Student Sues Columbia Over ‘Deliberate Indifference’ to Harassment Claims

On Behalf of | Oct 2, 2017 | News

In the latest instance of alleged sexual harassment by a high-profile academic, a prominent historian at Columbia University has been accused of forcing himself upon a 29-year-old female doctoral student and disparaging her to colleagues when she rebuffed him.

According to the lawsuit filed Monday in Manhattan federal court against the university and the historian, William V. Harris, 79, a scholar of Greco-Roman history, he repeatedly kissed and groped the woman while serving as her mentor at the university. When the woman, identified only as Jane Doe, reported Dr. Harris’s behavior to other professors and university officials, the complaint said, they turned a blind eye or took only superficial steps, such as telling her to remain in her office while he was nearby to avoid running into him.

The complaint also claims that the university had long been aware of Dr. Harris’s reputation for abusing his power over young, female students, but never addressed it.

“We’ve reached a point in this case that I never could have imagined, and that is largely to do with Columbia’s deliberate indifference to Professor Harris’s coercive behavior,” the plaintiff said in an interview. She is seeking compensation for the damage to her career; she withdrew from the university for an academic year because of the harassment, she said.

Dr. Harris referred a request for comment to the university. In a statement, the university said it treats any claim of harassment “with the utmost seriousness.”

Dr. Harris and the woman first met at a Columbia lecture series in the spring of 2014, when she was a second-year graduate student, according to the complaint. He offered to serve as a mentor to her, suggesting weekly one-on-one meetings.

Over the course of the semester, Dr. Harris’s behavior escalated, the complaint said — personal questions about the woman’s family turned into comments on her appearance, which turned into inappropriate physical contact. Once, Dr. Harris put his mouth on her breast, the complaint said, and several times he kissed and groped her. He is also said to have explicitly asked her for sexual intercourse.

In 2015, after the woman had written Dr. Harris an email informing him that she was no longer comfortable working with him, Dr. Harris invited her to accompany him on a trip, saying it would be strictly professional and that they would stay in separate hotel rooms. She had continued working with him out of fear of retaliation, the complaint said. But Dr. Harris booked only one room, and he pressed her for sexual contact, the complaint said.

The woman began telling professors about Dr. Harris’s conduct in spring of 2015, she said in an interview. Unsatisfied with their responses, she filed a formal complaint with the university in May of this year.

That investigation is still open, she said. But she decided to file a civil suit as well, because she had grown disillusioned with Columbia’s response.

“I felt that my hand was forced,” she said.

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; Columbia said it would review its policies.