Letters of recommendation

On the South African-born anthropologist John Comaroff and the political economy of silence in academia.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Over the last week or so, the lawsuit against Harvard University filed by three anthropology graduate students has animated online conversations amongst scholars and researchers. At the center of the lawsuit stands South African-born academic John Comaroff. After a lengthy Title IX investigation at Harvard, Comaroff was found responsible for “verbal sexual harassment,” but other claims of  “unwanted sexual contact” and retaliatory behavior had not been substantiated, according to the university. The students’ lawsuit against Harvard accuses the university of failing for years to respond to allegations of Comaroff’s sexual misconduct, of ignoring and misconstruing evidence in their investigation, and ultimately, of failing to protect students.

John Comaroff and his partner, Jean, are influential names in anthropology where they have created extensive networks of influence, loyalty, and support. The case sheds light on the systems of patronage that sustain power in academia and exposes how a small group of people act as gatekeepers and maintain a chokehold on the discipline.

The lawsuit makes the case that the alleged harassment and abuse committed by John Comaroff were an open secret around campus and throughout the discipline of anthropology. Comaroff taught at the University of Chicago for 34 years before moving to Harvard. The lawsuit alleges that graduate students from Chicago had warned the head of Harvard’s African and African American Studies (AAAS) department not to hire him because of harassment accusations dating back to the late 1970s. When the complainants in the lawsuit went to report him to Harvard administrators, the latter anticipated that it was about Comaroff and still did nothing. Instead, they told the students they’d be better off exposing Comaroff in the media.

At Harvard, Comaroff’s harassment first became more publicly known in May 2020, when the campus student newspaper, the Crimson, reported that three female students accused Comaroff of “unwanted touching, verbal sexual harassment, and professional retaliation.” Two other anthropologists, Gary Urton and Ted Bestor, were accused in the same story. Graduate students of Harvard’s anthropology and AAAS (African American and African Studies) departments immediately called for the university to revoke any privileges and titles these three may hold before the start of the Fall 2020 term.

In response to the Crimson story, Harvard put Comaroff on paid administrative leave. By October 2020, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story, “The Patron,” detailing the women’s accusations. If until then the story had circulated only among anthropology scholars, it was now front and center in the leading publication on academic affairs in the US.

Nearly one year later, in the wake of the Title IX decision against Comaroff, Harvard announced in January 2022 that it was placing Comaroff on unpaid leave for the spring semester, and it banned him from teaching required courses and taking on additional graduate students for a one-year period. This implied, however, that he could keep his current students and teach elective courses this coming fall.

Following Harvard’s decision to place Comaroff on leave, 38 of Comaroff’s Harvard colleagues —all of them endowed professors or senior ranking professors—signed an open letter in support of Comaroff. It was published on February 4 and included signatures from Henry Louis Gates, Jamaica Kincaid, and Homi Bhabha, and people well known to African Studies scholars: Caroline Elkins, Paul Farmer, Maya Jasanoff, Biodin Jeyifo, John Mugane, and Jacob Olupona. Signatories represented a wide range of backgrounds and races. What they had in common, it seems, was an attitude that people like them should not have to answer to anyone. They misrepresented what the accusations against Comaroff were all about, criticizing “the process.” They also, bizarrely, included rhetorical questions about what were acceptable ways to talk to students while advising them, a reference to a single incident that the signatories were representing as the entirety of the charges against Comaroff. This was supposedly about academic freedom.

The signatories were harshly criticized, but they didn’t change their minds at that point.

But equally significant was a second letter published the day before, February 3, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This one was signed by 50 academic luminaries. Similar to the Harvard letter, most of them were well known in anthropology and all work in African Studies. A number of them work on questions of power and gender. A few were at American universities, such as Adam Ashforth, Nancy Hunt, Louise White, and Kenda Mutongi. (Interestingly, Mutongi is the only black woman who signed the Chronicle letter.) Also, a signatory is Ann Stoler from The New School, a scholar of Dutch and French colonialism.

Another group was from European universities; among them were Peter Geschiere of the University of Amsterdam and Birgit Meyer at Utrecht University.

But the most significant group of signatories to the Chronicle letter are or were based at South African universities. Among these are Max Price, Dennis Davis, Deborah Posel, Hylton White, Jane Taylor, Robert Morrell, Mike Morris, Neil Roos, Mugsy Spiegel, Imraan Coovadia, and Steven Robins.

They are mostly white and quite influential in South African academia. Price is the most recent  former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Davis is a high court judge and an emeritus professor at the same university. Posel is Price’s spouse and, until recently, was director of UCT’s Humanities Institute. Morris (economics) and Coovadia (English) are also on the UCT faculty. Taylor is on the faculty of the Center for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. Robins and White are anthropologists at Stellenbosch and Wits, respectively. White is a former student of the Comaroffs at Chicago.

