Sexual assault and sexual harassment are widespread occurrences at American universities and colleges. Student outrage over a case at Harvard University is spotlighting an equally disturbing problem: how some campus administrators have tolerated sexual abuse by powerful academicians, and thereby perpetuated broadly unsafe conditions for students, staff, and even junior untenured professors.
Harvard’s handling of the case of political scientist Jorge Domínguez, a leading expert in the Latin American studies field, was exposed in an important February 27 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle reported on the stories of women who charged that Domínguez exercised his power as a star tenured professor over three decades to physically harass and/or pursue sexual relationships with them.
In one chilling incident, as Domínguez and Terry Karl, an untenured female professor in his Government Department, walked through a wooded campus area returning from an event, Domínguez allegedly told Karl, “This would be a nice place for a rape.”
The Chronicle reports in detail on how Domínguez’s constant advances eventually forced Karl to leave Harvard in the mid-1980s for Stanford University, where she earned tenure and served as director of the Center for Latin American Studies for more than a decade.
Karl reported the harassment to Harvard administrators, who at one point actually found Domínguez guilty of serious misconduct and imposed temporary penalties—stripping him of administrative duties. Yet, afterwards, Harvard kept promoting Domínguez—to vice provost for international affairs, and director of the prestigious Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
According to the Chronicle, a total of 18 female professors, students, and staff members have now come forward with allegations of Domínguez’s sexual misconduct. On March 4, more than 35 years after Karl first reported Domínguez’s behavior to Harvard administrators, the university placed Domínguez on leave and announced an investigation into the allegations. On March 6—a week after the Chronicle story appeared—Domínguez resigned from Harvard, ending a 45-year career on the faculty.
Harvard President Derek Bok, and Henry Rosovsky, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, expressed concern and sympathy for Karl, but the university’s handling of Domínguez at the time struck her as inadequate and laughable.
The Chronicle reported on how Karl’s problems at Harvard had generated serious concerns among fellow Latin American-studies scholars. In 1984, a dozen of them from various universities wrote to Bok and Rosovsky, saying they could not recommend that any of their students attend Harvard until there was “absolute assurance that they will not face undue risk of harassment.”
In his dismissive response, Rosovsky told the scholars that their letter “displays a degree of moral arrogance that is unusual even by the unfortunate standards prevailing in the academic profession. It pretends to a detailed and objective knowledge of what happened here that you plainly do not have.”
In a 1991 essay in support of Anita Hill, who accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, Karl argued that filing a sexual harassment complaint often “pits a person against an institution that is predisposed to defend the accused.” Referring to her own harassment case, without mentioning Domínguez by name, she wrote that she had felt “forced to choose between pleasing this man or losing everything I had worked for.”
As the Chronicle reported:
Karl believes Harvard administrators played down her many complaints, attempting to mollify her rather than dealing with a difficult situation head-on. Harvard refused, as some universities still do, to publicly name the person responsible. They also let him stay, and promoted him, which sent a signal that Karl believes discouraged others from coming forward. If they hadn’t done that, “then these women who experienced harassment in the 1990s and 2000s, it wouldn’t have happened, or they would have known that someone would be punished if they were harassed,” she says. “That’s the great enabling. It’s why the silence is so terrible.”
The Chronicle report on Harvard’s handling of the Domínguez case stirred immediate outrage among alumni, faculty, and students. Hundreds signed an open letter to Harvard President Drew Faust demanding that the university apologize:
When students arrive at Harvard, they are told that the university ‘is committed to maintaining a safe and healthy educational work environment’. Over the past three decades, Harvard has failed to live up to this commitment. The Chronicle has reported that at least three women informed human resources of misconduct by Jorge Dominguez. In these cases, as in others, Harvard has not kept its promise to protect those most at risk. The burden of responsibility to hold abusers accountable does not lie with the victims. It lies with those in positions of authority. We feel an apology is necessary to rebuild trust and to show that the university unequivocally supports those who come forward.
We have all been shocked by the allegations against Jorge Dominguez. Now we call on you to take bold and immediate action to address the power structures that have left junior faculty, students, and staff vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
The signatories expressed their solidarity with Karl and other women who came forward and spoke to the Chronicle: “We respect and admire the courage it requires to share your story.”
More than 200 undergraduates led by 59 students in the Government Department wrote an angry letter to the Government faculty, calling the university administration’s failure to take appropriate action against Domínguez “reprehensible” and making a series of demands addressing the underlying problems:
We feel deeply betrayed by the fact that he was allowed to continue teaching at this university, putting students, faculty, and staff at risk for so long despite the fact that he was censured for sexual harassment thirty-five years ago.
Both Domínguez’s crimes and the department and the administration’s failure to take action for years are reprehensible. But they are also telling signs that the Government Department (and Harvard at large) are home to misogyny, rape culture, and exploitative power dynamics– problems that run much deeper than any single perpetrator of sexual or gender-based violence or any single failure to act to keep our community safe.
More than 100 Government graduate students, in their own letter to the faculty, expressed anger over the administration’s response to the Chronicle story. The letter followed a meeting between graduate students and Government Department Chair Jennifer L. Hochschild:
“We went into the meeting hoping for answers. We left disappointed, disillusioned, and, for many of us, angry. The meeting communicated a message of equivocation, powerlessness, and an unwillingness to commit to addressing this issue or instituting any significant changes within the Department.”