One October day in 2017, Amulya Mandava met with her anthropology professor to review a grant proposal she was working on. For an hour she and John L. Comaroff went through the proposal, line by line. He gave good feedback and reading recommendations to Mandava, then a third-year Ph.D. student at Harvard.But as she was closing her laptop and preparing to leave, Comaroff said something that shook her. He told her, she later wrote in a statement to a Harvard office, that people were spreading rumors about him — rumors that he had had sexual contact with his students — and that he knew she had been part of the rumor mill.It was true. Mandava had known Comaroff for nearly a decade; he was both a devoted adviser and one of the biggest names in her field. But she had heard the rumors. And when other students in the program asked her about Comaroff, she had shared them.She tried, carefully, to explain herself. “Gender dynamics and power are complicated,” she told Comaroff, according to a text message, reviewed by The Chronicle, that she sent a friend right after the meeting. “It’s important for women to have information and choices.”
Sandra FazzinoAmulya Mandava
For Mandava, this wasn’t about spreading gossip. It was about making sure her peers were informed. Mandava was part of a whisper network, a well-worn and imperfect system for sharing information. To her, at the time, it was the best she could do.The conversation with Comaroff continued. According to Mandava, the professor told her that the rumors had been started by three men he had taught at the University of Chicago before moving to Harvard. Mandava said that he had named those former students and told her they were now having trouble finding jobs because they were known as gossips. He said he wouldn’t want that to happen to her.The rumors weren’t true, Comaroff said. According to Mandava, he told her he had never had sexual contact with a student. He keeps his office door open when meeting with female students, he said, according to the statement Mandava later sent to Harvard investigators; his “warmth” might have been misinterpreted. What’s more, the rumors were painful, he told her. Mandava said it must also be painful for his wife, Jean Comaroff, who is also an anthropology professor and one of her longtime advisers. According to Mandava, Comaroff responded that his wife knew nothing of the information that was circulating and that she would be furious with anyone who told her.Mandava said that Comaroff had reminded her how he had supported her throughout her academic career. He told her he liked to think that she had come to Harvard, in part, because he and his wife were there.Mandava took the conversation as a threat. She texted her friend that she was shocked and felt manipulated.At first Mandava heeded Comaroff’s warning and stopped speaking with other students about him. But a year and a half later, after she learned about another student’s experience with Comaroff, she changed her mind. She told other professors in the anthropology department about the 2017 conversation, and they told Harvard’s Title IX office. In May a Harvard Crimson article about widespread allegations of sexual harassment by multiple members of the anthropology department noted that at least three students had shared allegations about Comaroff with the Title IX office.Since the Crimson story appeared, student and alumni groups have written letters to the anthropology department and the African and African American studies department, where Comaroff also has an appointment, calling for reform and even demanding that he and other professors be fired. But some former students have joined an effort to support Comaroff. The professor has a reputation not just as a valuable scholar, but as a tireless and uncommonly willing mentor.The allegations made to the Title IX office weren’t spelled out in the Crimson article, but Mandava and the two other students — Lilia Kilburn and Margaret Czerwienski — shared their stories with The Chronicle, where they are being made public for the first time. They also shared their stories with Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution, which investigates Title IX complaints, though they said that process has sometimes been confusing and left them feeling more vulnerable to retaliation than before.
