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Harvard Students Protest Professor’s Return to Campus After Multiple Accusations of Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Emanuel Shirazi

On Tuesday afternoon, more than 100 students walked out of Harvard professor John L. Comaroff’s class, protesting his return to campus after being accused of sexually harassing and assaulting his female students. Last year, three female graduate students filed a lawsuit in Boston federal court against the university, alleging that the institution ignored reports about Dr. Comaroff’s inappropriate behavior. The plaintiffs claim that the professor forcibly kissed and groped students without their consent and threatened to sabotage students’ academic career if they reported him to the university board. John Comaroff is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit against Harvard.

Students flooded the professor’s classroom to protest his first lecture of the spring semester. Once the class began, students began to leave the room chanting, “Justice for survivors” and “No more Comaroff, no more complicity”. Dr. Comaroff smiled and nodded at the students as they filed out of the classroom. According to the Harvard Crimson, one of the last students to leave told him to “smile in hell, a**hole.” Only two students remained in the classroom 10 minutes after the lecture had started. A similar walkout occurred last fall semester when he returned to teach after his leave. Five graduate students walked out of his first lecture of the semester and attended a Feminist working group rally.

John Comaroff, professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology, faces allegations of sexual harassment including unwanted touching, kissing, and sexual remarks that occurred over the last three decades while he was a faculty member at the University of Chicago. In February of 2022, new allegations surfaced as part of a lawsuit filed against Harvard. Three anthropology graduate students submitted a complaint detailing allegations of sexual harassment, four accounts of sexual contact, retaliation, and elaborated failures of Harvard’s investigative process.

Lilia M. Kilburn, a graduate student at Harvard’s Anthropology department, said in an interview that Dr. Comaroff planted a kiss on her mouth during a visit to campus. She began to speak about her partner making sure to use female pronouns to deflect any unwanted attention, but Dr. Comaroff warned her about “corrective rape” that occurs in certain parts of Africa due to being seen in a lesbian relationship. Ms. Killburn claims that the comment was said with a tone of enjoyment and that it wasn’t advice that should be given during office hours. Lilia was subjected to many more unwanted kisses and touches during her time at Harvard.

The Harvard professor had been placed on paid administrative leave in 2020 by the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences while the facts and circumstances regarding the allegations were reviewed. In 2022, Dr. Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave and wasn’t allowed to teach required courses or advise students, after an internal investigation found initial reports of students contacting the universities Title IX office with complaints of harassment and professional retaliation. Harvard reviewed the case and found that John Comaroff had violated the school’s sexual and gender-based harassment policies.

More than 15 Anthropology professors at Harvard asked John Comaroff to resign over sexual harassment allegations. The departments faculty including the chair stated that they had lost confidence in his ability to teach, mentor, and be a productive member of the department. The professor denied ever harassing or retaliating against any student. His attorneys said that he is not doing anything to create unsafe conditions for Harvard students and that he should not resign.

Lilia Kilburn, one of the plaintiffs in the Harvard lawsuit, posted on social media that she got emotional when she saw that Harvard undergrads walked out of the professor’s classroom. She tweeted, “Because no one should have to go through what I went through with John Comaroff to get an education”.

The walkout was organized by members of the activist groups Harvard Graduate Students Union, United Auto Workers’ Feminist Working Group, and Our Harvard Can Do Better, an organization dedicated to combating campus rape culture.

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