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Sexual Harassment Survivors Condemn Harvard's Investigation Process

2.5.20

Six women sit at a table at the front of an auditorium.

From left: Co-panelists Nienke Grossman '99, J.D.'04, Terry Karl, Suzanna Challen, Ph.D.'11, Charna Sherman '80, Sejal Singh, and Debra Katz  Photograph by Harvard Magazine/LG


From left: Co-panelists Nienke Grossman '99, J.D.'04, Terry Karl, Suzanna Challen, Ph.D.'11, Charna Sherman '80, Sejal Singh, and Debra Katz  Photograph by Harvard Magazine/LG

On Monday evening, four women who have accused former Harvard government professor Jorge Domínguez of sexual misconduct spoke out about their experiences and criticized Harvard’s response to complaints like theirs. Calling the University’s response throughout the past 40 years “lackluster and anemic at best, and incompetent and complicit at worst,” Nienke Grossman ’99, J.D. ’04, one of the accusers, said of Domínguez’s alleged misconduct, “We all reached out to Harvard at various times, starting in 1979.”

Alongside Grossman on stage were Suzanna Challen, Ph.D. ’11, Charna Sherman ’80 (who lodged the 1979 complaint against Domínguez, after he allegedly kissed her on the mouth during a meeting in his office when she was an undergraduate), and former government assistant professor Terry Karl, who told the audience it was her first time back on campus in 35 years. It was Karl’s account in a 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education report about the sexual harassment she endured during the 1980s that set in motion the events that ended Domínguez’s Harvard career: formerly Madero professor for the study of Mexico and the University’s first vice provost for international affairs, he was stripped of his emeritus status and banned from campus. In all, 18 women have formally accused him of sexual misconduct, and Monday’s speakers said they knew of others who had not yet come forward. 

The panel, titled “Making #MeToo Count: Achieving Institutional Change at Harvard,” was co-hosted by government department graduate students and the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW). It drew more than 100 listeners. Rounding out the table of speakers were Sejal Singh, a third-year Harvard law student and HGSU-UAW organizer; and civil-rights attorney Debra Katz, best known for representing alleged victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault (including, recently, Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh of sexual assault). 

Singh spoke about HSGU-UAW’s contract negotiations with the University, in which the treatment of sexual-harassment and gender discrimination cases has been a major sticking point. Union leaders have proposed an independent, third-party arbitration procedure, similar to the process used for other contract violations. Harvard has said that it must investigate such cases through its Title IX Office and Office of Dispute Resolution, where University sexual-harassment cases are usually handled. (Harvard has spelled out its concerns with the arbitration procedure here.) “Fighting sexual harassment…has been in our campaign from day one,” Singh said of the HGSE-UAW platform, but she added that the Domínguez revelations during the past two years “really drove that home, really made it a central issue for us.” 

The accusers recalled details of their experiences with Domínguez and talked about the solidarity they’d found in each other, and about the anger and disappointment they felt about the institutional response from Harvard. “My belief is that Harvard has not to date adequately addressed what has been reported,” Sherman said. They took particular aim at Harvard’s external review, currently under way, to investigate the circumstances that allowed Domínguez’s harassment to persist for decades. After months of pressure from alleged victims, students, and others, University president Lawrence S. Bacow announced that review last spring and in September named three academic leaders to direct it. But Monday’s speakers faulted that process for “a worrisome lack of transparency about its method and goals,” as Grossman put it. “Who are they meeting with?” she asked. “Are they considering best practices or research in designing their approach? What form will the findings take?” Earlier that day, she said, she and her co-panelists had met with the external review committee, “and they did not answer these questions.” 

Sherman, meanwhile, took issue with Bacow’s decision to limit the scope of the external review—in his September announcement, the president wrote that although the Domínguez case would help “frame” the review “as an example through which these questions can be explored,” the process would not be a “reinvestigation of the allegations.” Sherman said she told the review committee this week that it is “untenable” to put “off-limits what occurred for the last four decades.” 

In his September announcement, Bacow wrote that the external review committee would “conduct interviews with members of the Harvard community and review materials relevant to policies, practices, and what transpired in the Domínguez case. The committee will begin its review of information around the Domínguez case and Harvard’s policy, procedures, and systems that exist to address and prevent sexual harassment.” His announcement suggested that the review process is intended to be not only retrospective but also oriented toward improving Harvard’s policies and responses going forward. At the end of the committee’s work, Bacow wrote, it “will issue a report to the Harvard community.”

On Wednesday, University spokesman Jonathan Swain wrote in an emailed statement that “The committee continues to work to engage members of the Harvard community through in-person meetings, as well as collecting information and perspectives through phone conversations and in writing. The committee and the University are committed to ensuring this review is a robust examination of factors that may undermine the ability to prevent or address incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”

During the panel discussion, Karl described the lingering trauma and “shock to the system” for women who are preyed on: the humiliation, shame, and degradation that victims continue to feel for years. She asked for an apology from Harvard—“a real apology,” she said—that confesses harm and wrongdoing and commits to making amends. She also cited research drawing a connection between harassment and lack of diversity (gender and otherwise). “Harassment happens most in those fields that are least diverse,” she emphasized, adding that, among the social sciences, government is a discipline where women are severely underrepresented. Karl recalled arriving at Harvard as one of three young untenured female academics in the government department, and continued: “And all three of us left”—two, she said, after being harassed by professors. “But when I look at the faculty in the government department today, my male colleagues, four of them got tenure. So what is the story there, when all the women leave, and the men get tenure?…You have a vicious cycle there.” 

One of the evening’s emotional moments came when Challen, who described herself as “a little lost” and an outsider to academia in her first year of graduate school, recalled being harassed during a meeting with Domínguez. Afterward, she said, she felt trapped: he was an influential professor whose power to shape her future seemed profound. Nevertheless, she decided not to work with him, even though she knew it would alter her path forward. Telling this story on Monday, Challen looked out at the audience, many of whom were young women. “What I want to say to graduate students is, make good decisions for yourself. You can make decisions to nurture your own strength, even if you don’t know where those decisions are going to lead. If you’re being harassed, get out of that situation. Do not let this place convince you that any faculty member is so powerful or important that their letter of recommendation is necessary for you to have a good career.…I want to encourage you and support you by saying that you can find another way.” 

She stopped for a moment, before continuing: “And then the second thing I want to say is: women should not have to find another way.” 

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