UPDATE: February 9, 2022 at 4:28 p.m.
Almost all of the Harvard professors who signed an open letter last week that questioned the findings of investigations into Professor John L. Comaroff’s misconduct have withdrawn their support for the message.
Thirty-four of the 38 faculty members who signed the letter, including some of Harvard’s most prominent scholars, signed a retraction letter on Wednesday saying they “did not understand the impact” their message had. previous would have. Another professor, whose name was not on the retraction letter, wrote in an email that she had also retracted her support for the letter.
Harvard Arts and Science Dean Claudine Gay disciplined Comaroff last month after university investigations found he violated the school’s sexual and professional conduct policies. He is prohibited from teaching required courses and accepting additional counselors during the next academic year.
The initial letter posed a series of pointed questions about the sanctions imposed on Comaroff, whom it described as “an excellent colleague, adviser and committed academic citizen.” But the professors began to withdraw their support for the letter after a federal lawsuit filed against Harvard on Tuesday detailed years of sexual harassment allegations against Comaroff — some of which had previously been reported.
“Our concerns were transparency, process and academic procedures, which go beyond the merits of an individual case,” the retraction letter reads. “We did not understand the impact this would have on our students and lacked full information about the case. We are committed to ensuring that all students see Harvard as a safe and fair institution for teaching and learning.
The initial open letter, which was sent to Harvard administrators, was signed by a range of well-known professors, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jill Lepore, Stephen J. Greenblatt and former Harvard College dean Evelynn M. Hammonds.
Two professors — Randall L. Kennedy and Duncan Kennedy — refused to sign the retraction, according to the original letter’s co-authors, Ingrid T. Monson and Kay K. Shelemay.
“I declined to remove my signature because I believe the letter was and still is an appropriate response to the University’s actions in this matter,” Duncan Kennedy wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon.
University professor Douglas A. Melton, whose name was also missing from the retraction letter, did not respond to inquiries about a retraction Wednesday afternoon, according to Monson and Shelemay.
Harvard Law School professor Lucie E. White wrote in an email Wednesday that she had withdrawn her support for the letter, but her name did not appear on the list of signatories to the retraction letter.
The initial letter sparked fury among Harvard graduate students and other faculty. On Tuesday, 73 other faculty members condemned the letter in a response published in The Crimson.
“As teachers, we should demand better protections and faster, transparent, fair and independent investigation procedures,” the response letter reads. “We must do this without presuming to know all of the findings of confidential investigations or acting in a way that intimidates students and prevents them from disclosing experiences of harm.”
In a response sent to signatories of the open letter last Thursday, Gay warned of “the obvious dangers of information asymmetry.”
“Be aware that if you do not have access to the full review and instead rely on public accounts reported by the media or only what is shared by a party to a complaint, you are necessarily operating without a full understanding of the facts that prompted the response,” Gay wrote.
Comaroff was first placed on leave in August 2020 after The Crimson reported that at least three female students were in contact with Harvard’s Title IX office over allegations of unwanted touching, sexual harassment verbal and professional retaliation.
After the lawsuit was announced on Tuesday, apologies began to trickle in from the professors who signed the initial letter.
“I deeply regret having signed the letter,” wrote Mariano Siskind, professor of Romance languages and literatures in a press release. “I don’t know John Comaroff personally. I originally signed up because I agreed with the need for transparent, fair, and efficient Title IX procedures. However, when I read Dean Gay’s response and looked more closely at the letter’s potential effect on those who had experienced sexual misconduct, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. I want to apologize to my students and want them to know that I fully support all students faced with the difficult decision to bring Title IX complaints.
History professor Maya Jasanoff wrote that she “signed the letter as an advocate for transparency and due process in academic affairs”, but added that she “completely disregarded the signal it would send to our students”.
“It was a serious lapse in judgment and I apologize for my mistake,” she wrote.
The retraction letter was first reported on Wednesday by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
This story will be updated.
—Writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at [email protected]