A Known Secret: Academic Power Structures and Impunity
Content Warning: Mentions of sexual misconduct, rape, and abuse.
Three graduate students in the Harvard Anthropology Department filed a lawsuit against the university on February 9 for mishandling years of Title IX complaints of sexual misconduct related to Professor John Comaroff, a renowned scholar of African and African American studies and Anthropology. His wife, Jean Comaroff, also a professor in the same departments, allegedly enabled retaliation efforts against the students. The Comaroffs are distinguished husband-wife intellectuals who have amassed a powerful network of colleagues, having mentored hundreds of students who have since become professors themselves. This network, along with the star-status of the Comaroffs, protected them against allegations of abuse for decades.
Less than three miles from their Cambridge offices, the Tufts Anthropology Department knows the Comaroffs well. Their research is taught and discussed across gateway and upper-level seminar courses, as well as commonly cited in student and professor papers. For many anthropology students, the Comaroffs are among the first scholars they familiarize themselves with.
Given the Comaroffs’ wide-ranging influence in academia at Tufts and beyond, the Comaroff case reveals how academic structures exacerbate power inequalities between students and professors, as well as prevent students from seeking support when faced with power-based harassment in a constrained academic job market.
Allegations Against Comaroff and Faculty Response
John Comaroff’s harassment allegations were first publicized in May 2020 by Harvard’s undergraduate student-run newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. The student plaintiffs initially filed their complaints with the Harvard Title IX offices and were reluctant to go public with their stories. However, Harvard faculty and decision-makers at the highest level continually disparaged the university’s Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) process and encouraged students to contact the press rather than the administration in order to see action taken.
The following fall, The Chronicle of Higher Education detailed further allegations. In the article, the student plaintiffs described almost a decade of discrimination, sexual abuse, and retaliation while working under Comaroff. In one episode of verbal harassment, Comaroff had musingly detailed and listed places in Africa where Lilia Kilburn, a lesbian graduate student under his advising, would be subject to rape and murder if her sexual identity was discovered. Kilburn said this description was made in reference to the practice of “corrective rape,” which sometimes occurs in regions of South Africa; however, she noted that Comaroff used “a tone you would use if you were talking about a movie you liked.”
After the publication of the Crimson and Chronicle articles, Harvard reopened the investigation on the plaintiff’s allegations and placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave. In Spring 2021, Comaroff’s administrative leave was made unpaid, and he was banned from teaching required courses and taking on additional graduate students for a year.
In response, 38 Harvard faculty members issued an open letter on February 4, titled “Open Letter from Concerned Faculty,” to defend Comaroff against the 2022 – 23 sanctions. The letter questioned the allegations against Comaroff’s descriptions of “corrective rape” to Kilburn and said it was “advice intended to protect an advisee from sexual harassment.” The signatories criticized Harvard for opening a second investigation after these allegations.
In response, on February 10, another open letter titled “Anthropologists’ Response to Harvard Sexual Harassment Stories” was drafted by Queen’s University Ontario Professor Sarah Shulist and New York University Professor Sameena Mulla to condemn the original letters defending John Comaroff. This letter was signed by three professors from the Tufts Anthropology Department: Department Chair and Associate Professor Amahl Bishara, Associate Professor Alex Blanchette, and Assistant Professor Nick Seaver.
By February 11, all but three signatories had retracted their signatures from the “Open Letter from Concerned Faculty,” claiming they “were lacking full information about the case” at the time of signing. Among the original signatories were several renowned Harvard professors and a former academic dean.
Seaver summarized the “Anthropologists’ Response to Harvard Sexual Harassment Stories” letter, saying it came from a group of scholars who believe “there are things that anthropology as a discipline helps us think about—power and social institutions and so on. [The signatories argue that] the faculty who signed the original letter… seem to be neglecting a lot of what anthropologists should, in theory, know better about.”
Tufts Anthropology Professor Sarah Pinto was critical of the apparent “contradiction” of abuse in the anthropology discipline. In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, Pinto stated, “[F]or many abusers, a public commitment to social justice, or other moral stance, is felt to give one license to abuse.”
Director of the Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education (CARE) Alexandra Donovan also spoke to the ways appearances disguise power-based harassment across disciplines. She said, “People think power looks in a particular way, and that it is obvious and that it is severe… when, in fact, just the power differential of being a professor and being a student already makes it exist.”
For Seaver, the “Open Letter from Concerned Faculty” relayed a disappointing message from Harvard faculty. “We have all these faculty who are saying that students in precarious situations… are not going to have a lot of faculty come to their support,” he said.
Academic Structures that Protected Comaroff
Informal networks of prestige, such as the “star system” and academic “family trees,” prevent powerful professors such as Comaroff from facing repercussions in situations of harassment and serial abuse. In graduate programs, tenured advisors hold an outsized influence on the futures of their students.
The star system shows how certain faculty, such as the Comaroffs, can rise through tenure to have disproportionate influence and power in their field with impunity. “Stardom” within academia can be achieved by publishing popular research and from attending and/or teaching at well-funded graduate programs with large bodies of graduate students. Star professors act as assets for universities by attracting graduate students and grants from across the world.
This stardom is accompanied by the structure of “academic family trees,” wherein professors create descendants that replicate their advisor’s methodology and practice. Advisees build their own scholarships and careers based on their advisor’s research and eventually go on to establish themselves as professors mentoring new students at other graduate programs. These family trees create vast networks of supportive colleagues citing one another, resulting in increased stardom and power for the original star professors who mentored them, such as the Comaroffs.
