Little Red Riding Hood is a story many of us grew up with; a naive girl in her famed red hood sent off to deliver goodies to her sick grandma gets tricked and eaten by a wolf. Our parents thus instructed us to not be dumb and beware of strangers, or else we would be the next Little Red.
But is it right to blame her for talking to the wolf?
It seems as though she felt pressured to do so, as most people would have been given the presence of a literal beast blocking their path. Little Red’s story is, unfortunately, a perfect allegory for rape and the abuse of power by those in control of one’s future, like a menacing wolf or a sheep-clothed professor mentoring students.
If not becoming the next Little Red was as simple as avoiding talking to strangers on campus, then one in five women would not get sexually assaulted during college. After all, 85-90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone they knew, so not talking to strangers won’t cut it. This makes Harvard’s toxic networking culture so dangerous; how are we supposed to land that internship if we aren’t constantly interacting with people in power? Students are continuously placed in Little Red’s shoes when we are encouraged to naively navigate the woods of networking filled with monsters we should be able to trust.
Networking is an essential skill stressed here at Harvard. Whether through classmates or professors, there is an unwritten rule that we must expand our networks right away to be successful. Even for first-years, there’s no escaping academic advisors, upperclassmen, or the plethora of Harvard websites stressing its importance. Harvard’s culture of transactional relationships plagues our ability to prioritize our comfort zones and pushes us to strive for our best work, but not always in the best way.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with networking. However, beyond having 500-plus LinkedIn connections or being on a first-name basis with your professor, networking’s toxic nature lies in the ambiguity defining student-professor relationships. When meeting someone well-respected, women, especially, need to make an effort to stand out: express interest through a smile, offer to help before being asked, or laugh at their jokes (even if they aren’t funny). Professors know we have to do this, but the nature of power imbalances continues to leave us vulnerable to wolves waiting along our paths.
One of many wolves at Harvard is John Comaroff, whose reputation as a tenured professor was solid. He worked closely with graduate students, allegedly pressuring some to be closer with him than they wanted to.
Three of these students bravely came after Harvard’s supposed sheltering of Comaroff with a lawsuit. The graduate students described the difficulties of navigating experiences that left them feeling uncomfortable while knowing that the success of their academic endeavors hinged in large part on the support of their faculty advisors. Comaroff was the wolf blocking their paths to their goals, holding them within his claws. Their future success was contingent on his control and thus their submission. Although there are some indicators that graduate students are more likely to be sexually harassed by professors, Harvard undergrads are conditioned to practice the same toxic networking habits that lead us down the same path. Just “saying no” only works if that is a viable option, and free will is near-void when a professor has so much power over one's post-graduate success.
There is no doubt that power dynamics within systems of academia perpetuate Little Red’s story. Little Red was not dumb. She was a girl who felt her only choice was bending to the wolf’s will, like students here at Harvard. Little Reds should never be called dumb for wolves getting the better of them. The lawsuit iterates against the disgraced professor that “students rarely speak out about harassment or sexual misconduct because when they do, they risk their education and their careers.” The complaint filed against Harvard accuses the University of accommodating this culture when hiring Comaroff, choosing to overlook the history of sexual misconduct allegations against him at the University of Chicago “even when warned about it.” It was not until the lawsuit materialized that loud, public faculty cheers for Comaroff were withdrawn and he was held accountable. Harvard’s complacency and silence normalize power imbalances and are thus responsible for endangering students.
In response to the lawsuit, 73 professors wrote how faculty should be demanding “more expedient, transparent, equitable, and independent investigative procedures” for future cases. As students, we couldn’t agree more. However, this only passively addresses the problem, as it implies there will indefinitely be more sexual misconduct cases to investigate. We must understand that the toxic networking culture at Harvard enables students to be taken advantage of and keeps us from speaking out – a truth that’s even more apparent with Comaroff back teaching at the college this fall. Toxic networking has to go, so we never have to worry about replicating Little Red’s nightmare again – however, its inherently insidious nature makes it seem like a world free of it can only exist in a fairy tale.
Maia Patel-Masini ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Kirkland House.