NEWS

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February 16, 2022

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9:22 a.m.

Lawsuit Describes Alleged Pattern of Abuse by Former UChicago Professor John Comaroff

The University's Title IX office.

The University's Title IX office.

Zoe Kaiser / The Chicago Maroon

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.

Three Harvard graduate students are suing their university for ignoring and enabling sexual abuse by John Comaroff, a Harvard anthropology professor who previously taught at UChicago from 1978 to 2012. The lawsuit claims that when Harvard hired Comaroff in 2012, they did so knowing that he had a widespread reputation for sexual misconduct at UChicago.

The lawsuit, filed in Boston federal court on February 8, argues that Harvard knew of and enabled Comaroff’s abuse when they hired him from UChicago.

“Before Harvard hired him, Professor Comaroff taught at UChicago, where he was surrounded by ‘pervasive allegations of sexual misconduct,’” the lawsuit states. “Indeed, multiple UChicago students and faculty complained to UChicago about his behavior.” The Maroon was not immediately able to verify this information.

One of the three plaintiffs, Amulya Mandava, graduated from UChicago in 2010 and is currently a Ph.D. student at Harvard. Mandava alleges that she experienced Comaroff’s abuse as an undergraduate at UChicago and faced retaliation for reporting his abuse of other students at Harvard.

"Our complaint alleges a pattern of sexual conduct with students dating back to Professor Comaroff's time at the University of Chicago. When I was a student at UChicago (2006-2010), my experience was that there was a general culture of silence around sexual harassment and assault of all kinds, and there was certainly no Title IX office in place until 2014," Mandava wrote in a statement to The Maroon.

Mandava said that she and the other plaintinffs, Margaret Czerwienski and Lilia Kilburn, send "solidarity to all students who have been harmed, and we all feel strongly that much harm could be prevented had those in power acted earlier. I hope that some of those individuals—including faculty—will now speak up about what they know, and that any public disclosures made by students are met with fierce solidarity and support from the institution."

UChicago provided the following statement to The Maroon: “The University is committed to addressing and preventing incidents of unlawful harassment and sexual misconduct and makes substantial efforts to respond in a prompt, equitable and thorough manner whenever allegations occur. When a report of sexual misconduct is made to the University, we take immediate action to provide support, resources, and resolution options to the reporter. When an allegation is investigated and substantiated, we take action to prevent its recurrence and address its effects. In light of privacy considerations, we do not release details about individual cases.”

Comaroff’s lawyers issued a statement in response to the lawsuit. “Professor Comaroff categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student,” the statement reads. “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.”

Harvard also issued a statement: “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.”

Comaroff came to UChicago in 1978 as a visiting assistant professor of anthropology, and became an associate professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences in 1980, according to his CV. He was chair of the anthropology department from 1991 to 1994 and was appointed to the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professorship in Anthropology and the College in 1996.

Comaroff joined the Harvard faculty in 2012 as a professor of African and African-American studies (AAAS) and of anthropology. The lawsuit claims that at least one UChicago faculty member warned the chair of Harvard’s AAAS department about Comaroff’s behavior. 

The lawsuit includes specific anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct while at UChicago and suggests that UChicago faculty and graduate students were widely aware of his abusive patterns. The lawsuit recounts examples of Comaroff’s alleged abuse against one undergraduate and two graduate students at UChicago.

The lawsuit alleges that in or around 1979, while an assistant professor at UChicago, Comaroff lured a female undergraduate student to his home and forcibly hugged and groped her. She said that at the time, when she told a graduate student what happened, they “replied that Professor Comaroff was well-known for his sexual behavior toward students, and that he was engaged in an affair with another student,” according to the lawsuit. The experience caused this undergraduate to abandon her plans to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology, the lawsuit notes.

Between 2006 and 2007, the lawsuit continues, Comaroff allegedly sent violent pornography to a female graduate student without her consent and verbally and physically assaulted her. According to the lawsuit, when Comaroff learned that one of her fellow graduate students had reported the incident to UChicago faculty, he retaliated against the student: “[H]e ensured that the student had ‘trouble’ finding a job.”

In 2007, the lawsuit alleges, Comaroff initiated a sexual relationship with another female graduate student but damaged her career once he lost sexual interest in her.

The lawsuit then says that in winter 2009, Comaroff targeted Mandava while she was an undergraduate at UChicago.

According to the lawsuit, Comaroff’s behavior against Mandava happened on a UChicago study-abroad trip in South Africa. Comaroff made suggestive comments and actions that made Mandava uncomfortable, the lawsuit says. It also alleges that when Mandava raised these concerns to another UChicago professor on the trip, David Bunn, he said he was already aware of Comaroff’s behavior.

The lawsuit says, “But Professor Bunn responded that Professor Comaroff’s behavior was part of a pattern; he regularly crossed boundaries on study-abroad trips. During each trip, he developed a ‘crush’ on a female student and ‘obsessively’ focused on her throughout the program.”

The lawsuit also mentions that Harvard anthropology professors George Meiu and Nicholas Harkness, who both attended UChicago for graduate school, were aware of Comaroff’s reputation of misconduct. Meiu completed his UChicago graduate studies in 2014 and Harkness in 2010.

The lawsuit alleges that when The Harvard Crimson first reported on the allegations against Comaroff in 2020, Meiu apologized before more than 100 anthropology department members, including plaintiffs, “for what I knew and what I didn’t say anything about.”

The lawsuit adds that after the plaintiffs filed their Title IX complaints, Harkness said to plaintiff Lilia Kilburn that Comaroff was a “groomer” and “predator.”

Harvard had placed Comaroff on paid administrative leave in August 2020, after The Harvard Crimson reported on Title IX allegations against him; Harvard then placed him on unpaid administrative leave in January 2022.

Recent developments in the case have sent ripples across Harvard, UChicago, and the rest of academia. In response to Comaroff’s January sanctions, 38 Harvard professors signed an open letter on February 4 questioning the procedure and results of the investigations. The letter prompted a response signed by 73 faculty denouncing the original letter for implicitly discrediting the students’ accusations. Five days later, the day after the lawsuit was released, 35 of the 38 professors sought to retract the original letter.

On February 20, 15 Harvard Anthropology professors, including the department chair, signed a letter calling for Comaroff's resignation, as reported by The Harvard Crimson. “We believe that your continued presence undercuts our viability as a unit and impedes our efforts to build a more safe, responsive, and responsible community," they wrote. 

The Maroon is currently investigating this issue and will update this article as additional information comes to light, or if we receive comment from parties involved. If you or someone you know has experiences or information that you would like to share with us related to Comaroff, sexual misconduct within the UChicago anthropology department, sexual assault, and/or the Title IX reporting process at UChicago, please contact us at news@chicagomaroon.com or through our tip form.