Who is John Comaroff? Harvard students stage walkout against professor over sexual harassment claims

Who is John Comaroff? Harvard students stage walkout against professor over sexual harassment claims
Hundreds of students staged a walkout against Harvard professor John L Comaroff, accused of sexual harassment, on January 24 (TheHarvardCrimson/YouTube Screenshot, johncomaroff.com)

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS: On January 24, over a hundred Harvard students walked out of a class on 'African and African-American Studies 172X: Colonialism and its Postcolonial/Decolonial Afterlives: Critical Readings' to protest against the continued presence of Professor John L Comaroff, who was placed on unpaid administrative leave last year for violating the school’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies.

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As reported by the school daily The Harvard Crimson, Comaroff broke into a smile as the protest began, nodding at the students as they walked out one by one. One of the students was quoted by the daily as telling the professor, “Smile in hell, a*****e.” The walkout, organized by Our Harvard Can Do Better and the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers’ Feminist Working Group, was also attended by members of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the Student Labor Action Movement.

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Who is John L Comaroff?

Born in South Africa's Cape Town in the mid-40s, Comaroff grew up during the dark years of Apartheid "in a very, very violent society", as per his website. His father, Louis (sometimes known as Lionel) Comaroff, originally from Ukraine, moved to Rhodesia and eventually to Cape Town, where he was born. His mother, Jane Miller Comarof, was a jew from Lithuania, who migrated to South Africa in the early 1900s.

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On his website, Comaroff writes that he was radicalized by the Zionist socialist movements during his early student years. He graduated from the University of Cape Town, where he found his love for Anthropology - a subject that he believes created a base from which "one could think radical thoughts" and ask questions about the nature of South African society, which was, at the time, plagued by the horrors of Arpethied. As part of his early work, Comaroff focused on indigenous political and legal systems and the violent impact of colonialism, culminating in the apartheid regime.

Comaroff reportedly joined the American Bar Foundation in 1991 as a research fellow and in 2012, he and his wife Jean, whom he had first met at the University of Cape Town, started teaching at Harvard University. He and his wife have authored several books together, including 'Civil Society and The Political Imagination in Africa', 'Violence and the Law in Post Colonies: Thoughts on the Complicity between North and South', 'Ethnography and the Historical Imagination', and 'The Politics of Custom'. At Harvard, he teaches African and African American Studies, and Anthropology.

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What are the allegations against Comaroff?

In August 2020, an investigation by The Harvard Crimson claimed that at least three female students were in contact with the University’s Title IX Office regarding sexual harassment allegations against Comaroff, which ranged from verbal harassment to unwanted touching. Comaroff was also accused of professional retaliation. However, the anthropology professor reportedly denied the allegations leveled against him and wrote in an email, "I have not behaved inappropriately toward any Harvard student, nor ever engaged in professional retaliation. I am at a loss as to why such things should be alleged." He also claimed that he had not been "banished from the Department of Anthropology, my office, or my teaching, nor informed of any formal charges.”

The Harvard Crimson had reported, quoting interviews and documents it obtained, that Comaroff was asked not to use his office in the Tozzer Anthropology Building and was removed from an Anthropology course he was scheduled to teach. Two years after the allegations came to the fore, three graduate students - Margaret G Czerwienski, Lilia M Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava - filed a lawsuit against Harvard, accusing the school of ignoring years of sexual harassment and retaliation by Comaroff. 

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"For years, he (Comaroff) has used that power and his perch at Harvard to exploit aspiring scholars: he kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained. When students reported him to Harvard and sought to warn their peers about him, Harvard watched as he retaliated by foreclosing career paths and ensuring that those students would have “trouble getting jobs". Harvard even allowed its investigatory process to be used in service of Professor Comaroff’s campaign of professional blacklisting," the students alleged in their lawsuit. The allegations were made a month after Comaroff was placed on unpaid administrative leave for violating Harvard's sexual harassment and professional conduct policies, The Harvard Crimson reported

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