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Three women have sued Harvard University alleging that the prestigious institution ignored sexual harassment allegations against a prominent tenured professor – who in one incident forcibly kissed and groped one of the women and told her that she could undergo ‘corrective rape’ while doing field work in Africa if she took her girlfriend.
The students filed the lawsuit in federal court in Boston on Tuesday, days after Harvard placed John Comaroff, an anthropology professor and expert on South Africa, on administrative leave following a university investigation into his conduct.
Plaintiffs Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava alleged that Comaroff for years ‘kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances, and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained.’
The suit accuses Comaroff of musing to Kilburn that she could be subject to ‘corrective rape’ or murder if she were seen in a same-sex relationship while doing field work in Africa, a remark she told the New York Times was made with a ‘tone of enjoyment.’
In a statement to DailyMail.com, Comaroff’s attorneys vehemently denied the allegations, saying their client ‘categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.’
Grad students Amulya Mandava (left), Lilia Kilburn (center) and Margaret Czerwienski (right) sued Harvard alleging that the institution ignored sexual harassment allegations against a prominent professor. Kilburn claims the professor forcibly kissed her and graphicly mused that she’d be forced into ‘corrective rape’ while doing field work in Africa if she took her girlfriend
John Comaroff, an anthropology professor and expert on South Africa, was placed on administrative leave following a university investigation into his conduct but denies the claims
The lawsuit says Kilburn was subjected to ‘a continuing nightmare that included more forced kissing, groping, persistent invitations to socialize alone off-campus, and coercive control.’
‘Regarding Ms. Kilburn, professor Comaroff did not kiss her or touch her inappropriately at any time,’ the statement from the professor’s attorneys said.
On another occasion in 2017, when she met with Comaroff to discuss her plans to study in Cameroon, he repeatedly said she could be subjected to violence in Africa because she was in a same-sex relationship, the lawsuit said.
‘Ms. Kilburn sat frozen in shock, while professor Comaroff continued for approximately five minutes,’ the suit said.
Comaroff said in a statement from his lawyers that ‘this was a necessary conversation for her safety’ and that ‘he was motivated only by his concern for Ms. Kilburn’s well-being and had no romantic or sexual intention.’
The other two plaintiffs, Margaret Czerwienski and Amulya Mandava, said when they reported Comaroff’s behavior to university administrators, he retaliated against them by threatening to derail their careers.
Comaroff denied ever threatening Czerwienski or Mandava, but instead ‘consistently made every effort to assist these students and to advance their careers.’
The lawsuit says the women first approached Harvard staff about Comaroff nearly five years ago.
The lawsuit says Kilburn was subjected to ‘a continuing nightmare that included more forced kissing, groping, persistent invitations to socialize alone off-campus’
‘All three plaintiffs repeatedly complained to Harvard administrators,’ said the suit.
‘But the university brushed them aside and opted to protect its star professor over vulnerable students,’ it added.
The lawsuit claims that Harvard stood by and watched as he retaliated by ensuring the students would have ‘trouble getting jobs.’
Comaroff, who joined Harvard in 2012, was not named as a defendant.
His lawyers — Norman Zalkind, Janet Halley, and Ruth O´Meara-Costello — in a joint statement said he ‘categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.’
Harvard had no comment. In January, it placed Comaroff on leave for the spring semester and barred him from teaching required courses after finding he engaged in verbal conduct that violated its sexual harassment and professional conduct policies.
Those sanctions have divided the Harvard community, where nearly 40 faculty members signed onto an open letter questioning the investigation and calling him an ‘excellent colleague.’
In a statement to DailyMail.com, Comaroff’s attorneys vehemently denied the allegations, saying their client ‘categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student’
All three plaintiffs said their academic trajectories and career prospects had been ‘profoundly altered’ and that Harvard violated Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which protects students from discrimination based on sex, and various Massachusetts laws.
‘Harvard´s continued failure to act on repeated reports of harassment against professor Comaroff -until spurred to do so by the media – demonstrates an institutional policy of indifference: a system designed to protect the university, its reputation, and the faculty who sustain that reputation at the expense of its students,’ the lawsuit said.
A Harvard spokesperson in an email declined to comment on the lawsuit, but provided a copy of a letter from Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay saying Comaroff was put on administrative leave last month for the remainder of the spring semester after university investigators found that he engaged in verbal conduct that violated both the school’s sexual and gender-based and professional conduct policies.
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial, unspecified damages, and a judgment that Harvard violated the women’s rights.
Full statement of Comaroff’s attorneys denying the allegations
Attorneys Norman Zalkind, Janet Halley, and Ruth O’Meara-Costello issued the following joint statement on behalf of Comaroff regarding the allegations in the lawsuit:
‘Professor Comaroff categorically denies ever harassing or retaliating against any student.
‘To address the lawsuits 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.
‘Regarding the 2017 meeting between Ms. Mandava and Professor Comaroff, Ms. Mandava and Professor Comaroff met at her request in order to speak about a grant proposal she was considering submitting. The conversation turned to the topic of gossip, which was relevant to Ms. Mandeva’s academic topic, and Professor Comaroff spoke generally about its dangers in professional academic settings. In doing so, he was repeating advice that he had given to countless students over the years, including while teaching a seminar on professionalization at the University of Chicago. He absolutely denies threatening Ms. Mandava or Ms. Czerwienski, during that meeting or at any other time. Harvard’s thorough Title IX investigation found that not only had he not retaliated against either student–he was not even aware, during that meeting, of the rumors that the two were spreading about him. The truth is that Professor Comaroff consistently made every effort to assist these students and to advance their careers, both before and after the 2017 meeting.
‘Regarding Ms. Kilburn, Professor Comaroff did not kiss her or touch her inappropriately at any time. Harvard’s Title IX investigation, which lasted over a year and was extraordinarily thorough, concluded that the evidence simply did not support claims that he had kissed for touched Ms. Kilburn. Allegations that he forbade her from working with her other advisor are simply false.
‘Professor Comaroff did speak with Ms. Kilburn, who proposed to conduct fieldwork in Cameroon while traveling openly with her same-sex partner, about the risks that could attend that plan, including the risk of sexual violence. This was a necessary conversation for her safety and numerous faculty witnesses in the Title IX process attested that his advice was appropriate. The Title IX investigation found that he was motivated only by his concern for Ms. Kilburn’s well-being and had no romantic or sexual intention, but that the advice nonetheless constituted sexual harassment. Professor Comaroff vehemently disputes this conclusion, which would cripple faculty members’ ability to use their best academic judgement in advising students about essential safety issues.
‘Professor Comaroff is not only a leading scholar in his field–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 fantasy rather than actual evidence are shameful.’