The Chronicle letter was more strident than the Harvard letter. It minimized the accusations against Comaroff, referring to the process at Harvard—which is hardly favorable to victims of sexual abuse—as “a Kangaroo court” and “a show trial.”

Oddly, the Chronicle letter did not receive the same attention or public criticism as the Harvard letter, even though it was more explicit in its support of Comaroff. There are many reasons for this. One may be the simple fact that it was behind a paywall. Another was that the allegations against Comaroff were still considered an internal Harvard matter; on social media, much of the criticism was reserved for the 38 Harvard faculty. And, finally and probably most significantly, was that it had not been covered in South African mainstream media (which largely still sets the news agenda there) or on South African Twitter and Facebook.

This seems odd as John and Jean Comaroff’s ideas are quite influential in certain sectors of the South African academy, especially the humanities, where they have deep networks. The signatures were doubly jarring, coming as they did from a country with such high levels of gender-based violence and sexual harassment. South African universities also have well documented problems with sexual harassment of students by faculty. Like this, this, this, this, this and this. You assumed the signatories would have paused before signing.

But things were about to change. Four days later, the three graduate students filed the lawsuit, which was reported by the New York Times. Now everyone was talking about it. It was trending on Twitter. This appeared to have a major effect on Comaroff’s Harvard supporters. Thirty-four of the 38 signatories to the Harvard letter announced that they were retracting their support; they seemed embarrassed or aware of the changing power dynamics as well as shifting public opinion. Those who retracted, now claimed they did not have enough information when they first signed the letter. It took a few more days (some as late as last weekend) before seven of the signatories of the Chronicle letter asked to retract too: Hunt, Rafael Sanchez from the University of Geneva in Switzerland, Gabrielle Spiegel at Johns Hopkins, James Smith at UC Davis, Patricia Spyer at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Robins and Coovadia. (You can follow in real-time who is still committed in their support of Comaroff; the Chronicle letter puts an asterisk next to retractors’ names.)

Despite all of this, the majority of the signatories to the Chronicle letter remain resolute in their support but hard to reach for comment, according to that newspaper. In any case, for critics it doesn’t matter much whether they retract or not now: they showed their hand.

Sexual harassment is just one particularly egregious form of bad behavior by people at this level that is often whispered about but rarely confronted. For example, accusations against Dipesh Chakrabarty and Arjun Appadurai of bullying and abusive behavior circulated online again. These instances in turn highlight the decisive role of social media in these kinds of cases. Before they filed the lawsuit, Comaroff’s accusers realized they had no other recourse. University officials who were supposed to help them told them to go to the media instead. In fact, one of Comaroff’s supporters, Daniel Herwitz (a literature professor at the University of Michigan and who is credited with being the primary author of the Chronicle letter), told the Chronicle that Twitter had been a “nuclear element” in this case. He suggested that “the Harvard professors [who retracted] may be feeling pressure because of the support the lawsuit has received on that platform.” He may at least be right about this part of the scandal.

This case shines an unflattering light on the star system in academia and the role of patronage networks. As two studies (here and here) posted online last week showed, the Comaroffs do much to control and shape the field of cultural anthropology and place their students in jobs in departments all over the world. To speak out against them is to risk being locked out of those networks.

In my own initial reaction, angry that the focus was shifting from sexual harassment to the question of whiteness in African Studies, I wrote on Twitter that the scandal was about power—that it was about powerful people defending their ranks. My argument was that prominent black Africans like Olupona, Mugane, and Jeyifo had signed the Harvard letter and that the signatories also included people who aren’t in African Studies and aren’t white (like Gates, Kincaid, Evelyn Higginbotham, Randall Kennedy, Sheila, and Maya Jasanoff). If I wanted to, I could have added that most of these people would be insulted to be accused of furthering the cause of whiteness and white supremacy.

At one point I argued that no one serious about African Studies thinks John Comaroff—as the lawsuit suggests—“is one of the world’s leading experts on Africa and the Global South.” After all, if you take what we understand as African Studies—its journals, conferences, associations, prevailing ideas, and so forth—Comaroff hardly features. The Comaroffs may be well known in South Africa, but South Africa isn’t “Africa.” African Studies has been concertedly moving away from this white or American idea of what African Studies is and who Africanists are. So the Comaroffs and their supporters are increasingly marginal in that domain.

But as I was reminded by several graduate students, the problem my argument failed to account for is Comaroff’s influence on anthropology specifically and for the internal workings of AAAS at Harvard. In the same way, I underestimated how racialized the South African academy is and the dominant role of white academics. This, after all, was the whole point of the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall protests between 2015 and 2017, to take on these racial imbalances.

