“Even a Dog Understands No” – An Update on the Harvard Abuse Case

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

Harvard students enter the classroom to protest. Notice the posters.

Last February, almost a year ago, we published a long read about the struggle of three anthropology graduate students and their union against alleged sexual harassment at Harvard by Professor John Comaroff. (You can find that article here.) This is a short update.

The students, fed up with stonewalling by the university administration, sued Harvard a year ago. They are still waiting for their day in court.

Harvard had investigated and then suspended Comaroff from teaching for a year. Now he is back, teaching one course. Three quarters of his colleagues in the anthropology department have signed a joint letter asking Harvard to stop him teaching.

This week an alliance of students took action. More than a hundred walked into his classroom and asked anyone who objected to his abuse to leave. Every student walked out.

The campus is covered in posters with Comaroff’s picture and the hashtag firecomaroff. The action was organised by an alliance of organisations, including the graduate students union local and the campaign for disinvestment from fossil fuels.

Our favourite handmade poster is one that says “Complicity – Even a Dog Understands No”. But we also like “Resign Asshole” and “Keep Your Dick in Your Pants.”

One of the three graduate students, Lilia Kilburn, wrote on Twitter:

“When I saw what Harvard undergrads did today, I wept. Because no one should have to go through what I went through with John Comaroff to get an education.

“Because Harvard was warned about Comaroff and did nothing, but these students are making sure that warnings reach everyone.

“Because I am afraid of that man, but these students can act where I cannot. I see them acting with courage and love and humor, wishing no harm, making space for healing and safety on this campus. It brings meaning to what we’re been through. I want his harm to end with me now.

“There are posters about him everywhere. I hate seeing them!. But I also cannot tell you how many times I have cried on the phone to other women talking about what he has done. Our lawsuit details allegations going back to 1979. I want to be the last one he’s hurt. I have to be.”

For more on this case, do go to our long read on Harvard, Sexual Politics, Class and Resistance. That piece also tries to explain why almost all senior managers like those at Harvard, in all countries, almost automatically support bosses and professors  who commit sexual violence and harassment. And it includes an account of the long graduate student strike at Columbia in 2021 to win a proper arbitration process for grievances about sexual harassment.

Related Post: Me Too: The Economists Organize

One Day Strikes – A lesson from history

Jonathan Neale writes: One chapter on the 1982 hospital workers strikes from a book I wrote many years ago seems very relevant now. I hope it will be useful, in different ways, to university workers and hospital workers. You can download the chapter here.

For the university workers’ strikes right now, this chapter holds bitter lessons about why one day and five-day strikes will lose. But 2022 is not 1982. There is a way now to move to an indefinite strike and win. At the end of the post I also talk briefly about the relevance of the chapter to health workers now.

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