Lawrence M. Krauss
A growing sense of fear pervades modern academia, enabling individuals and groups, who, when they don’t get their way, are hell bent on destroying everything in their path.
Last week it was reported that students at Harvard Law School, along with graduate students from other disciplines, had launched a petition demanding that Harvard “de-list’ a course entitled “The Anthropology of Law: Classical, contemporary, comparative, and critical perspectives”. The course was to be taught by John Comaroff, a renowned 77 year-old anthropologist. This is the most recent addition to a convoluted saga that began 2 years ago. Comaroff was accused in 2020 of sexual misconduct, subsequently investigated, twice, by the University, and then exonerated of the major allegations. The University did decide that that a verbal infraction violated policies of professional conduct and harassment. Comaroff is from South Africa, and studies African society and, his infraction involved circumstances surrounding the manner in which he claimed to warn a student against traveling to Cameroon with her same-sex partner—because, as he described it, gay people in the country are often targeted for “corrective rape,”, a practice that has been documented. For this violation, Harvard placed Comaroff on leave in January for the Spring 2022 semester and barred him from teaching required courses for at least a year.
After Harvard’s investigation, a distinguished group of 38 Harvard faculty wrote a public letter both defending Comaroff as a colleague and scholar and complaining about the Harvard process and the sanctions that were imposed on him. Within a few days, the three student complainants sued the University in federal court, claiming a flawed investigation. Remarkably, the letter by Comaroff’s colleagues became part of the lawsuit, presented as confirmation that Comaroff was effectively retaliating against his accusers. One of the students’ lawyers said, “If we’re able to go to trial, this will show something really important, which is the reach and the network” Within a day of the lawsuit, of which their letter had become a part, 34 of the 38 faculty retracted their defense of Comaroff and restricting their arguments to concerns about university procedures. They made it clear that they were reacting to the response to their letter, by saying, “We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students”. And to make it clear that they were part of the problem, they added the now prescribed mantra, “We are committed to all students experiencing Harvard as a safe and equitable institution for teaching and learning.” All of this was not enough for the Harvard Graduate Student Union (in which two of the students in question are officers). They have demanded not only that Comaroff’s tenure be revoked but also that his course be de-listed so that no students can attend it.
As they state it:
“These allegations detail a serious risk of continued harm to students, student workers, faculty, and staff if the course were to continue. By nature of the instructor, access to this course material could also be selectively restricted for students previously subjected to sexual harassment or violence.”
It is not clear exactly how students who choose to sit in on lectures for an optional course at the Harvard Law School are in danger. Especially when, given the publicity associated with Comaroff both within the University and outside of it, every single comment he might make in class will be carefully scrutinized.