Harvard’s graduate student union filed a grievance against the university last month, saying Harvard had failed to provide “a safe and healthy work and education environment.”
The grievance denounced the return to teaching of Professor John L. Comaroff this fall. Comaroff was placed on unpaid leave in January following two academic investigations, which found he violated Harvard policies on sexual harassment and professional conduct.
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 8 by the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers, alleged that by allowing Comaroff to teach, the University violated provisions set forth in Articles 7 and 10 of the HGSU-UAW contract, which require Harvard to protect affiliates. against discrimination and redress any harm.
“Comaroff’s presence in the classroom is an unnecessary threat to the safety of women and gay students, including student workers who may work in the same buildings in which he teaches,” the grievance states.
HGSU-UAW President Koby D. Ljunggren said the grievance “unfolded like no other grievance has done before.”
Ljunggren said the University requested a private meeting after receiving the complaint, where administrators said the school wanted to bypass typical steps in the grievance process, where the union would meet with stakeholders in the ‘University.
Harvard’s Office of Labor and Employee Relations wrote in an August response to the grievance that the union’s contract does not give HGSU-UAW jurisdiction over how the University decides to discipline faculty and staff. .
“As the union should know, the contract between the University and the union explicitly reserves the University the exclusive right to make academic decisions, including, but not limited to, who is taught, what is taught , how it is taught and who is doing the teaching,” the letter read.
The letter adds that Harvard believes the complaint does not fall within issues that can be resolved through the contract’s grievance process.
“The union sought to change the Title IX policies and procedures during negotiation, but ultimately agreed…that the University has the exclusive right to change the policies and that students cannot file complaints of sexual and gender-based harassment through grievance and arbitration,” Harvard’s letter reads.
“If the union nevertheless seeks to contest the issue of the possibility of grievance and arbitrability, it can proceed directly to arbitration,” he adds.
But some union members have expressed concerns about the feasibility of the arbitration process.
“Arbitration can take several months to resolve,” said Denish K. Jaswal, co-chair of the Contract Enforcement and Education Committee. “So by the time we got in front of a referee, the course would have already been over.”
Ljunggren said the union’s goal is to protect all affiliates on campus from harassment and discrimination.
“Looking to the future – when the grievance might be sort of dead in the water – I think what we’re really trying to do is make sure the campus continues to engage in the conversation around Title IX reform,” they said.
As of Sept. 14, no students were enrolled in Comaroff’s course, down from two at the start of the course, according to FAS course enrollment data.
Sixth-year graduate student and HGSU-UAW member Max G. Ehrenfreund said the responsibility for protecting affiliates should rest with Harvard.
“As to what happens next, I think that’s a question that administrators really need to answer,” he said.
“If they don’t respond, the University will continue to suffer reputational damage, and the potential for Comaroff to continue to abuse students will go unaddressed,” Ehrenfreund continued.