students confronting the abuses of powerful professors, the process will likely continue to be flawed and to place students at undue risk.”
Suzanna E. Challen, a former Government Ph.D. student who accused Dominguez of harassment in 2018 but declined to file a formal complaint due to concerns with the investigatory process, wrote in an email that she signed Friday’s letter because the recent accusations against Anthropology faculty were “déjà vu.”
“President Bacow has done the minimum to address systemic gender discrimination, and that needs to change,” Challen wrote. “I hope this FAS committee formed by Dean Gay is part of bringing about that change.”
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.