Harvard sexual harassment case scars the institution as well as victims

Harvard faculty member accused of decades of sexual harassment. Gil C/Shutterstock

In the wake of recent #MeToo revelations, Harvard University has begun to take action against a tenured professor whom the university found guilty of sexual harassment in the 1980s and who now stands accused of harassing women undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff for four decades.

I was there in 1983, when this scandal first broke.

I know from that time how deeply harassment reverberates through psyches and careers in academic settings. And I watched Harvard, through its actions and inaction, rid itself of the very people who could have held the university accountable.

It is time to broaden the discussion of harassment beyond victimizer and victim and to include, as well, discussion of collateral damage to individuals, cultures and promotion practices inside institutions.

A clear and public finding

In 1983, the dean of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences determined that professor Jorge Dominguez, a senior faculty member in the Department of Government, had sexually harassed a female junior faculty colleague in the same department. While the name of the colleague, Terry Lynn Karl, was not made public at the time, her identity was widely known at the university and in the field of Latin American Studies. Despite the clear and public finding of harassment, the university did not dismiss Dominguez from his job or remove him from campus. Rather, Harvard went on to promote him to ever higher posts, including vice provost for international affairs.

At the time of the harassment findings, I was a Ph.D. student working closely with Dominguez, who was my faculty mentor. Upon learning of the harassment, I ended my role as his advisee, as did most of the 10 or so students he supervised at the time, female and male. Together with fellow graduate students in Harvard’s government department, we formed a committee to address the harms Dominguez had perpetrated and the needs of graduate students at that moment of pain and anger.

Those of us who had broken with Dominguez feared retribution in a profession notoriously structured around vertical mentoring relationships, where negative comments from a senior scholar in your field can scuttle a job and even a career. Virtually all of the graduate students in our large and fractious department signed a letter in support of protections that would have prohibited Dominguez from evaluating or commenting on our work, formally or informally. The government department and the university, however, refused to discuss these protections.

Loss of community

In the years immediately following, almost all of us left town: faculty member Terry Karl, graduate students who also accused Dominguez of harassment, and most of the other students who had cut their ties with him. Karl found a position at Stanford, where she was later awarded tenure. The majority of the graduate students received our Ph.D.s from Harvard, but completed our research and writing from a safe distance, under the guidance of faculty from other fields or universities.

In the process, we lost the community in which we pursued our education, along with the mentors and guidance in our field so central to success in academia. We began our careers angry, disoriented and scrambling to find alternative committee members and recommenders – and utterly uncomfortable talking about this history of harassment and its impact with future employers and colleagues. For years, Dominguez’ former mentees worried whether, when, or to whom Dominguez had commented on us or our scholarship in ways that may have harmed our careers.

By keeping Jorge Dominguez employed in prestigious positions, Harvard knowingly shed faculty and graduate students who had exposed or fought sexual harassment head-on. By ignoring the recommendations of graduate students for grappling with the collateral damage that occurred after the events, the university sent a clear message that protections would not be offered to those who stayed.

According to accounts recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 other undergraduate, graduate, faculty, and staff women accused Dominguez of harassment through 2015. One woman alleges that he harassed her when she was an undergraduate, in 1979, four years before the official finding of harassment and subsequent promotions, and that she reported the incident to her departmental advisor.

The most shocking thing about this story is that none of the revelations of recent weeks represent the breaking of long-held silences. Most of the women who identified themselves as having been harassed by Dominguez between 1979 and 2015 report discussing his actions at the time with the advisers, counselors and supervisors responsible for creating a safe environment for women at Harvard.

In the face of these recent revelations, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael Smith has said that the institution “will not tolerate sexual harassment.” University Provost Alan Garber and the chair of Harvard’s department of government, Jennifer Hochschild, each indicated that they found the recent revelations of sexual harassment “heartbreaking.” Dominguez was put on administrative leave and very soon thereafter announced his retirement.

Long-term consequences

But what kind of institution emerges in the course of 40 years of ongoing sexual harassment as an open secret? A female academic who was an undergraduate at Harvard in the 2000s recently told me that she didn’t study Latin America, her passion, because she knew about the risks to women of working with Dominguez. The #MeToo moment presses us to ask who left Harvard and who stayed, who got jobs there, and at what cost and with what pain to themselves and others.

It is far too simple to say that those who were willing to overlook harassment at Harvard were most likely to succeed, to claim the Harvard brand, and to shape knowledge in their fields. But this is the proposition faced today with regard to the entertainment industry, journalism, politics and now academia. Many key positions of power and production came to be occupied by those who harassed their subordinates or who looked the other way while others did so.

As society begins to understand the depth and breadth of harm caused by sexual harassment to those directly victimized, it is important to examine as well how layers of cultural and scholarly knowledge have been shaped by abusive practices and the complicity of the institutions in which such practices were enacted.

I believe it is these questions about intimate forms of pain and harm over decades, and their personal and institutional effects, that Harvard – and all universities – must address if they intend truly to not tolerate sexual harassment and, in even the most minimal way, to repair hearts.