Dr. Charmaine ChuaJean and John Comaroff
On Monday the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay, placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave, “pending a full review of the facts and circumstances regarding the allegations that have been reported.” She wrote that “sexual harassment constitutes a form of discrimination that is both personally damaging for those who experience it and is an assault on our faculty’s fundamental commitments to equity and academic excellence.”Comaroff, 75, did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from The Chronicle requesting an interview. Through his lawyers — Janet Halley, a professor at Harvard Law School, and Ruth O’Meara-Costello and Norman Zalkind, from the law firm Zalkind Duncan and Bernstein — he denied all allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation.“Today’s announcement is prejudicial to the fair determination of any claims against him, punitive without any fact finding, defamatory, and a violation of the Harvard University Sexual Harassment Policy’s confidentiality rules,” his lawyers wrote in a statement on Monday.They said that the 2017 conversation with Mandava had not happened as she described it. “He discussed with Mandava, as he has with many other students, the risks for job candidates on campus visits of engaging in gossip about their home departments’ internal politics,” Comaroff’s lawyers said. “He did not discuss rumors about him personally. He has never retaliated or threatened retaliation against any student.”Comaroff’s lawyers said in a separate statement that he had mentored hundreds of students throughout his 50-year career.“He has been known to students and colleagues alike for almost five decades as a deeply principled, committed, and generous scholar,” they wrote. “The accusations brought against him are false, but the facts have been lost in the frenzy of the current moment. Allegations and wild rumors have gone viral and been accepted with an appalling lack of skepticism. We look forward to a full examination of this case and are confident that John will be fully vindicated.”The three graduate students say they have found themselves on the wrong side of the academic star system, in which a select few scholars wield outsize power to make or break careers. A letter of recommendation from one of those scholars can mean the difference between an interview and an offer — but so too can the absence of such a letter. Junior scholars risk losing key advocates when they air problems with senior professors in their field.The #MeToo movement has given accusers space to bring forth allegations against scholars who abuse their power. But the structure that protected powerful men in the academy is still in place, with women relying on old and imperfect tools for protection — like the whisper network Mandava described in her professor’s office. She, Kilburn, and Czerwienski have come forward because they say they don’t want students to have to choose between managing misconduct and risking their careers.Comaroff had made Mandava uncomfortable before. She had been an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where Comaroff taught until 2012.In the winter of 2009, Mandava traveled to South Africa with the Comaroffs and a group of other students. Students in the program took classes with the Comaroffs and went with them to sites like Kruger National Park, the sprawling wildlife reserve.Mandava hadn’t met John Comaroff before. On the trip he was unusually focused on her, she wrote in the statement to Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution. She said he would encourage her to sit next to him when he drove the van, and would buy her Diet Cokes or candy when they made rest stops, even though she never asked for them and he didn’t buy them for anyone else. Once she made a joke to the group about wearing a high-necked wedding dress. “That would be out of character for you,” Comaroff said. Mandava was mortified. (She described the conversation in a February 2009 email to two friends that she forwarded to The Chronicle.)Comaroff’s lawyers said that “all 24 students on the trip were treated equally by John and by the other senior faculty.” They wrote that “soda, snacks, and candy were bought for all students regularly, and they alternated seating in vehicles.” They said Comaroff has no recollection of a conversation about a high-necked wedding dress.Another student on the trip, who asked not to be named because she feared professional consequences, said she remembered that Mandava had felt uncomfortable because of the attention, but she didn’t remember specifically the words Comaroff had used. The former student said that though the behavior hadn’t been overt, she remembered thinking it was “boundary-crossing and objectifying.”Mandava felt intellectually validated by the attention from Comaroff. But she was concerned enough, she said, that she asked another professor on the trip, David Bunn, whether any students had ever filed sexual-harassment complaints against Comaroff. Mandava said Bunn had told her no, but that every year on the trip Comaroff chose a different student to shower with attention. Mandava described the conversation with Bunn in a March 2009 online chat with a friend that she forwarded to The Chronicle. The comment made Mandava feel as if professors considered such behavior normal. When reached by The Chronicle, Bunn, who is now a senior research scientist at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, said he had no recollection of the conversation, nor did he believe it had happened.Mandava started her Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard in 2015. Jean Comaroff often wrote her recommendation letters. Mandava didn’t name either Comaroff to her general-exam or dissertation committees, but took classes with them and exchanged friendly emails. Both Comaroffs, she said, often gave her crucial advice and support.But occasionally she Googled John Comaroff’s name to see if anything popped up about sexual harassment, still wondering, as she had in South Africa, whether she was the only one who felt he’d crossed an invisible boundary with her.
She often wondered whether she was the only one who felt he’d crossed an invisible boundary with her.
