Harvard, Sexual Politics, Class and Resistance

A long read by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

As we write, the case of alleged sexual harassment by John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology at Harvard, is exploding. The Harvard case is particularly egregious, not least because of the elite status of the university.

In this piece we treat the Harvard case as part of a much wider set of problems concerning class, sexual politics, inequality and resistance. Our focus initially is on universities in the United States. But we need to remember that academic enterprise today is utterly international. Everywhere the industry relies on similar economic models, has similar intellectual concerns and fosters the considerable mobility of professionals and students from workplace to workplace around the globe.

We are particularly addressing anthropology and other graduate students in the United States and across the world. Our aim is to try to answer some of the difficult questions that come up again and again in online discussion of the case.

[You can download a pdf of this long read here.]

First: Why did Caroline Elkins, who wrote such an important book about the brutal suppression of Mau Mau in Kenya, sign the dreadful Harvard letter? And why did so many other people whose work you admire sign letters like the Harvard one?

The second question is one people seem to avoid asking directly, but it is behind so much of what is being said.  At Harvard, and with other abuse cases, a strange fact stands out. Most men are not abusers. But almost all male managers cover up and enable abuse. And so do almost all female managers. Why? What is going on here?

Third: The people who write the open letters, and others who want to defend abusers, go on about due process. But due process works as a Catch-22. Why should well-educated men accused of sexual harassment be the only ones to enjoy due process, when the apologists know full well that is exactly what we want for the victims of sexual abuse? Instead of banging on about due process for abusers only, shouldn’t we all be asking how can to build a genuinely fair process for everyone?

Fourth: Harvard, Columbia, and other universities in the United States and across the world go to extraordinary lengths to cover up abuse, protect abusers and thus enable further abuse. They do so even when most of the people who run those institutions don’t abuse. Why? Why does this matter so much to them?

Fifth, and finally, how can we do good work in the toxic environment of these institutions? Or to put it positively: what can we take from the struggles against sexual violence at Columbia and Harvard to help us do good, creative intellectual work as scholars and teachers?

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A Strike against Sexual Harassment

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

UPDATE, Jan. 8, 2022: The student workers at Columbia have now their strike. They stayed out for ten weeks and they did not buckle. The dispute was very hard fought because the management desperately did not want to concede arbitration in disputes over sexual harassment and racial discrimination. But the students refused to give in. This article, first published in November, 2021, explains why that victory over how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace is important for feminists and trade unions around the world.

This is what we wrote in November, 2021:

In the spring of 2021, graduate student teaching assistants and researchers at Columbia University in New York went on strike for the first time to win proper pay and conditions. But they were also on strike for fair arbitration of grievances over sexual harassment. And their strategy on that issue has important implications for trade unionists and feminists all over the world – and for activists on the climate and other issues.

The Columbia Student Workers are now back on the picket line this autumn. It is the second largest strike in the United States at the moment, and one of a growing number of strikes and disputes by student workers at American universities.

The strikers are graduate students who do much of the teaching for a low wage. They have organized themselves into a branch of the United Auto Workers. There are three main issues. One is union recognition. The second is increases in wages, childcare supplements and health insurance. The third is independent arbitration of grievances over sexual harassment and discrimination of all kinds.

The Indypendent reports: Lilian Coie is a 6th year PhD student in Columbia’s neuroscience department and a member of Columbia Union’s bargaining committee. She told The Indy that there’s a little black book that circulates in the neuroscience department that contains a running list of abusive professors and labs to avoid based on claims of harassment or sexual abuse. 

We really need more protection. We need more than little black books to keep people out of abusive labs… [Neutral third-party arbitration] would incentivise Columbia to stop abuse before it starts, and to remedy abuse before it reaches the level of arbitration … Everybody here is fired up because they see exactly what we are fighting for and exactly how reasonable we are.

We wrote about the background to the strike earlier this year. What we said then is worth revisiting:

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