Life

Why This Week’s Open-Letter Battle at Harvard Turned Into Such a Spectacular Mess

When 90 percent of signatories ask for backsies, you know your letter was a bad idea.

A building at Harvard and a hand holding a pen as if to write a letter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images and ipuwado/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Last Friday, the Harvard Crimson reported that 38 faculty members, many distinguished and tenured, had signed an open letter in defense of the anthropologist John Comaroff, a Harvard professor sanctioned for violating universitywide policies on sexual harassment and professional conduct. The letter signers, including heavy hitters like the historian Jill Lepore and the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, excoriated Harvard officials for running two investigations (a formal Title IX process as well as a separate inquiry run by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences), as well as for punishing Comaroff at all. As the faculty signatories understood it, what Comaroff stood accused of—warning a female graduate student that she would likely be raped when traveling in Africa—seemed like reasonable advice for advisers to give vulnerable students. They worried about their own exposure. They called Comaroff “an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen.”

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The letter’s aftermath has been astonishing and severe. Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, warned the alarmed faculty members that they didn’t have all the facts about the case. On Twitter, other scholars—at Harvard and elsewhere—met the news of the letter’s publication with shock and dismay. That confusion exploded into rage when, on Tuesday, the New York Times reported that three female graduate students had filed a lawsuit detailing claims about years of sexual harassment by Comaroff, as well as Harvard’s ongoing negligence. (The complaint is grim reading; one nightmarish passage alleges that the university obtained one female student’s private therapy records without her consent before sharing them with Comaroff.) Late on Tuesday, 73 different Harvard professors published an open counter-letter, pointing out that their colleagues, by happily accepting the story spun by Comaroff’s defense lawyers, were siding against students and implying that their complaints of abuse had been fabricated. As of this writing, 34 of the original 38 signatories have retracted their names from the letter that began it all.

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Dueling open letters among colleagues are rare, and the retraction of names is even rarer. But open letters, the modern origins of which are usually attributed to the French novelist Émile Zola (and his famous 1898 letter “J’Accuse…!”), have become one of the simplest and most common forms of public action for today’s scholars and intellectuals. Some are, indeed, about closing ranks behind powerful friends. But most of them are more generous and well-intentioned, a sort of earnest civic reflex. There are too many recent examples to count.

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Yet not all of them are made equal. Some open letters vanish without a trace. Others land dramatically, and we end up talking about them for months. The difference, of course, has to do with power: how clearly it’s understood and how effectively it’s wielded. That first Harvard letter made an awful splash, but not because it worked so beautifully—rather, the reverse. In this, despite its cramped focus on the fate of a single anthropologist, it has much in common with academic open letters more broadly. Meant to demonstrate authority and influence, this century’s grandest open letters more frequently reveal their absence. The emperor’s clothes are long gone.

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It feels as though we have been awash in open letters since 2016 or so, when Trump and the Brexiteers won, and democracy began to seem fragile. Many of these letters have been authored by scholars and intellectuals in a noble attempt to call attention to the dire state of our civic institutions. These days, open letters are typically warnings. Historians and political scientists have been especially prolific, adding their names to missives about the filibuster, impeachment, European values, American democracy, and the danger of a new authoritarianism. Open letters like these, addressing national and global audiences, arrive with good intentions and are written with both urgency and care. They’re often circulated among colleagues on Twitter and appear in friendly outlets like the New York Times, the New Republic, or the Guardian. These are honest attempts to bring expert knowledge to bear on our current situation.

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They have also largely failed. The expertise has gone unheeded. Trump wasn’t convicted, the filibuster lives, the fascist right gets scarier, and voters keep voting for Republicans. I don’t mean to be unkind, to suggest that it isn’t worth speaking up together with others, or that clear statements of principle aren’t worth making. It is, and they are. But open letters have such a dismal 21st-century track record that it’s useful to understand why they often amount to so little, even as we continue to write them.

Consider a different letter. In July 2020, to considerable commotion, Harper’s published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” in which an ideologically mixed group of writers and academics defended liberal freedoms and denounced cultural censoriousness. It’s not hard to see that the Harper’s letter worked. Although this may not have been what all its signatories intended (perhaps only the organizers), the letter refocused media attention on supposed left-wing excesses and supercharged an overdone national debate about “cancel culture.” It reinforced a journalistic frame in which what college students do online or on their privileged campuses matters more than the actions of a president, helping tug public discourse further to the right.