Then, in 2017, a friend asked her whether she’d ever heard about John Comaroff’s having sexual relationships with his students at the University of Chicago. Mandava’s heart sank. She had. “During my time at Chicago,” she later wrote in a statement to Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution, “John Comaroff’s sexual contact with women students was openly and frequently discussed.”Comaroff’s lawyers said he “has never been sexually intimate with any student.”Now, just before #MeToo coalesced as a movement, Mandava questioned whether professors could have consensual relationships with their students, given the power imbalance. “This dialogue,” she said, “had started changing so much.”Mandava felt she had an obligation to tell people — particularly women — what she had heard about Comaroff. She told other students about her discomfort with him at the University of Chicago and shared allegations of his relationships with students.It wasn’t clear to Mandava how Comaroff had learned of those conversations, but she suspected another student had told him. In their meeting, Mandava said, Comaroff described other female students who he said were spreading rumors about him, using enough detail that Mandava could identify them. One was Margaret Czerwienski, another graduate student in the anthropology department, who had told students that Comaroff treated some of his advisees inappropriately. Through his lawyers, Comaroff denied that he had told Mandava that Czerwienski was spreading rumors about him.Czerwienski had heard accounts from students at both Harvard and the University of Chicago similar to those Mandava described. She wrote in a statement to Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution that she felt “a moral obligation to help protect other students from the corollary confusion, doubt, shame, and discomfort caused by experiencing” his advances. After Mandava told her about the meeting with Comaroff, Czerwienski contacted Harvard’s Title IX office.In the months after that 2017 meeting, Mandava continued to nurture her relationship with Comaroff. She hugged him when she saw him and made sure to give him a wave when they attended the same talks. She looked for “ways of displaying I had not yet withdrawn from the relationship,” she said. She felt he would read withdrawal as hostility.But in the spring of 2019, she got a phone call from another graduate student, Lilia Kilburn, who had gone to the Title IX office. Kilburn told Mandava that she had been sexually harassed by Comaroff and was seeking protection from the university. Mandava decided to join her.“I felt that I could no longer stay silent and accept the Comaroffs’ mentorship,” she wrote in her statement to the Office for Dispute Resolution a year later. In June 2019 she told two other professors about her conversation with Comaroff; they told a Title IX coordinator. Then she waited.Lilia Kilburn admired the Comaroffs’ work, particularly their well-known 2012 book Theory From the South. She thought the prose was beautiful and looked to it as a model for her own writing.In early 2017 she was accepted to the anthropology programs at Harvard and Columbia. When she was trying to make her decision she met both Comaroffs for lunch in Cambridge, Mass., she recalled. After Vietnamese food, Jean Comaroff left, while Kilburn and John Comaroff stayed to talk a little longer, then walked back toward Harvard’s campus together. They stopped near one of Harvard’s gates to say goodbye. Comaroff hugged Kilburn, she wrote three years later in a statement that she shared with Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution, and then kissed her on the lips. She said he then pulled her in close and told her to visit Columbia, but then come back to Harvard.Comaroff “absolutely denies kissing Ms. Kilburn on the lips or acting inappropriately towards her,” his lawyers wrote.Flustered and surprised, Kilburn quickly said goodbye and walked away. When she thought about the encounter afterward, she told herself it was probably nothing. Maybe he had meant to kiss her cheek, she thought, but got her lips instead. Maybe that type of embrace was common in South Africa, where Comaroff was born and conducts much of his research. When she spoke with students whom Jean Comaroff had put her in touch with, they told her the Comaroffs were warm and caring advisers.
Kilburn accepted Harvard’s offer and enrolled the following fall. John Comaroff was her adviser. On the first day of the semester, she met with him in his office. He commented on the bike helmet she was holding, saying he was sure it looked great on her. Kilburn told him that she and her partner had taken a bicycle trip together that summer; she added that she looked forward to traveling with her while conducting field research. Comaroff’s lawyers said that he had made a joke about Kilburn’s helmet, but that “he jokes about his as well.”Then, without warning, the conversation turned to violence. According to Kilburn, Comaroff told her that if she were to travel to certain places, she would be raped. He listed other parts of Africa where she would be raped and killed. Kilburn knew that in parts of South Africa, women in same-sex relationships are sometimes assaulted in a practice known as “corrective rape.” She interpreted Comaroff’s comments as describing places where that practice occurred.Kilburn was silent. In just a few moments, a conversation with her adviser had gone from small talk to musings about scenarios in which she was the victim of sexual violence. The way he said it was just as unsettling to her. She said he had used “a tone you would use if you were talking about a movie you liked, except he was talking about me.”Comaroff’s lawyers said that he “did raise the risks of fieldwork, but not out of prurient interest. The conversation