This Harvard Professor Was Found Guilty in the Press. Court Records Tell a Different Story.

A student claimed that the Ivy League school obtained her therapy notes without her consent and shared them with a professor who'd assaulted her. That's not what happened.

Harvard Prof. John Comaroff /
August 19, 2022

On February 8, Lilia Kilburn, a graduate student at Harvard University, made an explosive claim: In the course of a Title IX investigation, the university had obtained notes from her private therapy sessions without her consent—then shared them with a professor who she alleged had sexually assaulted her. The professor, John Comaroff, in turn used the notes to "gaslight" Kilburn and undermine her credibility, she said in a lawsuit against the Ivy League school. Harvard, the lawsuit alleged, "opted to protect its star professor over vulnerable students."

Within two days of the lawsuit's filing, the New York Times, the Washington Postthe Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, the Chronicle of Higher Education, New York magazine, Inside Higher Ed, and Gawker all published stories that sympathetically relayed its claims. The coverage prompted a storm of criticism from lawyers and medical ethicists decrying the release of Kilburn's therapy notes: "If you're raped on campus," an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education said, "don't seek therapy through your college health center."

Six months later, it appears Kilburn's allegation was bunk.

Between May and July, Harvard filed dozens of documents in court telling its side of the story, including several email exchanges between Kilburn and university investigators. They show that Kilburn urged Harvard to get in touch with her therapist, gave the therapist permission to release the notes, and received repeated warnings that anything disclosed would be shared with Comaroff, per Harvard's Title IX procedures.

None of the national media outlets that amplified Kilburn's explosive claims have reported on these revelations. Though her story has quietly collapsed in court, it remains the official narrative in the press.

"This is an important case that we continue to follow closely," the Chronicle of Higher Education told the Washington Free Beacon. "However, we don't comment on our future coverage plans." The Daily Beast said that its original story was "accurate and fair" and that it planned to "follow up when there is a significant judicial decision in the case." Gawker—which all but assumed Harvard's guilt—did not respond to a request for comment.

Harvard is now asking a Massachusetts district court to dismiss Kilburn's allegation without a trial. Such a request, known as a motion for summary judgment, is "very unusual this early in a case," said Ruth O'Meara-Costello, one of Comaroff's attorneys, who is not a party to the lawsuit. "Harvard is plainly very confident about the facts here and its ability to document them." Kilburn's lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.

The lack of media follow-up means that students will be hesitant to report misconduct, Harvard argued in its filings, out of a mistaken belief that the university will raid their medical records. It also means the original narrative—that Comaroff is a sexual predator protected by powerful men—still hangs in the air.

In fact, the university found no evidence that the 77-year-old anthropologist had committed sexual assault. His critics have nonetheless painted Harvard as a hotbed of misogyny, one hell-bent on silencing women by any means necessary.

Such portrayals pervade stories about campus sexual misconduct, even when the allegations underlying them are weak. The New York Times in 2018 published a 2,600-word article about another Harvard professor, Roland Fryer, whom the university was investigating for sexual harassment. The report—"Star Economist at Harvard Faces Sexual Harassment Complaints"—omitted numerous findings from the investigation that cast doubt on the allegations, including that the complainant "broadly mischaracterized" Fryer's conduct.

Comaroff is an example of the damage that this sort of reporting can inflict. In May 2020, Kilburn and two other graduate students, Amulya Mandava and Margaret Czerwienski, filed Title IX complaints against the elderly anthropologist, which the Harvard Crimson framed as referenda on "decades-old power structures." At every turn, coverage of the case has raced ahead of the facts, maligning a professor whom Harvard's own Title IX process cleared of sexual assault.

That coverage didn't just besmirch Comaroff but also put tremendous pressure on Harvard to figure out a way to punish him. The school's initial investigation, completed in August 2021, found only a minor violation of Title IX—an allegedly off-color comment Comaroff made during office hours. But amid continued coverage of the case, Harvard began investigating some of Comaroff's other comments—which the school determined did not violate Title IX—as potential breaches of its "professional conduct" policy.

"I think it's clear that Harvard didn't like the results of the first investigation, which mostly exonerated Professor Comaroff, and was determined to punish him as harshly as possible," O'Meara-Costello said.  The university placed Comaroff on a semester of unpaid leave in January for allegedly violating both its sexual harassment and professional conduct policies and barred him from teaching required courses for at least a year.  Harvard did not respond to a request for comment.

