I start with a confession. In 2018, I wrote a piece for Nursing Clio titled “It’s Not You, It’s Me: #MeToo in Academia,” detailing an abuse of power by a professor for whom I worked as a TA. I state this now only because there was a part of the story that I left out. While everything that I documented in my essay was happening, I was talking with another faculty member, one who was in a position to warn me about “Professor X” before assigning me to be his TA.
“Has Professor X,” I asked, “Ever come down particularly hard on certain grad students in the past?”
“Oh shit,” they answered, “He’s doing that again?”
Like so many who have suffered abuses of power, the news of the past few weeks has been difficult to digest. First came a report in The Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper, that John L. Comaroff, a professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology, had been placed on unpaid administrative leave after university investigations found that he violated the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies. This action followed an investigation carried out after a separate, initial investigation into several Title IX complaints found Comaroff “responsible for one incident of verbal sexual harassment.” Comaroff’s legal team described Harvard’s internal investigation as a “kangaroo court process.”
In response to this announcement, on February 3, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an open letter, signed by 57 academics in positions of prestige and authority from around the world, supporting Comaroff, and calling Harvard’s investigations “retributive,” and “a show trial.” On February 4, The Crimson published an open letter signed by 38 Harvard professors demanding to know “the procedural grounds justifying” the multiple misconduct investigations into Comaroff’s behavior, expressing dismay at the sanctions imposed on him, and offering an unequivocal endorsement of Comaroff as “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen.”
The online publication of the lawsuit filed by Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava against Harvard University has demonstrated the extent of Harvard’s responsibility in hiring a faculty member with an established reputation for sexual misconduct and its “decades-long failure to protect students from sexual abuse and career-ending retaliation.” In addition, the lawsuit also accuses Harvard of obtaining notes from plaintiff Lilia Kilburn’s psychotherapist without her consent and showing them to Comaroff.
Such eagerness to protect those in power is not limited to one institution or system of power. Since February 8, and as of the time of writing this, 34 signatories of the February 4 letter have signed a retraction letter “saying they ‘failed to appreciate the impact” their previous message would have.’” According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as of this writing, only three scholars have requested that their names be removed from the February 3 letter.
In their retractions, apologies, and follow-up statements, many of the signatories of these letters have made comments like those that appeared in the retraction letter: “We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students, and we were lacking full information about the case.”
Though they may not have had full information about the specifics of this case, there is no denying that Comaroff’s abuses have been well documented. The Chronicle published a piece on Comaroff in August 2020, citing information published in The Crimson in 2017 about the sexual abuse and other abuses of power taking place in Harvard’s Anthropology Department. This information was a matter of public record, and easily available – especially to scholars trained in research.
This story has dredged up a lot of memories for many of us. As Kellen Heniford explains in a brave and heartbreakingly honest piece for Insurrect!: “The letter took me back to conversations with faculty members who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of misconduct, preferred to protect one of their colleagues and friends rather than to take seriously graduate students’ demands for protection and respect in our workplace.” The pain comes not only from the experience itself – about which I still have nightmares, and that still affects my interactions today. As we return to face-to-face education, I have come to realize how hypervigilant I am around new colleagues, both in regards to my own safety and that of my students. The pain comes from knowing that others suffered as I did. Again and again. It comes from knowing that too many people were too eager to maintain the status quo, too eager for power, and too lulled by their own privilege to reach out and protect those who were and are vulnerable to enormous harm.
As I sit and try to process all this pain, and the knowledge that this abuse is happening again . . . and again . . . despite those in power having the power to effect positive change, my phone pings with news updates: 900,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19. I follow that piece down a rabbit hole of research. That people who have had coronavirus are at significant risk for heart disease, especially in patients younger than 65; that the virus can damage placenta, leading to stillbirths. That many school systems are letting their mask mandates lapse at the same time they are banning books that feature Black voices, queer voices, and the voices of Holocaust survivors. That, despite the threat of new COVID variants that develop thanks to a persistent vaccine inequality, we are returning to an enforced sense of “normal,” or a kind of “moral calm” that allows these inequalities to continue.
These issues are not unrelated. Each, in its own way, highlights the choice to ignore the most vulnerable among us to maintain the status quo. Each is about the willingness to actively suppress the voices of those whose needs are greatest, whether they are survivors seeking redress for physical, emotional, or sexual harm, or the stories of those whose narratives highlight the injustices of a society or a nation. Each of these stories is about the allure of overlooking structural inequalities, such as poor ventilation in school buildings, as well as hierarchies of power that prey on newcomers and outsiders, in order to retain and maintain “normalcy.” Each will cause immeasurable harm to us all, in the long run.
Sitting here with my memories and my fears, I am troubled that this harm will not be easy to measure using traditional quantitative methods. As one Christian COVID Unit Chaplain noted on Twitter, we can measure earning losses, or years of life lost, but “suffering is incalculable.” I cannot reclaim the days that I lost to panic attacks, the dreams that I never had because I was living a nightmare. I am staggered by the thought of how many potential scholars, educators, and mentors will never reach a classroom or a lecture hall as a result of the harm and professional retribution they endured. Likewise, I mourn the stories that will not be told, because a budding artist learned that their voice was not welcome, or a survivor of abuse faced the overwhelming power of a 400-year-old institution when they tried to fight for their rights, as Czerwienski, Kilburn, and Mandava are doing right now.
Yet I take hope from the wave of graduate and faculty unions that are organizing across the country, including on my own campus. In addition to providing the logistical and collective support necessary to amplify the voices of marginalized workers, they can also provide sources of emotional support that make change seem possible. Czerwienski, Kilburn, Mandava are themselves members of Harvard’s Graduate Student Union, which has been organizing in support of graduate students’ rights and emotional well-being. Indeed, it was thanks to the support and encouragement of my own graduate student colleagues that we collectively refused to work as TAs for our Professor X, based on years of stories, reports of harm, and our refusal to accept that anyone would overlook that harm again in order to maintain “normalcy.” It is imperative that we offer labor unions our support to continue their work and our enthusiasm to keep them thriving.
However, we can neither rely, nor insist upon, the vulnerable to save themselves. Changing the future means that we all must reckon with past abuses, past narratives of pain, and our own grief over what has been lost as a result of those harms, from careers denied, loss of health, time, or life as a result of the pandemic, or long historical injustices, we need to reckon with the harm that the status quo inflicts every single day. For many, its return is something to be dreaded, rather than anticipated. We suffer every time pain goes unacknowledged. We cannot accept any further sighs of “Again?” from those with the power to protect the powerless. I will never accept “Again?” again.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education continues to update this article with information from signatories, and this piece may not reflect all of those updates. ↑
Dr Keown, you are applauded and have written an excellent story covering so much territory. I too have experienced what you describe. Not as a Harvard student but continuously through “life”. You words must not end here. Let’s keep this going. Tell me how to help in the most powerful and significant way. I too am a nurse and life long learner, nearing 70. I pause often to reflect on the years of abuse and inequality I have experienced in the workplace and society. Young ladies today, caught up in their cell phones and other distractions don’t get it. And they won’t until it in far too late. Look at the SCOTUS. Shameful! Mahalo for caring and your excellent writing. You are admired by many. Aloha. Susan Oliver