raised concerns about the dangers that members of the LGBTQ community face doing research in Africa.” Such violence is well documented, they said, adding that if Comaroff had not raised those issues, “he would have been derelict in his responsibility as Kilburn’s adviser.” They said he had not told Kilburn that she “would be raped.”According to Kilburn, Comaroff then closed the meeting by telling her that he had “fought very hard” for her to get into Harvard. She quickly left.Once again, Kilburn looked for plausible explanations for what felt to her like a boundary crossed. Maybe he was simply warning her, she thought.Kilburn didn’t speak with Comaroff again — with the exception, she said, of a passing encounter in which he called out that her helmet looked “excellent” on her — until late September, when he and Jean Comaroff hosted a brunch for students and colleagues. Kilburn said Comaroff had greeted her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. With a hand on the small of her back, he guided her to a patio and offered her a mimosa. She said she’d take a coffee.When it was time to go, Comaroff walked her to the front door. As they were saying goodbye, he tried to plant another kiss on her lips, Kilburn said in her statement. She moved her head slightly, and the kiss landed on the side of her mouth. Through his lawyers, Comaroff denied trying to kiss Kilburn.Now she was scared. She spoke to several other classmates about those interactions. Paul Clarke, another graduate student, confirmed to The Chronicle that Kilburn had told him Comaroff had made uncomfortable comments about rape. Another, Chrystel Oloukoi, said Kilburn had asked her if his “touchiness” might be “a European thing.” Oloukoi, who is from France, told her it was not. Oloukoi said Kilburn then said that Comaroff had kissed her.“I was desperate to be heard,” Kilburn said. “But I didn’t know how to get help.”Once, over lunch in the atrium of the anthropology building, Kilburn told Mandava that she found meeting with Comaroff difficult. It wasn’t long after Comaroff had confronted Mandava about talking about him with other students. Mandava told Kilburn they shouldn’t discuss it. The strong reaction stuck with Kilburn.Kilburn also told her adviser at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she had earned her master’s degree. Eugenie Brinkema, an associate professor of film and literature, said that Kilburn had told her over coffee that Comaroff had kissed her on the lips and made inappropriate comments about rape.“We had a long talk about what she should do,” Brinkema said. They talked about how difficult it would be for Kilburn to get a job without a good letter of recommendation from Comaroff — it would seem like a glaring omission, given her area of study and the fact that she was at Harvard. Brinkema offered Kilburn advice. “I don’t know if it was the best advice,” Brinkema said. She told Kilburn: “Living well is the best revenge.”Over the course of a year, Kilburn mostly avoided her adviser. Occasionally, she said, she wrote him emails, apologizing for not meeting more often. The Comaroffs invited her to serve as a discussant in an African-studies workshop, which Kilburn said was a highlight of her time at Harvard. The experience brought home how important the pair of professors was to her career. She told Brinkema around that time that her advice was paying off.“I felt as though my love for my work made me easy to manipulate by those who served as gatekeepers, who held control over whether and how I got to do that work in the first place,” she later wrote in the statement to Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution.She felt as if she had to either fully commit to being part of Comaroff’s network or risk not gaining the benefit of his advising at all. She felt isolated from other members of the department. One time, she wrote in her statement, they attended a colloquium and Comaroff squeezed her thigh as he was leaving. Through his lawyers, Comaroff denied that this happened.When Comaroff returned from a yearlong sabbatical, Kilburn decided she needed protection. In the spring of 2019, she spoke with other faculty members at Harvard about her experience with Comaroff. Then she spoke with a Title IX coordinator.For a year, Kilburn didn’t hear much. One of the few responses she did hear surprised her: The Title IX coordinator put her in touch with someone else who had made a complaint against Comaroff. This past spring Kilburn told a reporter for the Crimson that she’d been in contact with the Title IX office about Comaroff, and so had Mandava and Czerwienski. Comaroff was named in the Crimson article about allegations of sexual misconduct in the anthropology department, along with two other professors, Theodore C. Bestor and Gary Urton.The newspaper’s account of the allegations against Comaroff didn’t name the three women. “Multiple people have told the Title IX office about unwanted touching, verbal sexual harassment, and professional retaliation by Comaroff,” the May 29 article said. “All of which he denied in his statement to The Crimson.”News of the Title IX complaints against Comaroff shot through his wide professional network. What some called vicious rumors and gossip others saw as necessary warnings among women.The anthropology department has received letters from student, alumni, and professional groups that were concerned about the allegations in the Crimson article. At least one called for all three professors to be fired. In response, Ajantha Subramanian and Rowan Flad, the department’s chair and interim chair, wrote to the community and promised reform.Many of Comaroff’s former students knew him as an adviser who read their work with care, wrote fantastic letters of recommendation, and always made himself available to give feedback and advice.
