What is COGS?
The Committee of Graduate Students (COGS) consists of elected representatives who serve on decision-making committees in the department as well as in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. COGS also serves the graduate community itself, seeking way to improve the graduate experience through events, resources, and collaboration with the administration.
Graduate Committee Representative: Jocelyn Sears
Graduate Committee Representative: Jason Thames
Undergraduate Committee Representative: Jeffrey Careyva
Undergraduate Committee Representative: Erin Saladin
Graduate Student Council Representative: Elinor Hitt
Graduate Student Council Representative: William Martin
Departmental Development Committee Representative: Mary Galli
Social Coordinator: Talin Tahajian
The Committee of Graduate Students condemns the decision by four English Department faculty members to sign an open letter in support of Professor John Comaroff after Dean Claudine Gay announced sanctions against him for “verbal conduct that violated the FAS Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy and the FAS Professional Conduct Policy.” In expressing “dismay” at the sanctions, and affirming Professor Comaroff as “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen,” the signatories chose to deploy their names and privileged institutional positions in defense of an alleged harasser despite “lacking full information about the case,” as their later statement of retraction admits. The original letter ignores the extensive public accusations against Professor Comaroff by three graduate students—detailed in a May 2020 Chronicle of Higher Education article that the letter itself cites—in favor of the most generous possible interpretation of a single alleged incident. In doing so, the letter imputes an unreasonable overreaction to the graduate student who reported this incident, while implying that the remaining accusations are lies. That the signatories so readily accepted Professor Comaroff’s version of events, and so easily dismissed the accounts of his accusers, causes many graduate students to fear that these scholars would not believe or support one of us who had experienced and wished to report harassment by a faculty member. The decision by four English professors to sign the letter has significantly harmed many graduate students’ feelings of safety and belonging in the Department—a consequence that the retraction of their signatures cannot fully rectify.
In the 2021 Arts and Humanities Division Climate Survey, 48% of graduate student respondents from the English Department reported that they would not feel comfortable “coming forward with complaints/grievances about discourteous or offensive behavior” due to a fear of retaliation. Having four senior faculty members sign a letter in support of a sanctioned sexual harasser has only magnified this fear, contributing to an environment in which graduate students worry we will have to choose between developing our careers and protecting ourselves. This environment inhibits the Department’s ability to recruit future graduate students and may motivate existing students to consider leaving the program before completing their degrees. While the statement of retraction asserts that its signatories “failed to appreciate the impact that [the original letter] would have on [their] students,” it falls short of an explicit admission of harm, does not include an apology, and offers no statement of support for Comaroff’s victims. While we appreciate the retraction, it does not and cannot fully remedy the situation that the original letter created. Although “concerns” about “transparency, process and university procedures” may have motivated the letter, as the statement of retraction asserts, we, as literary scholars, know that authorial intent is never the last word on meaning. The letter caused harm, and that harm persists.
Last fall, members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union went on strike largely because the University refused to make changes to its internal procedures for investigating and adjudicating misconduct. Harassment, bullying, abuse, and retaliation are long-standing issues for graduate students at Harvard, and existing University mechanisms do not adequately protect us, as a recent review of these procedures attests. Following a May 2020 article in the Crimson that alleged pervasive misconduct by three senior faculty members in the Anthropology Department, including Professor Comaroff, that department convened a Standing Committee for a Supportive Departmental Community (SCSDC), which undertook a review of Harvard’s Title IX and Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) procedures. In its final report, released in July 2021, the Anthropology Department’s SCSDC found that “Title IX and ODR […] mechanisms are deeply inadequate and in need of fundamental change,” noting that due to unclear and inconsistent rules of evidence, “ODR’s current approach can, in reality, substantiate only a very narrow slice of potential complaints,” even in cases in which the complainant has contemporaneous written evidence. Despite some gains in the new HGSU contract, such as a fund to provide complainants access to legal counsel, Harvard’s internal policies remain deeply flawed. We thank the faculty members who have joined us in our calls for more equitable and timely procedures for investigating and adjudicating misconduct complaints, and we express our sincere gratitude to those who signed the “Response Letter,” which “demand[s] better protections and more expedient, transparent, equitable, and independent investigative procedures.” We particularly thank the many untenured scholars who have added their names to these faculty letters.
We stand in solidarity with Lilia Kilburn, Amulya Mandava, and Margaret Czerwienski, who reported Professor Comaroff’s misconduct at great personal and professional cost, and who are now suing the University for its alleged failure to promptly and properly investigate his behavior. We support the “real recourse” provisions proposed by the Harvard Graduate Students Union, including access to neutral third-party arbitration, for those who choose it. Not only would these provisions help make all Harvard departments safer for graduate students, but they also address the concerns with Title IX and ODR procedure that the signatories of the initial open letter and retraction have expressed, and we invite these scholars to use their positions to advocate for these necessary changes to the University’s procedures. The University’s incentive is to protect itself as an institution, not to provide justice for either complainants or respondents, regardless of the position of either. Introducing neutral parties into these processes will provide fairer outcomes for both accusers and accused.
While the opinions and beliefs expressed in this letter do not represent the views of all graduate students in English, we have attempted to communicate the concerns of many students who have expressed their feelings to us in confidence. We call on the English Department to formulate an action plan with concrete steps to ensure that our departmental culture is free not just from harassment, bullying, abuse, and retaliation, but also the fear of these. We are committed to creating a congenial, collaborative, and equitable departmental culture as we move forward.
A supermajority of COGS representatives voted to issue this statement; William Martin dissents.