Letter: Against Harvard's Kangaroo Court

Daniel Herwitz

Editor's Note: The following letter was written in defense of Professor John Comaroff and signed by nearly 60 of his colleagues. The letter addresses Harvard's misuse of Title IX and Professional Code of Conduct procedures to unfairly punish Prof. Comaroff.

John Comaroff, Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at Harvard University has for the past eighteen months been the subject of an intensive Title IX investigation based on allegations by three students (see Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 August, 2020), the result of which was that he was found responsible solely for verbal sexual harassment sourced to a short conversation he had during office hours with one of the students. She told him she wished to do her field research in a particular African country. Invoking the widely reported phenomenon of corrective rape directed against LGBTQ women, he warned her that, in such a country she and her partner could be exposed to rape and violence if they were found out. The advice he gave purely concerned her personal security. He maintains that it was his moral duty to warn her, since he was one of her advisors. At the end of this protracted and painful investigation the investigators found that Professor Comaroff had no sexual or romantic intention in speaking about the risk of being raped. The same student accused Professor Comaroff of repeated and undesired sexual contact, regarding which the Title IX investigators also decided he was not responsible. And Comaroff was found innocent of all charges made by the other two students.

One would have thought this the end of the matter. Not so.

Harvard then instituted a second retributive process, the terms of which allowed an investigator appointed by the university to scour the record from the Title IX procedure, seeking evidence of "unprofessional conduct", one of those charges sufficiently vague to be applied nearly at will. The conduct considered to be unprofessional was to warn a student against gossiping about the department in the course of an office-hours supervisory meeting. During this second procedure, there were serious violations of due process, in spite of the fact that unprofessional conduct had not been a charge in the first process.  The investigator found Comaroff responsible for unprofessional but entirely non-sexual conduct. This although the investigator admitted that the alleged harm “may not have been intended.”

For these two verbal, non-sexual interactions Professor Comaroff has been given stiff penalties, including loss of salary for the spring semester, and restrictions on his teaching.

We the undersigned consider Harvard's second procedure a Kangaroo court, indeed a show trial designed to allow Harvard to save face at the expense of one of its own, finest, faculty members. There is something deeply wrong with academia in America today, when a university like Harvard can dispense with due process in its disciplinary procedures in response to public pressure or because a complainant did not like the outcome. In doing so, Harvard has not only maltreated a devoted and accomplished scholar; it has undermined the Title IX system at Harvard, and by its example, elsewhere.


Daniel Herwitz,  Fredrick Huetwell Professor, Philosophy, Comparative Literature, History of Art, University of Michigan

Max Price, former Vice Chancellor, University of Cape Town

Dennis Davis, Emeritus Judge President, Western Cape High Court, Emeritus Professor, Law, University of Cape Town

Arjun Appadurai, Goddard Professor of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University

J. Lorand Matory, Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African and African American Studies, Duke University

Robert M. Hayden, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Law and Public & International Affairs Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh

Nancy Rose Hunt, History, University of Florida, Professor Emerita of History, University of Michigan

Kenda Mutongi, History, MIT

Deborah Posel, Research Professor, Sociology, University of the Free State

Hylton White, Anthropology, University of Witwatersrand

Elizabeth Helsinger, John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor Emerita, 18th and 19th Century Art and Literature, University of Chicago

Tom Mitchell, Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor, English and Art History University of Chicago

James Chandler, William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor, English and Media Studies, University of Chicago

Howard Helsinger, Law, University of Chicago

Ann Laura Stoler, Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies, New School for Social Research

Drucilla Cornell, Professor, Law, Women's Studies and Political Science, Rutgers University

Jane Taylor, Professor, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape

Richard Werbner, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, Manchester University

Lawrence Hirschfeld, Professor of Anthropology and Psychology, The New School for Social Research

Alan De Gooyer, Professor Emeritus, English, Williams College, Research Affiliate, MIT

Louise White, Professor Emerita, History, University of Florida

Greg Marinovich, Master Lecturer, Journalism, Boston University

Mark Auslander, Visiting Lecturer in Anthropology, Boston University

Jonathan Simon, Lance Robbins Professor of Criminal Justice Law Faculty Affiliate, Center for the Study of Law & Society, UC Berkeley, School of Law

Adam Ashforth, Professor, Afroamerican and African studies, University of Michigan

Bradd Shore, Goodrich C. White Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Emory University

Peter Geschiere, Emeritus Professor, Anthropology, University of Amsterdam /Leiden University

Tessa Gordon, Photographer.

Harris Gordon, Independent Consultant and Professor of Business.

Julie Skurski, Distinguished Lecturer, Anthropology, Graduate Center, City University of New York

Mike Morris, Emeritus Professor, School of Economics University of Cape Town

David Bunn, Professor, Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia

Robert Morrell (PhD), Senior Research Scholar, Centre for Higher Education Development, UCT

Mariane C. Ferme, Anthropology, UC Berkeley

Ruth Mandel, Anthropology, University College London

Suzanne Gossett, Professor of English Emerita, Loyola University Chicago

Daniel Monterescu, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology Central European University

Birgit Meyer, Professor, Religious Studies, Utrecht University

Prof. Dr. Filip De Boeck, Dept of Social and Cultural Anthropology/Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Leuven

Gabrielle M. Spiegel, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University

Neil Roos, Dean of Faculty, University of the Free State

Stephen Clingman, Distinguished University Professor, Department of English, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Galia Sabar, Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University

Anthony Cohen, Vice Principal International, Professor, African and Development Studies, University of Edinburgh

Mugsy Spiegel, Emeritus Anthropology, University of Cape Town

Alan Whiteside, Professor Emeritus, Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Ellen Schattschneider, Anthropology, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Brandeis University

Alan Rycroft, Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town

David Lurie, Photographer, Cape Town

Sue Cook, Director of Research, Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School.

Neville Hoad, English, University of Texas at Austin

Filipe Calvão, Anthropology, Graduate Institute, Geneva.

Update (Feb. 14, 2022, 9:53 a.m.): A number of professors requested that their names be removed from the above list following a lawsuit by three students alleging Harvard failed to protect them from retaliation and sexual harassment. Those names are listed below for the sake of transparency but are removed from the list above.

James H. Smith, Professor of Anthropology, UC Davis

Rafael Sanchez, Emeritus Professor, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, University of Geneva

Patricia Spyer, Professor and Chair, Anthropology, Graduate Institute, Geneva

Steven Robins, Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, Stellenbosch University

Imraan Coovadia, Professor and Director, Creative Writing, University of Cape Town

Image: David Clode, Public Domain

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