Harvard University faces lawsuit over sexual harassment allegations against South African professor

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Three women have sued Harvard University, alleging that the prestigious US institution ignored sexual harassment allegations against prominent SA born professor John Comaroff.
Three women have sued Harvard University, alleging that the prestigious US institution ignored sexual harassment allegations against prominent SA born professor John Comaroff.
Maddie Meyer, Gett Images
  • A South African professor is on unpaid leave from Harvard University after sexual harassment allegations were levelled against him.
  • Harvard has since launched a review into the allegations made by three women.
  • A lawsuit has been launched against Harvard University over its response to the allegations.

Sexual harassment claims have been levelled against a South African professor at Harvard University.

In a statement, the university said that three students lodged complaints against Professor John Comaroff.

According to Harvard's website, South-African born Comaroff, 77, is a professor of African and African American studies and anthropology at the institution and an honorary professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town.

Harvard University said on Thursday that it had conducted "thorough reviews" and found that Comaroff engaged in verbal conduct that violated the sexual and gender-based harassment policy and the professional conduct policy of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

"Sanctions for that conduct were issued by the FAS on 20 January 2022 and included, among other things, unpaid administrative leave for the spring semester and limiting Professor Comaroff's teaching and advising activities through at least the 2022/23 academic year," the statement said.

READ | Wits’ controversial decision to reinstate lecturer accused of sexual harassment

According to the Washington Post, the three students launched a lawsuit against the university on Tuesday last week. They claimed the university ignored complaints about the alleged sexual harassment.

They alleged that Comaroff used his position to "exploit aspiring scholars" by kissing and groping students without their consent. He also allegedly made unwelcome sexual advances to students and threatened to sabotage students' careers if they complained, the report stated.

In response to the lawsuit, the university disputed the allegations.

"Harvard University disputes the allegations of the lawsuit brought by Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, which are in no way a fair or accurate representation of the thoughtful steps taken by the university in response to concerns that were brought forward, the thorough reviews conducted, and the results of those reviews," it said.

Following disciplinary action against Comaroff, a letter was signed by almost 40 faculty members who questioned the results of the misconduct investigation, the Harvard Crimson reported. In the letter, Comaroff was reportedly described as "an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen".

Since the lawsuit was launched, almost all the signatories had reportedly retracted their support.

Comaroff's lawyers - Norman Zalkind, Janet Halley, and Ruth O'Meara-Costello - issued a statement saying he categorically denied ever harassing or retaliating against any student.

"To address the lawsuit's specific allegations, Professor Comaroff was never the subject of any Title IX or other complaint at the University of Chicago. There, as at Harvard, he was a sincerely devoted mentor to countless students.

"Professor Comaroff denies the claim that he made advances on an unnamed second-year graduate student. No such student has ever sought an investigation of claims against him. The only students whose complaints Harvard has notified him of are the plaintiffs," his lawyers said. 

The firm added that Comaroff was not only a leading scholar in his field, but that "he is a deeply caring person who has devoted his energy for decades to mentoring and advancing generations of students".

"Attacks on his career based on gossip and rumour rather than actual evidence are shameful," it said. 

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