John and Jean Comaroff trained generations of professors who went on to populate various disciplines all over the globe. They sat on countless dissertation defenses, had a say in what work was good and important, what topics are worthy of study (as someone asked in exasperation, “Why was witchcraft such a thing for so long in anthropological studies of Africa?”), and through it, bred all sorts of loyalties with former students. Former students who were “in their favor” were given all sorts of awards and positions. Those who spoke out or made noises were not. As the lawsuit implies, the discipline of anthropology is now populated by Comaroff loyalists. Many who opposed them or who spoke up against them, ended up with their careers stalled or quit altogether in a field where there was a shrinking number of academic positions already.

The events of last week are prompting new actions and demands. On Monday, students and faculty at Harvard staged a walkout in support of the campus union’s demands for “real recourse,” a third-party arbitration process for issues of sexual harassment. There are plans in the works for high-level roundtables at the American Anthropological Association. There are also numerous statements on social media by students and faculty that the Comaroff scandal had made them want to interrogate their own universities’ protection for victims of sexual harassment and abuse. One of the key lessons of the events at Harvard is the role of trade unions. All of the claimants in the lawsuit are active Harvard Graduate Students’ Union members and two of them were recently elected to union leadership, proving again as someone opined on Twitter that “unions are the best mechanism for workers to remedy imbalances of power in the workplace.”

After another of the Chronicle signatories retracted, Suren Pillay, who is a colleague of Taylor’s at UWC, had a question for those who signed, especially the ones who had retracted since. Pillay felt that he was none the wiser as to why they signed in the first place. Pillay wrote:

The puzzling element remains that [Comaroff’s actions] have been in the public domain for a while now, and the details in the lawsuit were raised by graduate students before the filing of the lawsuit itself against Harvard. Were the signatories not aware of the longer history that was in the public domain? Or did they … have access to knowledge that many others did not have that could make for such certain judgments about the internal processes of Harvard or the vouching for a colleague based on the rationale of scholarship and friendship? Apologies are important, but I think it would  help to have answers to these questions for those of us who might want to learn from the mistakes of others.

On Monday, the Crimson published an editorial signed by the staff, arguing along similar lines: For them, the 38 Harvard professors who rashly signed a letter based on selective and incomplete information provided by Comaroff’s lawyers: “… will have to live with the reality that, when push came to shove, with the most limited, slanted information, they sided with their colleague over his accusers. A quick retraction will not change that.”

At the time the latest episode in the Comaroff story broke, I was watching the documentary series, “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” about the American comedian and actor who for decades was lauded for how his creations contributed to more complex, mostly positive, depictions of black people in a very racist media landscape. At the same time, he was drugging and raping women. Near the end of the documentary, Renee Graham, an op-ed columnist with the Boston Globe, was asked about Cosby’s ultimate legacy. “He is a rapist who had a really big TV show once.”

The academy—populated as it is by members of the professional-managerial class—conceives of itself as moral leaders of society and as a vehicle of social change, especially in recent decades. It has also always thought of itself as separate from society, in some way. But its patterns of hierarchy and patronage are just as bad if not worse (given its blinkered, exceptionalist self-concept). How will future generations of scholars talk about the legacy of John Comaroff and those who rushed to his defense? From the talk online among early career academics and graduate students it appears they want to end the silence. Ironically, this may be a consequence of students’ limited prospects; some feel that the job market is bad enough so they have little to lose in calling out powerful harassers who might otherwise promote their careers.

We are witnessing older academic hierarchies, which are almost unabashedly feudal and based on ideas of apprenticeship, come aground onto the escalating austerity in the neoliberal university. As a young academic—emboldened by the actions of the three brave Harvard graduate students who filed the lawsuit (Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava)—told me this week: the liberal managerialism that attempted to contain the abuses of feudal academia is increasingly delegitimized among younger generations of academics, who turn to social media and labor organizing to try to shift the balance of power. To older academics, these moves are seen (quite rightly) as serious attacks on their position and the decorum of academia, which was always supposed to value civil debate and to be above the grubby materialism of the private sector. This may explain the quick support for Comaroff.

In many ways, my interlocutor argued, older academics (some of whom have been very quiet during this whole scandal) resent and fear their students, who with some justice seem to see them as occupied with obscure subjects while administrations gutted the university. The lawsuit by Czerwienski, Kilburn and Mandava and the open support of their comrades may present an opportunity for this generation to begin to forge a new model for academia, in which solidarity isn’t just about protecting one’s powerful friends.

Further Reading