The most serious allegations are those made by Kilburn, one of Comaroff’s mentees. According to the lawsuit, “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. When Ms. Kilburn tried to avoid Professor Comaroff, he forbade her to work with her other adviser.” The lawsuit accuses Comaroff of lasciviously dwelling on the possibility that she would be raped and murdered in Africa; he says he was simply offering her safety advice.
The lawsuit also claims that Comaroff behaved inappropriately toward Mandava, and threatened her and Czerwienski after they reported his alleged harassment of other students and warned other women about him.
Maybe none of these charges are true; if there is a trial, all of us will have to evaluate them more fully. But there’s little question that the three women have already suffered quite a bit for coming forward. Comaroff’s wife, Jean, had been Czerwienski’s adviser. According to the complaint, Czerwienski ended that relationship and changed her academic focus to avoid the couple. Mandava, too, altered the focus of her dissertation so she wouldn’t have to be involved with them.
Kilburn initially resolved to keep quiet on the advice of a former mentor; as The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2020, “They talked about how difficult it would be for Kilburn to get a job without a good letter of recommendation from Comaroff.”
Speaking to The Chronicle about the allegations against Comaroff, Ajantha Subramanian, the chair of Harvard’s anthropology department, described a “system of patronage” that “severely constrains the ability of students to be critical and speak openly about problems.” Those who’ve benefited from that patronage, she said, have an interest in upholding the reputation of their benefactors. Scholars, said Subramanian, “become invested in protecting the family name so that it remains an asset.”
The women suing Harvard may have thus alienated a great many leading figures in their field. It’s quite possible that they have permanently derailed the careers they’ve spent years striving for.
Maybe they did that because of an imaginary microaggression. But why would some of the smartest and most highly credentialed people in this country find it so easy to jump to that conclusion? Perhaps professors’ sense of their own vulnerability to rampant snowflakery has obscured to them the actual workings of power. Maybe they thought they were standing up against woke illiberalism. What they were really doing was closing ranks.