Yesterday, Dr. William Harris, a Columbia professor of Greco-Roman history, retired, as was announced in an email to students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. This retirement was part of the settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in October. An anonymous graduate student alleged that Dr. Harris repeatedly kissed and groped her, requested sexual intercourse, and disparaged her to other members of the department when she refused. She reported his behavior to colleagues and university officials, then sued the university when she was unsatisfied with the response she received. Several other students have since come forward with similar accusations against Dr. Harris.
The lawyer representing this anonymous student claimed that this retirement is a victory, as the New York Times reported. But it is in actuality more of a formality, as Dr. Harris stepped down from teaching and student advising on October 30, after news of the lawsuit became public.
In the email announcing Dr. Harris’ retirement, GSAS Deans David Madigan and Carlos Alonso wrote that they are “deeply committed to supporting all of [their] students, protecting them from harassment of any kind, and ensuring that [their] academic community is a safe and respectful place.” But these words ring hollow when one considers the fact that Dr. Harris “continued to spend time” in the history department offices in Fayerweather after he stepped down from teaching, yet did not face any consequences from Columbia, according to Kellen Heniford, a student of this department.
“I cannot overstate what a punch in the gut it has been – what kind of literal, visceral pain it has caused – to me and to other female students to have seen Richard Harris in the physical spaces of the [history] department over the past several months,” Heniford said.
Dr. Harris was teaching an undergraduate lecture course earlier this semester, and stepped down from it along with his other academic duties on October 30. He is listed in the Columbia directory as a professor in the history department, not a graduate-specific professor. However, undergrad students were not notified of Dr. Harris’ retirement, and were generally kept in the dark about the ongoing lawsuit.
UPDATE, 3:20 pm: We have received a statement from Olga Brudastova, a PhD student in Civil Engineering and GWC Bargaining Committee Member, on behalf of the GWC-UAW union. Brudastova wrote that the way in which Columbia has handled this case “further highlight the flaws in the existing system that so often fails to protect members of the Columbia community against sexual assault and harassment.” She also expressed that the graduate student union hopes to negotiate for “stronger protections and recourse against sexual harassment,” and will do so if Columbia recognizes their vote to unionize.
Columbia’s handling of this case and the subsequent announcement of Professor Harris’ retirement further highlight the flaws in the existing system that so often fails to protect members of the Columbia community against sexual assault and harassment. The desire to negotiate for stronger protections and recourse against sexual harassment is one of the many major reasons graduate workers voted overwhelmingly for unionization.
We applaud the individuals who have come forward and hope the Columbia administration will respect our democratic vote so we can negotiate a system where graduate students will no longer feel disempowered from reporting their harassers.
PhD Student in Civil Engineering
GWC Bargaining Committee Member
Email screenshot via anonymous GSAS student source