Posted October 31st, 2017.
By LUIS FERRÉ-SADURNÍOCT
A distinguished historian at Columbia University accused this month of kissing and groping a 29-year-old female doctoral student stepped down from teaching and other student-related duties, the university told students and faculty in an email on Monday.
A lawsuit filed on Oct. 2 in Manhattan federal court against the university and the historian, William V. Harris, 79, an expert on Greco-Roman history, said Dr. Harris repeatedly forced himself on the woman and belittled her when she rejected his advances. The university, the complaint said, ignored or took superficial steps when the woman, identified only as Jane Doe, reported Dr. Harris’s behavior.
The university’s email to graduate students and faculty in the history department announced that Dr. Harris had “agreed with the university to withdraw from his teaching, advising and other student-related activities.” The email described the allegations against Dr. Harris as “a subject of considerable discussion and concern.”
It was signed by David B. Madigan, dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Carlos J. Alonso, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
“Columbia is doing the right thing,” said David Sanford, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said.
In a statement, a Columbia University spokesperson said that Dr. Harris remained an employee of the university and that it would have no further comment. The statement added that “Columbia is deeply committed to fostering an environment that is free from gender-based discrimination and harassment.”
Dr. Harris referred a request for comment to his lawyer, Laurie Berke-Weiss, who said she had nothing to add.
The complaint claims the university long knew of Dr. Harris’s reputation for abusing his power over female students, but never took action. Dr. Harris has taught at the university for more than 50 years.
The plaintiff, Mr. Sanford said, “feels vindicated.” She is seeking compensation for damage to her career; she withdrew from the university for an academic year because of the harassment, she has said.
According to the complaint, Dr. Harris and the woman met at a Columbia lecture series in spring 2014, when she was a second-year graduate student. Dr. Harris offered to mentor the woman and proposed weekly one-on-one meetings.
His behavior at the meetings to discuss academic material and work on a publication together escalated as the semester progressed, the complaint said.
Dr. Harris, the complaint said, sent her a pornographic narrative on one occasion and once forced her against his office desk and kissed her. He once put his mouth on her breast, the complaint said, and explicitly asked her for sexual intercourse on numerous occasions.
Dr. Harris invited her to accompany him on a trip in 2015, saying that it would be professional and that they would stay in separate hotel rooms, the complaint said. But, in fact, Dr. Harris booked one room and pressed her for sexual contact.
In 2015, the woman has said, she wrote Dr. Harris an email about her concerns and began telling other professors about his conduct. Unsatisfied with their responses, she filed a formal complaint with the university in May.
Columbia’s handling of sexual misconduct accusations has come under fire before, most prominently after an undergraduate student carried a mattress around campus for a year in protest after the university cleared a man she said had raped her. In July, Columbia settled a lawsuit that the man, Paul Nungesser, had filed over the university’s treatment of him.