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More than 70 Harvard students protested Harvard’s continued employment of professor John L. Comaroff, who is under fire for allegations of sexual harassment, and called for reform of the University’s sexual misconduct policies at a Friday afternoon rally.
Undergraduate and graduate students gathered in front of the Science Center before marching through Harvard Yard, chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Comaroff Has Got to Go” and “No More Comaroff, No More Complicity” as students and tourists looked on.
The march ended in front of University Hall, where undergraduate organizers from the anti-rape culture advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better draped a red sheet over the John Harvard Statue and raised a “Shame on Harvard” banner on two University Hall flagpoles.
The protest is the latest in a flurry of student activism around Comaroff, whom the Faculty of Arts and Sciences placed on one semester of unpaid leave in spring 2022 after Harvard found his verbal conduct violated sexual harassment and professional retaliation policies.
The African and African-American Studies and Anthropology professor is also at the center of a lawsuit against Harvard first filed one year ago by three female Anthropology graduate students who allege the school failed to respond to years of harassment and retaliation allegations against Comaroff. His lawyers have denied all allegations.
Comaroff returned to the classroom in the fall 2022 semester to teach a non-required course, sparking student outrage and protest in September 2022. Last month, more than 100 students walked out of Comaroff’s first class of the spring 2023 semester, making national headlines. Over the following days, hundreds of people emailed top Harvard administrators demanding the professor be fired.
Both of Comaroff’s spring classes now have zero enrolled students, per the FAS registrar’s office.
Following Friday’s march, seven speakers addressed the crowd gathered at University Hall.
“Harvard is a role model for all other institutions nationwide and worldwide and has a unique role in changing culture around sexual assault everywhere,” said Saba Mehrzad ’25, a Crimson magazine editor, in a speech at the protest. “Our Harvard needs to stop protecting predators and start protecting its students.”
Margaret G. Czerwienski and Lilia M. Kilburn — two of the three plaintiffs in the 2022 suit against Harvard — spoke to the crowd of supporters at the rally.
In her speech, Kilburn told the crowd to avoid “hero worship.”
“Don’t let professors be your heroes. Don’t let survivors be your heroes. We’re not heroes. We’re TFs,” Kilburn said. “We don’t have some kind of superhuman capacity to take this fight on. We are doing it anyway.”
Czerwienski said that “only a mass movement” would effectively dismantle “this broken system.”
Allegations against Comaroff were first published in The Crimson in 2020, following an eight-month investigation which found that at least three Anthropology graduate students had contacted Harvard’s Title IX Office with sexual harassment and professional retaliation complaints against the professor.
Following The Crimson’s reporting, FAS Dean and University President-elect Claudine Gay placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave in August 2020, then placed him on unpaid leave for one semester last spring.
The three Anthropology graduate students who are suing Harvard — Czerwienski, Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava — filed an amended lawsuit in June 2022 detailing new allegations of sexual harassment from Comaroff’s tenure at the University of Chicago, claiming Harvard failed to respond to warnings about the professor’s behavior before hiring him.
“I wanted to come out here and support the students, I think they’re standing up for something that’s really, really important,” Czerwienski said in an interview following the protest.
“This is the last thing that we ever wanted to do with our time in graduate school. As you can see in our lawsuit, Harvard pushes the risk of resolving these situations onto individual students again and again rather than taking on that risk themselves,” Kilburn said in an interview. “We were exposed to incredible amounts of retaliation, not only from Harvard faculty, but faculty across the world.”
In a statement, Comaroff’s attorneys Janet E. Halley, Ruth K. O’Meara-Costello ’02, and Norman S. Zalkind denied claims that the professor was a sexual abuser or harasser and said that while the anonymous allegations in the lawsuit were “difficult to respond to precisely because they are anonymous, they bear no resemblance to reality.”
They objected to calls to fire Comaroff, saying that the Harvard investigations only found the professor guilty of one incident of verbal harassment and “largely exonerated” the professor.
“Protesters are choosing to rely on innuendo and misinformation rather than seeking actual facts,” they wrote. “Professor Comaroff has never done anything, ever, to retaliate against or harm a student.”
Our Harvard Can Do Better organizer Rachael A. Dziaba ’26, who spoke at Friday’s rally, said Comaroff was “one symptom of a larger disease.”
“It’s important to remember that getting rid of Comaroff is not the same as ending Harvard's complicity, and that we are looking for real changes in this institution,” Dziaba said in an interview following the protest.
Rosalie P. Couture ’26, another organizer for Our Harvard Can Do Better, said in an interview she hopes Harvard administrators understand that the protesters will “keep on being a pain in their ass.”
She called for increased transparency in sexual misconduct investigations and the creation of an independent rape crisis center on campus.
“We need an entire overhaul of how our Title IX office works and how we give justice for survivors,” Couture said.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana stood a few feet behind the crowd for a portion of the protest. He declined to comment for this article.
FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane and University spokesperson Jason A. Newton also declined to comment.
Our Harvard Can Do Better organizer Annabelle J.L. Finlayson ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, called the University’s silence in response to student protests “embarrassing” and “an admission of guilt.”
“I’m sure they’re hoping it’ll blow over, and we promise it’s not going to,” she said.
Correction: February 13, 2023
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Rachael A. Dziaba ’26.
—Staff writer Darley A. C. Boit can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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