Columbia University Title IX Lawsuit

Case name: Jane Doe v. The Trustees of Columbia University and William V. Harris

Case type: Discrimination and Harassment

Filed in: [U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York]

Case no.: 1:17-cv-07498-AT

Case Summary

On October 2, 2017, Sanford Heisler Sharp filed a sexual harassment lawsuit on behalf of a 29-year-old student, Plaintiff Jane Doe, against the Trustees of Columbia University and a noted history professor at the school, William V. Harris.

The Complaint alleged that in 2014, the then-75-year-old Prof. Harris began sexually harassing the then-26-year-old Ms. Doe, a Ph.D. student. For the next two years, he regularly pressured her for inappropriate and unwanted sexual contact, both on and off-campus.

According to the Complaint, this behavior included sexual groping; pressing his mouth on Ms. Doe’s breast; and repeatedly kissing her in his office, along with frequently pressuring her to have sexual intercourse.

Prof. Harris was a renowned Greco-Roman scholar and longtime director of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean, a well-regarded interdisciplinary center of the institution. The Complaint alleged that the university had been aware of his abusive behavior toward women for a long time without taking any action.

When Ms. Doe rejected his inappropriate advances, Prof. Harris retaliated by disparaging her professionalism to his colleagues and her fellow graduate students, the Complaint alleged. Ms. Doe’s mounting trauma ultimately resulted in her withdrawal from Columbia for the 2015-2016 academic year to seek counseling, according to the Complaint. When she returned to her studies, the Complaint alleged, Ms. Doe reported Prof. Harris’ harassment to multiple faculty members, but no efforts were made to protect her. When the Plaintiff notified Columbia’s Title IX Coordinator and requested accommodations be made for the 2017-2018 academic that would enable her to participate fully in completing her doctoral program, the University’s inaction regarding Prof. Harris subjected her to a hostile work environment, depriving her of the use of the academic and professional resources to which she was entitled, the Complaint further alleged.

The Complaint alleged violations of Title IX as well as the New York City Human Rights Law. Additionally, the Complaint alleged negligent supervision and retention of Prof. William V. Harris; and that Harris owed Ms. Doe a duty of care, which he breached by negligent infliction of emotional distress through sexual harassment.

Shortly after the filing of the lawsuit, Columbia announced that Prof. Harris would voluntarily step down from his position. The matter was subsequently resolved.