Academic family trees can also pass down misconduct. Anu Zaman, an undergraduate Harvard student who works as the co-coordinator for the Harvard Task Force for Asian American Progressive Advocacy and Studies, elaborated on the insulating quality of academia, stating students “have been abused by their professors, and then they’re doing the exact same thing to people [as professors themselves].” To Zaman, the cycle of abuse is “all within the university, and the university is not tasked with helping grad students, but rather weeding people out.”
Seaver commented on how family trees place students in inherently vulnerable positions. “There’s a lot of power that advisors have over their advisees that is very hard to navigate ethically, even if you’re not doing shady stuff. Even if you’re trying to be a good advisor, there’s just a ton of power,” he said.
The competitive job market further feeds into the star system and family tree network, where students are at the mercy of their professors’ names and prestige for few job opportunities. Seaver said, “It’s like any of these other moments in the academic life cycle, it’s one where you’re dependent on a bunch of letters from other people attesting to the quality of your scholarship.”
Job prospects at these institutions narrow further with the tiny amount of tenure-track positions available. Senior anthropology major Lydia Russell, who hopes to attend graduate school, spoke pessimistically about her career prospects. “There aren’t a lot of jobs in the social sciences or humanities. In academia right now, there are literally none.”
In an informal study published by anthropologist Grant Jun Otsuki titled “Academic Authority and Institutional Power in Anthropology,” the author explored supervisory relationships in cultural anthropology by researching dissertations, ProQuest, and archives dating back to the 1980s. His visual dataset, which consists of names connected to each other by lines of supervision, reveals Jean Comaroff is ranked first in number of supervisions with 65, and John Comaroff as seventh with 38.
Otsuki then displays the connections between the university where an anthropology student received their PhD and the university where that same student went on to advise a new PhD student. Powerful institutions like Harvard and the University of Chicago, where Comaroff taught, hire many of their own graduate students as faculty, which allows them to define what the field of anthropology looks like over the years.
The combination of Comaroff’s star status, his extensive academic tree, and the personal leverage he held over his advisees’ career prospects allowed him to continue his abuse. Comaroff regularly threatened students who spoke out against his unwanted advances with retaliation, leading to the destruction of countless students’ academic careers.
Student Support Systems that Fail Survivors
According to Pinto, missing from the larger discussions about academic abuse is the important question of how specific institutional policies—such as methods of “fact-finding,” legal disclosure, and other practices related to Title IX processes and law—protect abusers, create coercions, and constitute their own forms of abuse.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding. Tufts has historically not been transparent with and resistant to reform on its sexual violence and private investigation policies, culminating in the federal government declaring Tufts in gross violation of Title IX for the mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints in 2014. Since then, the administration has implemented various changes, including hiring Donovan as a Sexual Misconduct Resource Specialist.
For Donovan, most cases at Tufts of power-based harassment never make it to the Tufts Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO). “It never makes it to someone wanting to report because that sets in motion, a path—a sort of chain of events—that people are terrified about.”
The fear of potential retaliation from their professors prevents most students from ever making a formal report. Once a student files a report through the OEO, all ensuing communications and student information become part of an investigation file due to legally mandated reporting policies.
According to Donovan, many students then choose to consult CARE instead, where they receive a confidential space to simply talk and explore potential options. She said most students do not necessarily want to initiate disciplinary action, but just want to survive and ensure that they can continue with their academic careers.
Donovan additionally spoke to how in many schools, the Title IX coordinator can hold other academic appointments and connections in addition to the Title IX role. All of these vested interests can influence Title IX investigations. At Harvard, this administrative dynamic culminated in Comaroff obtaining Kilburn’s confidential mental health records from her private psychotherapy sessions and using them against her. Comaroff, after the aid of Harvard’s ODR, used these notes to claim Kilburn had imagined the sexual harassment due to her post-traumatic stress disorder, which she had developed directly because of the abuse.
Russell reflected on the lack of space within broader academic institutions for students to process power-based harassment. “I’ve never once in my entire undergraduate career heard of someone having an experience of sexual misconduct and bringing it to the authorities and feeling satisfied with the outcome. I think that the environment that we’re in just fundamentally stigmatizes those conversations,” she said.
Reflecting on Comaroff at Tufts
Donovan said the Comaroff case has brought new awareness about CARE at Tufts. Since the case gained traction, an increased number of graduate students have visited the office, including those from the dental, medical, and veterinary schools.
Sana Aladin, a first-year master’s student at Tufts’ Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, said that although she has not directly experienced any professors’ abuses of power, the case affected how she feels about her graduate relationships. “I didn’t realize how vulnerable someone at my level could be to [power-based abuse]… Now, as I consider spending more time in school and in academia, I’m realizing I’d have to be more vigilant not just for myself but for others,” she said.
The Comaroff case is not contained to a single discipline, nor the confines of one campus. The circulation of letters, discussions within and outside departments, and frustrations of graduate students stuck in academic hierarchies and cycles of abuse are generating new expectations and attitudes towards academia.
An anonymous Tufts anthropology student reflected on the discomfort of learning about the Comaroff case. “As a survivor of sexual assault, hearing about that really rocked me as someone who’s moving into graduate school space… I care deeply about being in professional relationships where I’m being seen as a person—and that means being treated with respect.”