Notes from a Grad School Survivor

Editors’ note: Insurrect! was founded as a publication in part because we wanted to create more scholarly networks of support for graduate students that supplemented, rather than relied upon, the formal academy. Like many junior scholars, this week the editors of Insurrect! have been consumed by the ongoing fight against sexual harrassment at Harvard University led by Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava and their supporters; and also overwhelmed by the incredibly disheartening way that senior scholars at that institution have responded. As an online magazine that is devoted to critiques of colonial legacies, and to the foundational work of Black Studies, Indigenous Studies, and postcolonial feminist theory, we cannot ignore how institutions today uphold these legacies through the gendered mechanisms of power and abuse, even within fields designed to analyze them. To that end, we are sharing a personal narrative from one of Insurrect!’s co-founders that speaks specifically to the ways that our working lives as scholars and academics cannot be divorced from gendered institutional power. We are incredibly fortunate to work with and know someone as brave and brilliant as Kellen Heniford.

Talk of the Harvard Letter—the online shorthand for an open letter signed by 38 Harvard professors in support of fellow Harvard professor John L. Comaroff—has dominated my news feed for days. No event in recent memory has so roiled the waters of academic Twitter, or so captured my own attention. The letter has received ample criticism, which has been heartening. But for me, as for many who experienced sexual violence in graduate school, this news cycle has been emotionally devastating as well.

The letter came after Harvard sanctioned Comaroff, a prominent faculty member in the African and African American Studies and the Anthropology Departments, for violating professional codes of conduct, including guidance on sexual harassment. The letter writers objected: after all, they reasoned, Comaroff was, to their knowledge, “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen who has for five decades trained and advised hundreds of Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds.” The signers, who claim that Comaroff’s sanctioning could have detrimental “effects on our ability to advise our own students,” count among them several heavy hitters from the world of Early American Studies, including—but sadly not limited to—Sven Beckert, Alejandro de la Fuente, Henry Louis Gates, and Jill Lepore.

The details of Comaroff’s case that have emerged since the letter was released are deeply disturbing. One student, an advisee, alleges that he kissed her on the mouth without her consent, touched and squeezed her thighs, and, in one private meeting, described in graphic detail how she, a queer woman, might be subject to “corrective rape” on a trip to Cameroon.

A lawsuit filed by three graduate students claims not just that Harvard ignored years of inappropriate behavior on Comaroff’s part, but that the university went so far as to obtain the notes from complainant’s private therapy sessions and share them with Comaroff. This assertion, in particular, suggests not only neglect on the part of Harvard administrators but also active complicity in Comaroff’s behavior.

I applaud the bravery of the women who have come forward against Comaroff, especially as they faced down what appeared to be a united front of opposition from luminaries across a whole host of fields. Many of those luminaries, including Beckert, de la Fuente, Gates, and Lepore, are now retracting their signatures from the Comaroff letter. They appear to have recalculated after the massive backlash online and the announcement of the lawsuit against their colleague.

Stories like the one currently unfolding at Harvard are shocking, to be sure, but, for many of us, they are not surprising.

During my first year of graduate school at Columbia University, I was drugged and assaulted by a fellow student in the History Department. The experience was as horrifying as it sounds. The months that followed found me vomiting in the department bathroom after running into my assailant in the hallway, skipping classes where I might see him, and attempting to stifle panic attacks in the grad student lounge. Had I not been able to count on the unwavering support and understanding of my advisor, Stephanie McCurry, I certainly would have dropped out.

As I slowly gathered myself, putting the pieces of my life back together, I also began organizing around sexual violence on campus. I spoke with other survivors, including undergraduate, professional, and graduate students. Every person I met who had sought redress through Columbia’s Title IX processes felt that those processes had failed them. Even with overwhelming evidence of assault or rape, the justice that the university dispensed was at most a slap on the wrist. A case like mine—a “he-said, she-said” where “she” had been drugged and couldn’t remember much of anything—would amount to even less.

And then, not a year and a half after my assault, the William Harris story broke. First, a graduate student sued Columbia for failing to act after Harris, a professor in the History Department, repeatedly kissed her, groped her, and tried to have sex with her. Then the New York Times published an exposé revealing that Harris had been harassing and assaulting graduate students for over thirty years.

During this time, I was serving as the History Department’s co-coordinator for “gender inclusivity and sexual respect.” In theory, this made me the liaison between graduate students and faculty on issues of harassment and discrimination. In practice, the job meant that I was the one fielding emails from graduate women, asking me why, for example, they found themselves alone in our building’s elevator with a man the New York Times had outed as a predator.

When I brought these concerns to our faculty leadership, I was met with stonewalling and not a little condescension. At age 25, I found myself alone (or often with one other woman, our Graduate Association’s president, also in her mid-twenties) in a room with senior male faculty members more than twice my age, attempting to explain to them why, for example, someone who had not been personally assaulted by William Harris might still object to seeing him lurking around our department. It was emotionally exhausting work.

The Harris case, unfortunately, was not an isolated one. Of course, I had been assaulted by a graduate student in the Columbia History Department. There was also Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean history, who was accused in 2021 of raping one of his former undergraduates. Armstrong admitted having sex with his accuser—who was, again, an undergraduate under his charge—but claimed it was consensual. Graduate student whisper networks warned against other professors too: one who might get a little friendly at a party; one not worth working with (he thought women pretty but unintelligent); one who had been forcibly stopped from assaulting a junior colleague at a conference.

I graduated from the Columbia History Department in 2021 with my PhD and moved on to a postdoc. For the last eight months or so, I had felt lighter. I attributed that feeling to having accomplished something massive, to having defended a dissertation and finally completed six years of grad school. But the events of this past week have sent me back to a dark place. I feel, and perhaps this will resonate, that there have been times in my life that I have just had to get through—to carry on without thinking too much about the circumstances, because really understanding what I was facing might have broken me. My years at Columbia were like that.

But the Comaroff case has forced me to remember what it was like to share a department with a man who drugged and attacked me, what it was like to fight the department tooth and nail just for recognition of a single demand—for our safety—and not even achieve that. The lawsuit against Harvard has reminded me of my years dealing with an administration openly hostile to survivors, an administration that spent millions trying to bust our union in part to avoid negotiating on the protections we demanded against assault, harassment, and discrimination. The letter took me back to conversations with faculty members who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of misconduct, preferred to protect one of their colleagues and friends rather than to take seriously graduate students’ demands for protection and respect in our workplace.

It has been a difficult week.

4 Replies to “Notes from a Grad School Survivor”

  1. All I can say is I am so sorry that you had to experience this and I hope we can create a more just academy for you and everyone else.

  2. What a thoughtful personal reflection – it makes what you’ve experienced and tried to advocate for so courageous and beyond admirable! That you’ve encountered such push back from academia is deplorable and shameful. I live in a small southern town with a big university where the status quo is protected and the academics are the most defensive and arrogant. The university (administration)) is abysmal on sexual harassment/ frat history.
    This makes me sad for you and others like you, and most angry at people who teach and have great responsibility who seem to have either no morals or no moral courage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.