This week, three women filed a lawsuit against Harvard, claiming the university failed to protect them from a renowned anthropology scholar who allegedly sexually harassed them, then threatened to destroy their careers if they came forward. One of the accusers claims that Harvard also obtained her psychotherapy records without her consent and handed them to the professor, who used them to “gaslight” her.
On Thursday, Harvard issued a statement about the women’s harassment claims against professor John Comaroff and the university’s investigation of them. But the Ivy League school’s remarks centered on the disturbing accusations about the woman’s medical records, which were obtained by Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution (ODR) after she filed a complaint about Comaroff’s alleged harassment and unwanted advances.
The university even appeared to shift blame to the woman’s therapist, saying, “HIPAA privacy obligations apply to medical care providers, not the ODR” and “ODR receives information from that care provider only with the party’s consent. We scrupulously follow this practice.”
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Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava—the grad students behind the suit—say Comaroff “kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.” When women did seek help from university officials, the lawsuit adds, Harvard “brushed them aside and opted to protect its star professor over vulnerable students.”
The students’ complaint, filed in Massachusetts federal court, alleges Harvard’s eventual probe into Comaroff’s alleged harassment “only exacerbated [their] nightmare” by prolonging the process, allowing the professor to “tamper with evidence” by intimidating potential student witnesses, and sharing Kilburn’s private therapy records with Comaroff.
Comaroff then used these notes to “gaslight” Kilburn during the university investigation, the lawsuit claims, and tell her “that she must have imagined that he sexually harassed her because she was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.” She says she developed this condition, however, as a result of his sexual misconduct.
Indeed, the lawsuit says, when Kilburn filed a complaint with Harvard’s OPR in 2020, school investigators contacted her psychotherapist, a private therapist unaffiliated with the university, and obtained notes from their sessions. It’s unclear why the mental health professional, who has not been publicly identified, turned over the information and allegedly did so without Kilburn’s written consent.
The complaint states that ODR then “withheld the full notes from Ms. Kilburn, redacting swaths of the notes and refusing to disclose the redacted portions even as ODR’s investigator grilled her about the redacted contents during an interview.”
ODR allegedly went as far as publishing Kilburn’s therapy notes in a final report about her complaint and “appended them as exhibits, making Ms. Kilburn’s medical records available to anyone with access to” the document.
For its part, Harvard said ODR informs parties involved in a complaint that all medical records and other documents the office obtains “will be shared with both parties to the investigation,” adding that “a party may not supply information of any kind to be considered in the process if it cannot be shared with an opposing party.”
In a statement, Harvard noted that it issued sanctions against Comaroff on Jan. 20 that included putting him on unpaid administrative leave for the spring semester and restricting his “teaching and advising activities through at least the 2022-23 academic year.”
“Continuing to hug her tightly, he whispered in her ear that she should ‘go visit Columbia [University], but then come back here.’”
“Harvard University disputes the allegations of the lawsuit brought by Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP,” the school said, referring to the women’s attorneys, “which are in no way a fair or accurate representation of the thoughtful steps taken by the University in response to concerns that were brought forward, the thorough reviews conducted, and the results of those reviews.”
After Comaroff’s suspension, 38 faculty members signed an open letter supporting him, saying, “We are dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students.” As the Harvard Crimson reported, nearly all of those academics have now retracted their signatures.
Lawyers for the women told The Daily Beast that Kilburn “never provided full and informed consent” for her therapist to release her records to Harvard.
In response to Harvard’s statement, attorney Carolin Guentert said the university doesn’t address how they obtained Kilburn’s records and whether and how they’d obtained the necessary written informed consent required under HIPAA.
Her co-counsel, Russell Kornblith, added, “It is incredibly important that anybody who has access to this kind of record treat it with extreme care, and make sure that the student, the patient, the person who is vulnerable, understands exactly what’s going to happen.”
Guentert and Kornblith also questioned why the university hasn’t found a way to create a safe space for survivors in light of the Crimson’s previous reporting on Comaroff and two other anthropology professors accused of sexual misconduct: Gary Urton and Theodore Bestor.
The Harvard faculty that withdrew their support for Comaroff haven’t apologized to their clients for rushing to judgment and coming to his aid, the attorneys said.
“The retraction is the least they can do but obviously there is a network of powerful people out there whose instincts are to protect their colleagues, to close rank around them,” Kornblith said. “And our clients were fortunate enough to have the courage, to have each other, and to bring accusations to light publicly in a way that prompted some public attention on their matter.
“But if you are somebody making the decision to come forward to file an ODR complaint to speak up about what you experienced… knowing this network is out there is truly terrifying,” he added.
“Retaliation works,” Guentert said, “and students have known for generations that there are huge risks attached to speaking out about powerful faculty, and this case just goes to show the worst case scenario.”
The complaint alleges that in spring of 2017, Czerwienski and Mandava learned that Comaroff “was making ongoing sexual advances” on a second-year graduate student who was his advisee by forcibly kissing her, groping her and sending texts demanding to know with whom she was sleeping. The women reported this alleged harassment to an incoming anthropology department chair, while the advisee contacted the university’s Title IX Office.
The university, the lawsuit says, chose not to investigate the women’s complaints and “enabled retaliation” by Comaroff. In October of that year, Comaroff allegedly called Mandava to his office and warned her that he was aware she and Czerwienski were speaking to others about his bad behavior. “He threatened that if they continued to do so, they would have ‘trouble getting jobs,’ as his detractors had in the past,” the filing alleges.
