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Deviant Savants and Their Institutional Shields

By Swetha Ramachandran

Harvard University has been all over academic twitter lately….and for all the wrong reasons. John Comaroff, a famed anthropologist and expert on South Africa, has been accused of verbal and sexual harassment. Three women have now filed a lawsuit against Harvard for ignoring these allegations for years. Meanwhile, academics at the Ivy-league university are split. Thirty eight faculty members signed an open letter questioning the internal investigations and claiming John Comaroff ‘to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen who has for five decades trained and advised hundreds of Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds’. In response, 73 faculty members wrote a letter asking the university to protect its students better and calling into question the existing redressal mechanisms for complaints on harassment – sexual and otherwise. One of Comaroff’s lawyers claims that Harvard’s internal investigations did not support accusations of unwanted sexual contact. Meanwhile, a student has openly stated that when she approached the Title IX officer to raise a complaint against him, ‘it was met with predictable indifference’ and that the said officer guessed who she was talking about before she even mentioned Comaroff’s name. 

Now whether Harvard faithfully conducted the investigation or not can only be speculated with limited public information. In the meantime, the debate has now transitioned towards whether a comment made by him on ‘corrective rape’ while warning a student about the perils of fieldwork is appropriate or not. While I’m all for debating the ethics of supervisor-supervisee boundaries, did we just completely forget the numerous allegations of sexual assault brought on by several students in the past against him? How did we simply accept an internal investigation’s result (which is rife with bureaucracy and conflict of interest) as the truth? How can professors in support discount crucial contextual information and derail the debate by clinging on to the low-hanging fruit of the ‘comment’?

I’m not here to debate Comaroff’s (or any other accused academic’s) character or go into a tirade on morality. Rather, what I’m deeply concerned about is that this case highlights a deep, dark and safely buried secret within academia: the impunity of star academics.

Now, I have nothing against famous academics, who are notable names in their fields. Not only have I had the privilege of meeting some of the ‘disciplinary superstars’ in my graduate school journey, but I continue to look up to many of them for inspiration and mentorship. Academics are wonderfully smart people and the majority don’t worry me. My cause for worry are the deviant savants, a subset of academics who achieve this star status and subsequently gain an institutional shield so powerful that they feel emboldened enough to brazenly exploit and harass less-powerful researchers. The scariest aspect (at least for me as a young, female, brown PhD student) is that these deviants are notoriously difficult to spot in early interactions. Their h-index, papers, academic awards and famed lectures all seem to mask, or worse bury, their terrifying behaviour which wreaks havoc only behind closed-doors.

Taking a step back, one could argue that professors who have weathered allegations of sexual harassment are simply ‘bad apples’. Maybe some academics are ingenious people, but with terrible intentions, just like anywhere else. While I concur with this idea, I’m personally enraged by the fact that university administrations don’t simply let such bad apples get away but do even less to protect the very students who are responsible for the institution’s existence. Universities often resort to the classic ‘radio silence’ approach, opaque internal investigations, or the evergreen “we’re reworking our sexual harassment policies” narrative. While universities may shun firing accused professors over loss of professional/academic networks, reputational concerns, or the fear of perturbing donors, can any of these reasons even remotely justify the trauma faced by a student? The institutional shield which is supposed to protect students is instead protecting their famed deviant savants.

But how pervasive is the problem of sexual harassment in academia, you may ask? Previous studies have shown that the prevalence of sexual harassment in US academia stands at 58% (as of 2003), only second to the military’s 69%. Furthermore, women of colour experience particularly high rates of harassment, as do people from sexual minority groups. A study at the University of Texas campus showed that 20% of female science students reported being sexually harassed. A similar survey of the Pennsylvania State University system concluded that 43% of graduate students experienced harassment. Need more proof? See this comprehensive report from 2018. All of this before we account for the fact that reporting rates for harassment are already skewed. 

So, why are universities notoriously choosing to minimize or ignore harassing behaviour, especially when it involves higher-ranking faculty members? The broader academic system is to blame. Academia is characterised by a tight job market where hundreds of qualified PhDs apply for one open position, where a small proportion of women and people of colour are in faculty positions, and where your advisor can open (or conversely close) doors that can make or break your career. Such a lopsided system breeds a culture of strong power asymmetries that provides little agency to students and early career researchers.  

Now, what can you or I do? The issue is clearly pervasive and entrenched in a sticky institutional culture, which actively protects powerful academics, let alone harbinger change. I’m nobody to tell anyone what to do, but I present below some rudimentary ideas. 

If you’re a student/young researcher:

Think about who you cite and how you form your opinion about a ‘respected’ academic. When I first moved to Europe in 2020, I was bombarded with Foucault’s theories in every foundational class. Naturally, my immediate mental image was of him as this famed French philosopher who revolutionised social sciences. Months later, I came across articles which claimed he allegedly sexually abused young Tunisian children. I was shocked that academics in my institution were barely discussing, what in my mind, was a disturbing revelation. Now, I cannot get myself to cite theories about sexuality and power from a man who allegedly took advantage of children in a former colony. Maybe your approach is different, but my two cents is to form your own opinions about ‘revered’ academics. Who your professor or friend admires need not automatically earn your respect.

If you’re a professor:

Please present to us (the students) the entire picture of academics whose theories we religiously dissect. I do not mean nitpicking every small detail of their personal life, but mentioning (at least in passing) if they were subject to any major allegations. Often, your words and lectures are our first gateway into the works and lives of these academics. So, the more holistic your picture, the better we can inform ourselves and form our own opinions.

If you’re a university administrator:

Please inform incoming students (especially PhD advisees) about how to spot different forms of harassment (be it sexism, micro aggression or racism) and report them. The more I interact with people on this issue, the more apparent it becomes that basic concepts are obfuscated and brushed under the carpet as ‘grey’ areas. Consent and power dynamics should have no greys. Professors and students need to be informed and trained alike in this regard. Educational institutions should have explicit and transparent policies on sexual harassment, redressal/investigation mechanisms and declaring (or condemning) romantic relationships between a student and professor. If a policy or rule isn’t explicit, it doesn’t exist.

This is simply the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, there are heaps of brilliant suggestions I may have not thought of, so please feel free to share them widely. The underlying point I’m making is: Yes, academia does a poor job of dealing with sexual harassment. Yes, it is systematically set up to protect deviants at the risk of endangering and traumatising students. But you can still do something about it in your own small way.

The lawsuit against Harvard will hopefully serve as a grim reminder to all academic institutions alike that deviants do not warrant institutional shields. If we indeed believe that knowledge is power, let’s rethink whether this power demands checks and balances. 

Note: This post was originally published on a personal blog on 09th February 2022

About the author: Swetha Ramachandran is a second-year PhD researcher at IHEID. Her research tackles power asymmetries in the aid sector in West Africa. All opinions expressed here are the author’s personal views. 

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