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Lawsuit Spotlights Harvard’s Approach to Title IX Complaints

Three former Harvard students claim the university bungled its handling of sexual harassment allegations brought against anthropology professor, John Comaroff. The women’s lawsuit asserts a “decade-long failure to protect students from sexual abuse and career-ending retaliation.” Camaroff allegedly abused his position as a renowned scholar to kiss and grope students, make unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to ruin the careers of those students who would complain. The lawsuit also references an internal task force that found a “longstanding pattern of sexism, misogyny, and sexual and gender-based misconduct” that “has gone largely unchecked by a predominately white, male faculty.”

In addition to Camaroff’s sexual conduct, one of the women claims Harvard obtained her confidential therapy records without her consent and then shared those records with Camaroff and others. During its initial investigation, Harvard asked the woman to identify individuals with relevant information. The woman shared the name of her psychotherapist. According to the complaint, Harvard convinced the therapist to disclose confidential information, which it passed on to Camaroff. Camaroff purportedly used the information to “gaslight” the woman, saying she imagined his harassment because of her post-traumatic stress disorder. She claims her disorder resulted from his conduct.

Harvard denies the accusations, claiming it took “thoughtful steps” and conducted a “thorough review.” The head of Harvard’s Office for Gender Equity issued a statement the day after the lawsuit was filed disputing the representations made in the suit about Harvard’s “obtaining and maintaining material.” Her statement sparked a backlash in the Harvard community online and on-campus as some felt she was blaming the women coming forward for any chilling impact on student reporting. She issued an apology responding to concerns about the confidential nature of health and mental records. She said, “My intention was to assure our community members that they could safely continue to access community resources.”