Czerwienski v. President and Fellows of Harvard College

Czerwienski v. President and Fellows of Harvard College

This case challenges Harvard University’s decade-long failure to protect students from sexual harassment and career-ending retaliation by Professor John Comaroff, one of the most world’s most renowned and powerful scholars in the field of anthropology. The complaint alleges that Harvard hired Professor Comaroff despite warnings that he sexually harassed students at the University of Chicago, where graduate students and faculty knew him as a “predator” and a “groomer.” Soon after Comaroff joined the Harvard faculty, it alleges, Harvard received repeated complaints of sexual harassment, including reports of forced kissing, groping, and unwanted sexual comments by Comaroff, but Harvard chose not to investigate.

Comaroff targeted students who reported his harassment, including the plaintiffs. In spring 2017, they allege, graduate students Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava learned that Comaroff was making ongoing sexual advances toward a graduate student advisee. They began to warn other students and faculty about his behavior. When Comaroff found out, they allege he called Amulya to his office and threatened that she and Margaret would have “trouble getting jobs” if they continued to talk. Margaret reported the threat to Harvard, which again took no apparent action.

Comaroff continued to sexually harass Harvard students, the plaintiffs claim. In fall of 2017, they allege that Comaroff began harassing his first-year advisee Lilia Kilburn, subjecting her to forced kissing, groping, and persistent invitations to socialize alone off-campus. When Lilia tried to avoid Comaroff, she alleges, he forbade her from working with her other advisor. Lilia complained to Harvard’s Title IX office in May 2019. Again, Harvard took no meaningful action, though it admitted that it had known about Comaroff’s misconduct for years.

In 2020, the Harvard Crimson and The Chronicle of Higher Education published exposés about misconduct by Comaroff and two other anthropology professors. Only then did Harvard launch an investigation. But the investigation compounded the problem. First, Harvard obtained Lilia’s private therapy records and disclosed them to Comaroff without her consent. Then, ignoring the overwhelming evidence, Harvard denied that Comaroff had engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment or retaliation. It found him responsible for only two instances of verbal misconduct and allowed him to continue teaching after a slap on the wrist.

At the same time, Harvard faculty closed ranks, issuing statements that supported Comaroff and sought to undermine the plaintiffs’ allegations. One such public letter was signed by 38 faculty members, including faculty supervising the plaintiffs’ studies.

Margaret, Amulya, and Lilia sued Harvard in February 2022. They assert Title IX claims for Harvard’s deliberate indifference to Comaroff’s harassment and retaliation, along with claims under Massachusetts law. Lilia claims that Harvard violated her right to privacy when it obtained and disclosed her therapy records. Harvard filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and a motion for summary judgment on the privacy claim.

In March 2023, Judge Judith Dein denied Harvard’s motions. As to the privacy claim, she found Harvard failed to show that Lilia consented to the release of her private therapy records. As to the rest of the claims, she found the plaintiffs alleged enough facts to show that “Harvard maintains a policy of deliberate indifference to sexual misconduct,” negligently hired and supervised Comaroff, and breached its contracts with the plaintiffs. Judge Dein rejected Harvard’s arguments that the plaintiffs sued too late, holding that the facts in the complaint showed the plaintiffs could not have known enough to sue until “the Crimson revealed Harvard’s pattern of deliberate indifference to reports against faculty in their department.”

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