After three graduate students filed a federal lawsuit last week alleging that Harvard ignored years of sexual harassment complaints against a powerful professor, the school’s Title IX coordinator was quick to stand up in defense of the University’s practices.
In a statement issued last week, Nicole M. Merhill, who has directed Title IX at Harvard since 2017, said the suit’s claims about the school’s investigatory processes were “extremely troubling” because of their “potential chilling effect on our community members’ confidence” in the system.
But on Friday, Merhill said it was her own statement that fostered mistrust in the system.
In a letter sent to a student group that advises Harvard’s Office for Gender Equity — which handles Title IX at the University — Merhill apologized for her statement, writing that it “has contributed to further concerns around trust.”
The lawsuit — filed by Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava — claimed that Harvard mishandled sexual harassment investigations into professor John L. Comaroff, who the suit alleged harassed and intimidated students for decades.
Comaroff, who denies the allegations, was placed on unpaid leave by Harvard last month.
The suit charged that Harvard obtained Kilburn’s private therapy records without her consent while investigating allegations that Comaroff sexually harassed her, and then provided them to Comaroff as part of a draft report. Comaroff later used the notes to claim Kilburn must have imagined the harassment because she was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder — “a condition that she developed as a direct result of his conduct,” according to the complaint.
Harvard denies the claims in the suit. Merhill issued a statement the day after the claim was filed defending its Title IX processes.
“Representations that do not describe fairly or accurately the University’s processes with regard to obtaining and maintaining material during an investigatory process are extremely troubling to me because they may have a potential chilling effect on our community members’ confidence in the investigatory process and their ability to access counseling and other resources,” Merhill wrote in her statement, sent to reporters by a school spokesperson last Wednesday.
Her remarks, which were disseminated the next day on Harvard’s social media accounts, sparked backlash online and on campus. At a rally held Monday condemning Harvard’s handling of the Comaroff case, some demonstrators took aim at Merhill.
Merhill wrote in her apology letter on Friday that the Office for Gender Equity’s Student Advisory Council “courageously raised their concerns regarding the impact” of her statement.
“At the time, Office for Gender Equity (OGE) staff, as well as many others across the University, were hearing from community members about their concerns about the confidential nature of their health and mental health records,” Merhill wrote on Friday. “My intention was to assure our community members that they could safely continue to access community resources.
“I’ve since learned, however, that my statement has contributed to further concerns around trust and for that I want to apologize,” she wrote.
Harvard says that its Office for Dispute Resolution, which investigates sexual misconduct claims, does not obtain information from a person’s medical provider without their consent. All documents obtained during an ODR investigation are shared with both sides — a policy the school says all parties to a dispute are made aware of throughout the process.
Russell Kornblith, a lawyer who represents the three graduate students suing Harvard, took aim at the school in a statement Friday evening.
“Harvard must respect the importance of that provider-patient relationship and should encourage survivors to seek help where necessary,” he wrote. “Harvard’s equivocation on its handling of mental health treatment records unfortunately suggests something less than a full commitment to acting in the best interests of survivors.”
—Staff writer Anjeli R. Macaranas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.