The sanctions are part of a broader pattern, O'Meara-Costello told the Free Beacon, of universities punishing professors who are exonerated in Title IX investigations but crucified by the media—or by their own students and colleagues. "Once a faculty member is accused of sexual misconduct, even a finding of non-responsibility in the Title IX process is no guarantee that a university will not impose career-ending consequences," O'Meara-Costello said, adding that she was aware of "multiple cases" like Comaroff's.

Such cases reflect an ongoing clash between Title IX regulations and the schools that are subject to them. In 2020, the Trump administration put in place rules that strengthened due process protections in campus sexual assault proceedings. Though the Biden administration is trying to claw back those rules—with the support of many universities, including Harvard—there are still limits on how Kafkaesque Title IX offices can be. That's created an incentive for schools to refer harassment allegations to other bureaucracies, where there is often more wiggle room to mete out punishment.

In May, for example, Princeton University fired a tenured classics professor, Joshua Katz, whom the university's Title IX office had cleared of sexual misconduct. Rather than accept the results of that investigation, Princeton punted the case to another office—one with fewer due process protections for the accused—which found that Katz had violated a vague "honesty and cooperation" policy. Like Comaroff, Katz had been portrayed in his university's student newspaper as a serial predator protected by powerful faculty.

These sorts of portrayals were a recurring headache for Harvard. The university made several unflattering appearances in the 2015 documentary Hunting Ground, which claimed to unmask coverups of sexual assault on college campuses. In February 2018, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Harvard had turned a blind eye to decades of harassment by a prominent government professor, Jorge Domínguez. Later that year, the New York Times came out with its exposé about Roland Fryer, who has since been barred from supervising graduate students.

Then in May 2020, the Harvard Crimson reported that three anthropology professors, not just Comaroff, had weathered sexual misconduct allegations over the past decade. Comaroff, the Crimson suggested, was but one node in an "old boys' network" that preyed on vulnerable women. Though the article noted that three students were "in communication with Harvard's Title IX office," it did not name Comaroff's accusers or detail the allegations against him, which only became public in an August 2020 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

That story, like the Crimson's, framed Harvard as a bastion of regressive power structures that protect "powerful men." With the bad press mounting, Harvard placed Comaroff on paid leave in August 2020 pending a "full review" of the "allegations that have been reported."

The most serious allegations came from Kilburn, who claimed that Comaroff had fantasized aloud about her being raped and touched her without her consent. Notes from her therapist, she told university investigators, could corroborate those allegations.

"I think [the therapist] should have a bunch of notes or memories for you," Kilburn said in an August 2020 interview with the university's Office of Dispute Resolution, a transcript of which Harvard filed in court.

Though media reports have suggested that Kilburn was blindsided by the university's decision to get in touch with her therapist, the court filings show that she explicitly listed the therapist as a witness Harvard should contact. In a September 2020 email to investigators, she provided the therapist's contact information, writing that it would "make sense" for "you to speak to" her.

By this point, the court filings suggest, Harvard had warned Kilburn seven times that any material shared with investigators would also be shared with Comaroff, a disclaimer Kilburn acknowledged in writing.

"Both parties have the right to review and respond to all information" that the university "may rely on in the investigation," one email from investigators said, including "any written information provided by a witness." On July 6, 2020, Kilburn replied: "Thank you for this information—it is helpful."

Later in July, Kilburn had two Zoom meetings with the Office of Dispute Resolution, which reiterated that each party would have access to everything the other submitted. Those meetings are recounted in an affidavit from a senior Title IX investigator and in transcripts of the meetings taken by a second Title IX official.

In October, per Kilburn's written request, the university contacted her therapist, who turned over two sets of notes from her sessions with Kilburn, the court filings show. As the investigation progressed, Harvard continued to remind Kilburn that it was sharing all of the evidence it gathered, including the therapy notes, with Comaroff. There is no record of any objections to those disclosures until after the investigation concluded—and after it became clear that the university hadn't bought her most lurid claims.

