Harvard Faculty Who Supported Professor in Sexual Harassment Suit Back Off

Some of the 38 Harvard faculty members who had signed an open letter defending an anthropology professor who is facing sexual harassment accusations asked for their signatures to be removed in light of new allegations detailed in a recently filed lawsuit.

Lilia Kilburn is one of three women who have accused John Comaroff, a professor of African and African American studies and of anthropology, of harassment, NBC News reported. Originally, she said she felt harassed after an incident in which she told Comaroff she wanted to travel to central Africa, to which he told her she would be raped and killed due to her sexuality.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, alleged much more than Kilburn's accusations regarding Comaroff's comments on sexual violence in central Africa. It said Comaroff had allegedly subjected Kilburn to "a continuing nightmare that included more forced kissing, groping, persistent invitations to socialize alone off-campus, and coercive control," according to NBC. The suit added that while Kilburn filed a complaint in 2019, the school "took no meaningful action—except to admit that Harvard had known about Professor Comaroff's behavior for years."

After Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay initially sanctioned Comaroff, the 38 faculty members said in their letter that his alleged comments warning against travel to central Africa did not constitute sexual harassment, and they would have given similar warnings, The Harvard Crimson reported. The faculty letter called Comaroff an "excellent colleague" and a "committed university citizen."

"We are dismayed by Harvard's sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students," the letter said.

In a response to the letter, Gay warned the signatories against writing a letter like this without the full context of the allegations, which had not yet been revealed.

"It would not be appropriate for me to provide specifics of professor Comaroff's behavior," she wrote. "However, I can tell you that the conduct at issue is not what you have described."

Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava—the two other plaintiffs in the lawsuit—added that Comaroff told them they might "have trouble getting jobs" after they reported his alleged sexual misconduct with another graduate student to the university, according to NBC.

Comaroff's attorney told NBC he denies all the allegations.

The Boston Globe reported that as of Wednesday morning, 25 of the 38 people who had signed the letter asked to retract their signatures.

"I deeply regret having signed the letter," Romano Siskind, professor of comparative literature and of romance languages and literatures, told the Globe.

"I signed the letter without properly considering its impact on students and, obviously, without fuller information," history professor Maya Jasanoff wrote to the Globe. "This was a serious lapse in judgment and I apologize unreservedly for my mistake."

Update 02/10/22 2:05 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add more information and quotes from the professors' letter, Dean Claudine Gay, professor Romano Siskind and professor Maya Jasanoff.

Harvard University, campus, Massachusetts
Three graduate students are suing Harvard University for alleged sexual harassment from a professor. Above, a view of the Harvard campus on July 8, 2020, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images