Vanessa Leroy/The New York Times

From left, Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn and Amulya Mandava at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Feb. 7. They are suing Harvard for its handling of sexual harassment accusations against an anthropology professor, John Comaroff.

March 7, 2022

Following Harvard University Sexual Assault Scandal, Students Discuss Safety at Cornell

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Editor’s note: This article contains discussion of sexual assault.

Three Harvard graduate students, Amulya Mandava, Lilia Kilburn and Margaret Czeriwienski, are suing Harvard University for allegedly failing to act on sexual harassment accusations against John Comaroff, a professor of African and African-American studies. Sexual violence is a concern throughout universities across the nation, including Cornell.

In a 2021 University-conducted survey, about 61 percent of undergraduate women at Cornell reported having experienced sexual or gender-based harassment.

“[Comaroff] kissed and groped students without their consent, made unwelcome sexual advances and threatened to sabotage students’ careers if they complained,” the lawsuit said. 

After the lawsuit was filed, Harvard placed Comaroff on unpaid administrative leave, but did not find him responsible for unwanted sexual contact. In the days leading up to the lawsuit, in support of Comaroff, 38 Harvard faculty members signed a letter questioning the results of the investigation. 

“We the undersigned know John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen… We are dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions against him and concerned about its effects on our ability to advise our own students” the letter said. However, days after the lawsuit was filed, 35 of the 38 faculty members retracted their statements.

Caroline Guentert, Killburn’s attorney stated, “[Our clients] want to make sure that when students come forward with sexual harassment allegations that the schools take them seriously and that they don’t force them through a process that is inordinately burdensome.”

The lawsuit has caused debates among college campuses about how universities handle sexual violence cases. Cornell is no exception. Zem ’23, the co-president of the Sexual Violence Prevention Network at Cornell, was sexually assaulted on campus in 2021, right before her final exams. The Sun is withholding her last name for privacy purposes.

“The incident happened with an individual I met a couple of times, he was a junior while I was a sophomore. He essentially drugged me and sexually assaulted me,” Zem said. “I went to Cayuga Med to get an exam [with a] Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and reported it to the Cornell University Police Department that night, who put me in contact with Title IX.” 

Her home-life situation at the time made her feel too unsupported to do anything until she returned to school in August 2021 and saw the perpetrator. 

“I filed a formal complaint and no contact order against him. I wasn’t able to go to a dining hall or walk to class alone,” Zem said. “My friends had to take turns sleeping with me at night because I had nightmares.” 

Zem’s Title IX case did not forward until November, when the University told her that the perpetrator was a repeat offender. 

“They were forced to do something because there were other cases against him,” Zem said. “After talking with other survivors, I found out that there were about 10 cases against the same person.”

Zem was struggling academically, and she was mentally drained from the investigation being drawn out. “I just wanted it to be over,” she said. 

According to Zem, when she expressed her concerns about sharing a campus with the perpetrator, the University’s Title IX office was very hesitant about taking action.

“I received an email the week of Jan. 21, saying that he withdrew from the University, and later enrolled in another school, that the entire process was going to stop. Nothing was going to come out of it,” Zem said. “That just upset me. I wanted justice for myself.”

Zem said that she felt the University could have handled her situation in a better, more timely manner.

“The University had failed to act until now, basically four years later, even though there have been other people who came forward,” Zem said. “They really could have done so much more to protect us from all of this pain and trauma. I’m angry, we’re all angry. This is all a systemic problem.”

Frustrated by the University’s responses to sexual assault cases, some Cornellians have decided to take matters into their own hands and protect themselves. 

For Isabelle Shook ’25, taking a self-defense class allowed her to learn the importance of protecting oneself in college.

“As a woman in college, where I am constantly in risky situations, such as [when] walking alone or to parties, it is so important to be able to trust your peers and surroundings,” Shook said. “ I wish there were more resources to help women learn and defend themselves.” 

The Sexual Violence Prevention Network is a peer-led group that aims to be a safe space for students. Resources include support groups, magazines and events with the advocacy center. The organization hosts sexual assault awareness month in April and last year hosted Chanel Miller for a workshop. 

For survivors, there are resources available on campus to allow them to feel supported, such as confidential medical assistance, counseling and support groups.