Harvard determined in August 2021 that Comaroff, a scholar of African society, had violated Title IX by warning Kilburn not to travel with her same-sex partner to Cameroon, where lesbians are frequently the target of rape. He conveyed that warning in an inappropriate tone, the investigation found, but not with a sexual intention.

The school dismissed all of Kilburn's other allegations, including the allegation of sexual assault. It also dismissed the allegations of the other two graduate students, Amulya Mandava and Margaret Czerwienski, who claimed that Comaroff had retaliated against them when they sought to expose his harassment of Kilburn.

But the pressure on Harvard was mounting. All three students were active in Harvard's Graduate Student Union, which for years had waged a highly publicized campaign for stronger sexual harassment protections. That campaign escalated in fall 2021, energized by the allegations against Comaroff, and received glowing coverage in both the Harvard Crimson and the Boston Globe.

Amid the firestorm, Harvard notified Comaroff in October 2021 that it was hiring an outside lawyer, Alexandra Thaler, to determine whether some of his comments to Mandava had violated the school's "professional conduct policy," according to a detailed statement O'Meara-Costello provided to the Free Beacon.

Like at Princeton in the case of Joshua Katz, the second investigation had fewer due process protections than the first one. Harvard did not let Thaler interview any witnesses or consider additional evidence from either party, O'Meara-Costello's statement said; the university required that she make her determinations based on a truncated excerpt of the evidence that Title IX investigators had gathered, which did not include several findings favorable to Comaroff.

Having reviewed this curated set of findings, Thaler concluded that Comaroff had violated the professional conduct policy by making remarks that Mandava perceived as threatening. The perception was what mattered: Thaler's report said that Comaroff's intent was irrelevant to whether he'd violated the policy, according to O'Meara-Costello's statement.

Thaler did not respond to a request for comment. On January 20, Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave for the spring semester.

The sanctions—and the procedural hijinks that produced them—shocked 38 professors at the Ivy League school who on February 4 issued an open letter defending Comaroff. The signatories questioned how Comaroff could have violated Title IX by "informing students of the risks of gender-based violence." And they attacked the university for subjecting their "excellent colleague" to double jeopardy, saying it set an ominous precedent for faculty.

Then came the lawsuit.

The complaint against Harvard, filed on February 8 by Kilburn, Mandava, and Czerwienski, didn't just accuse the school of mishandling Kilburn's therapy records. It also attacked Harvard's "deliberate indifference" to Comaroff's "decades-long pattern of harassment," and lodged a number of allegations—many of them based on secondhand information—that were not included in the original Title IX complaints.

Those allegations were everywhere in a matter of hours. The New York Times published a piece on the lawsuit the same day it was filed—one of the few that acknowledged Harvard had cleared Comaroff of the worst charges against him. Other outlets were more one-sided. Some, like Gawker and the Daily Beast, seemed to take everything the plaintiffs said at face value.

Within 36 hours, 35 of the 38 professors who'd defended Comaroff withdrew their support, writing in a retraction letter that "we were lacking full information about the case."

The only ones who did not sign the retraction letter were law professors, who argued that the new allegations—none of which had been investigated—didn't negate the due process concerns.

But the damage was done. On February 20, more than three-quarters of Harvard's tenured anthropology professors called on Comaroff to resign. And on July 26, over 250 students and professors signed a petition demanding that Comaroff be barred from teaching, even after his semester-long suspension was up. The petition repeated the allegations that Harvard's Title IX investigators had dismissed, as well as the others that were breathlessly reported in the press.

It wasn't just Comaroff’s reputation that was in tatters. It was the Title IX bureaucrats'. Throughout February, students inundated the university with concerns about their own medical records, which Harvard's Title IX coordinator, Nicole Merhill, tried in vain to quell. On February 10, Merhill issued a statement disputing the media coverage and assuring students of her office's commitment to confidentiality. A week later, she issued an apology, saying that her initial statement had "contributed to further concerns around trust."

Those concerns, she added, "included some indicating their hesitancy to seek out resources, including counseling resources," from the university.

The about-face reflected the lesson of the Comaroff saga: Once a media narrative sets in, it can be very difficult to dispel.

"When Harvard filed its motion for summary judgment, I thought—naïvely, in retrospect—that we would see reporting about whether Ms. Kilburn's story was actually true," O'Meara-Costello said. "That completely did not happen."