In their statement, Dr. Comaroff’s lawyers disputed the logic of the sanctions. The investigation “found that he was motivated only by concern for Ms. Kilburn’s well-being and had no romantic or sexual intention, but that the advice nonetheless constituted sexual harassment,” the statement said. “Professor Comaroff vehemently disputes this conclusion, which would cripple faculty members’ ability to use their best academic judgment in advising students about essential safety issues.”
The controversy has divided the faculty. In the days leading up to the lawsuit, more than 90 academics at Harvard and other universities globally — signed open letters defending his character and extolling his reputation and mentorship.
The Harvard signers included prominent academics like Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist known for his relief work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake; Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research; Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar; Jill Lepore, a historian; and Randall Kennedy, a law professor.
Their letter says that Dr. Comaroff’s discussion of rape was a legitimate warning about conditions in the areas where Ms. Kilburn would be doing her field work. It said the signers were “perplexed” by her objections, because they “would also feel ethically compelled to offer the same advice.”
And they took issue with Harvard’s decision to conduct two investigations, which the letter suggests exposed Dr. Comaroff to a kind of double jeopardy. “As faculty members,” the letter added, “we must know the rules and procedures to which we are subject.”
On Monday night, as the lawsuit was about to be filed, another 50 or so Harvard scholars — most of them tenured, according to Walter Johnson, a history professor — replied in an open letter, criticizing Dr. Comaroff’s defenders for being too quick to accept the facts as presented by his lawyers.
“As evident from the letters written in his support, Professor Comaroff is a scholar with a powerful network of friends and colleagues,” who could discourage other students from coming forward, the latest letter said.