He is someone who really knows how to build an intellectual community and a social community.
“I can’t say enough about how generous he was with his time and his pedagogy and mentorship over the years,” said Darja Djordjevic, who earned her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2016 and is now a psychiatry resident at Yale University’s medical school. “He is someone who really knows how to build an intellectual community and a social community.” Djordjevic said she did not know precisely what Comaroff was accused of. She was one of several female scholars who got in touch with The Chronicle when they heard about this article.Ann L. Stoler, an anthropology professor at the New School who said she had been friends with Comaroff for 35 years, wrote an email asking The Chronicle not to “add kindling to a situation which should never have gotten to where it is now.” She said “the idea that he would ever use his position to belittle a student is so far from what he has done.”A letter of support for Comaroff, addressed to Claudine Gay, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said Comaroff’s students and mentees were “disturbed and dismayed by the accusations of sexual harassment made against him.” It said his “style of holistic mentorship and teaching has been valued and celebrated continuously, but has become more like gold dust among younger scholars.”Mandava agrees that Comaroff shows his students genuine warmth and care, but sees something darker in the attention. “He’s cultivated such a sense of loyalty among his students,” she said, and the “extreme care” that he bestows “has the effect of silencing you.”Subramanian, the department chair, said she could not comment on the allegations about Comaroff because she did not want to influence the outcome of the investigation. But she did speak generally about a “system of patronage” among scholars that “severely constrains the ability of students to be critical and speak openly about problems.”
Tim HoldreadMargaret Czerwienski
And it’s not just students, Subramanian said. At just about every stage of scholars’ careers, they depend on recommendation letters from mentors and advisers. Fearful of doing anything that would jeopardize those recommendations, they may stay quiet when they know of or experience wrongdoing.“It’s infantilizing, frankly, to be sort of tied up in these structures of obligation where you have this academic parent who is responsible for you and can make or break your progress,” Subramanian said.That intellectual family, so to speak, presents another problem, Subramanian said. If a star mentor falls, his or her mentees also shine a little less brightly. Scholars, Subramanian said in a follow-up email, “become invested in protecting the family name so that it remains an asset. In a sense, protecting the reputation of the patron becomes the work, not just of the patron, but of the beneficiaries too.”Chrystel Oloukoi, the student whom Kilburn had told about the unwanted kiss, described the dynamic between advisers and students as a particular problem in Harvard’s anthropology department.“There is basically a short list of three or four faculty in the department that do the entire advising work,” Oloukoi said. “On that list is John Comaroff. People tend to ask him when they get abandoned by their adviser.”That means there are few people to turn to if you have a problem with your adviser, she explained. “Neglect enabled an environment in which people who provide more advising can also take advantage of students.”Subramanian acknowledged that “the burden of advising is unevenly distributed” in the department. That was partly because of attrition, she said. To remedy the problem, she said, the department has tried to admit only students whose interests align with two or three faculty members, so they will not be advised by only one person.The one place students can turn is the Title IX office. At Harvard the Title IX office can send complaints that coordinators feel need to be investigated to the Office for Dispute Resolution. A Title IX coordinator did just that this past spring.Though it had been a year or more since the students contacted the Title IX office, once the Office for Dispute Resolution contacted them, the three women were told they had to respond within a week. All three decided to file their own complaints.The women say they have altered their academic careers to avoid Comaroff. Czerwienski stopped working in Africa and with Jean Comaroff, who was her adviser. Kilburn avoided classes John Comaroff taught and put off scheduling her general exams because she didn’t want to solidify his position as her committee chair. Mandava also stopped working with Jean Comaroff, who had advised her since she was an undergraduate.Mandava still fears retaliation. She didn’t get a grant she recently applied for, and though she believes the rejection was based on the merits of her proposal, she sometimes wonders.“It became increasingly disturbing to not know the difference between my own academic performance and its results, vs. Comaroff’s extended reach in the world of anthropology,” she wrote in a statement she shared with Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution.But Mandava takes comfort in one thing. She says that after all this, Comaroff might still make students feel uncomfortable. But now, if they Google his name, as Mandava did years ago, they’ll know they weren’t the only ones.