At the time, Mandava met with Comaroff to discuss a grant application and he informed her that he knew graduate students including herself were circulating “nasty rumors” about him. Comaroff then told Mandava, who was an undergrad at the University of Chicago when Comaroff taught there, that these rumors weren’t true and claimed he had “been sexually inactive for seven years” and was “impotent,” the lawsuit claims.
The professor then allegedly threatened that his wife, fellow professor Jean Comaroff, would no longer serve as Mandava’s recommender.
“He reminded Ms. Mandava that he and his wife were responsible for her admission to Harvard and reiterated multiple times how much ‘support’ they had given her over the years,” the lawsuit states. “He cautioned that Professor Jean Comaroff would be ‘furious’ at anyone who told her about his conduct.”
Before Mandava left, Comaroff warned that if she and Czerwienski continued spreading “gossip” about him, he and his wife would find out because “our students will always tell us.”
Czerwienski reported Comaroff’s retaliation to Harvard’s Title IX Office but the university allegedly didn’t take any action to stop the professor. “Because of Harvard’s inaction,” the lawsuit states, “Professor Comaroff abused Lilia Kilburn.”
Before Kilburn enrolled at Harvard, she visited the campus in February 2017 and Comaroff “kissed her on the mouth without her consent,” the complaint says.
The alleged encounter occurred when Kilburn met with Comaroff and his wife Jean to discuss her acceptance into Harvard’s anthropology program. “As they approached the building in which his office is located, Professor Comaroff stepped in front of Ms. Kilburn, hugged her tightly—pressing the length of his body against hers—and kissed her on the lips without her consent,” the suit states. “Continuing to hug her tightly, he whispered in her ear that she should ‘go visit Columbia [University], but then come back here.’”
Comaroff, her advisor, allegedly continued to harass her after she matriculated that fall.
“It is incredibly important that anybody who has access to this kind of record treat it with extreme care.”
During an August 2017 meeting to discuss her planned study of a country in Central Africa, Comaroff “repeatedly described various ways in which Ms. Kilburn would be raped and killed in South Africa—approximately 3,000 miles away from Central Africa—because she is in a same-sex relationship,” the complaint alleges.
Comaroff allegedly told her, “There are many places where you would go where you would be raped,” “you would certainly be raped,” and “you would be raped and killed.”
“He then identified specific places where ‘corrective rapes’ had been carried out, and stated over and over that Ms. Kilburn, too, ‘would be raped,’ ‘would be killed,’ would be ‘left for dead,’ and that ‘they would finish you off.’ Ms. Kilburn sat frozen in shock, while Professor Comaroff continued for approximately five minutes,” the filing says.
That September, Comaroff allegedly preyed on Kilburn at an annual brunch at his home, putting his hand on her lower back and telling her he was disappointed she wasn’t drinking alcohol. When Kilburn began to leave the party, Comaroff followed her and “hugged her forcibly and kissed her on the mouth without her consent,” the lawsuit says. When she pushed him away and wiped her mouth, she saw Comaroff smiling at her.
“Harvard allowed Professor Comaroff’s behavior to continue for two years—subjecting Ms. Kilburn to a continuing nightmare that included more forced kissing, groping, persistent invitations to socialize alone off-campus, and coercive control,” the lawsuit alleges. “When Ms. Kilburn tried to avoid Professor Comaroff, he forbade her to work with her other advisor.”
In May 2019, Kilburn complained to Harvard’s Title IX Office, which apparently didn’t investigate her claims but allegedly admitted it was well aware of Comaroff’s behavior.
“In fact, a Harvard Title IX Resource Coordinator referred Ms. Kilburn to one of Professor Comaroff’s other victims: the graduate student who reported similar abuse two years earlier. Professor Comaroff, meanwhile, continued teaching and mentoring students,” the complaint alleges.
The women argue that Harvard only launched an investigation into Comaroff in May 2020, after the Crimson and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on their claims against the professor and asked the Title IX Office for comment.
That’s when Title IX Officer Seth Avakian allegedly informed the women that he’d filed a formal complaint with Harvard’s ODR. But, according to the lawsuit, Avakian “openly disparaged the ODR process” and told Kilburn that “reporting to the press would be more impactful.”
Anthropology chair Ajantha Subramanian also supposedly encouraged the women to speak to the Harvard Crimson, saying “that would give Harvard a reason to act.”
“Ms. Kilburn, Ms. Czerwienski, and Ms. Mandava had been reluctant to go public with their stories,” the lawsuit states. “But, because Harvard’s faculty, Title IX Resource Coordinator, and top-level decision-making officials now disparaged the ODR process and urged them to go to the press, they did so.”
Their lawsuit points to the alleged harassment the publications exposed, saying that “for over a decade, Harvard willfully ignored sexual harassment complaints against not just Professor Comaroff, but also against two Department Chairs, Gary Urton and Theodore Bestor.
“As a result, from 2007 to 2018—11 of the past 14 years—the Department was chaired by men who, according to these reports, leveraged their power to prey on women students and junior faculty.”
The lawsuit also details multiple sexual harassment complaints Comaroff faced during his decades of teaching at The University of Chicago, where he also allegedly had affairs with his students and retaliated against them before Harvard hired him in 2012.
According to the lawsuit, Comaroff “continued to harass students with impunity” at Harvard.
During an October 2017 dinner attended by faculty and grad students, Comaroff was allegedly so bold as to compare himself to Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced movie producer and convicted rapist. “They’re coming for me next!” Comaroff said, according to the lawsuit.
His wife Jean then allegedly scorned accusers who report serial predators like Weinstein, saying, “Whatever happened to rolling with the punches?”