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Open letters are a more curious and taxing genre than they first appear. They’re not mere vehicles for the ideas they explain or endorse. If that were true, letter authors might write an op-ed instead: just as nimble, just as public. But they’re not entirely about strength in numbers, either—that describes a petition, and produces sprawling hybrid things like the Great Barrington Declaration, a statement against tough COVID-19 mitigation measures that boasts more than 925,000 signatures from a small roster of public health experts and many more ordinary citizens. No, the open letter is a form of public writing that’s all about elite power, not democratic authority: collecting the right set of names, the names that matter, and putting their intellectual or institutional or personal clout to work.

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It would be easy to argue that many academic open letters now fail because the American public sphere has atrophied and intellectual authority is collapsing. Or that they are relics from a time when expert opinion actually mattered. Or that they are better suited for other societies where thinkers and artists possess real public heft, where Habermas or Foucault are household names. Maybe these things are true.

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A salvo like the Harper’s letter, however, suggests that open letters can still work. They just require their authors to be clear-eyed about how power functions and what they are trying to achieve. We might even say that there are three kinds of clarity that distinguish the most effective open letters from the ones that disappoint. First, the signatories have a realistic understanding of their own authority and how the power they wield is perceived in the world. Second, these letters are motivated by a specific desired outcome as well as the knowledge that it can be achieved by writing together in public. Third, the best open letters have a precise sense of their audience, of who will actually be doing the reading.

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One paradox, I think, is that these three clarities are hardest to achieve when it comes to our thorniest problems, diffuse national or global challenges like democratic stability or the rule of law or climate change. But these are also the problems that make us feel most helpless as citizens and thus keen to do something, anything—even if it’s just signing an open letter. Many intellectuals and academics have come to see open letters as tools for intervening in major political debates. But it seems to me that they’re much better suited for local dilemmas within small communities and closed institutions, where names really do matter and real pressure can be exerted. Places like Harvard.

This week’s competing open letters at Harvard are quite unusual because they are, in fact, terrifically local. We know the names because they’re Harvard professors, but both letters are crafted to bring the authority of those names to bear on narrow Harvard problems: the dean’s decisions, the university’s policies, and the sanctions imposed upon one professor. Published in the Crimson, they are crafted to influence the university’s byzantine politics and its carousel of powerful personalities. (You’ve likely not read so much about another open letter written in support of Comaroff, signed by many less prominent scholars from beyond Harvard’s walls; or the one with more than 1,600 names, including many junior scholars and graduate students, that condemns the original letter from Lepore and others.)

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Why did the first Harvard letter result in such a spectacular collective face-plant? It’s not, as the critics of “cancel culture” might have it, because any talk of due process inevitably runs into the buzz saw of vindictive left-wing Twitter mob justice. It’s because it failed as an open letter. Most critically, its signatories did not see their own authority very clearly. They misunderstood how their support of Comaroff, and their status as senior scholars, would be perceived by their own students. But they appear to have been no less oblivious to how this vastly privileged wagon circling and endowed chair brandishing would be seen by academia in general, at a time when all the jobs have disappeared, and younger scholars deeply resent the senior faculty who fail to see the emergency for what it is. It’s also far from clear what the signatories hoped to achieve. Clarity from the dean about the process? A reversal of Comaroff’s (extremely mild) punishment? Explanations from the now-apologetic signatories make it somewhat hard to tell. Finally, Comaroff’s defenders entirely misread their audience. It wasn’t just Dean Claudine Gay and Title IX administrators who were reading their complaint. It was their own students, to say nothing of a wider world of peers, colleagues, and collaborators—most of whom have recoiled in horror.

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The counter-letter, evidently organized by several Harvard historians, is less splashy, but a much better model for what a good open letter can do, clear in all the ways the first one wasn’t. These signatories better understand how they are perceived by their own students as members of the Harvard faculty, and their collective goals are crystal-clear: to reassure undergraduates and early-career scholars that they will be taken seriously, and to do some serious damage control, in Cambridge and beyond. Even more, these shrewder professors recognized who would likely be reading their words. Their public statement, focused and deliberate, is doing what it was intended to do.

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Certainly, it’s the second letter that worked and the first one that backfired. But it’s the original, the vociferous public defense of Comaroff, that turns out to be most revealing. Yes, it illuminates the personal networks and relationships on which entrenched power rests, and tells us some unpleasant things about Harvard. Yet in its carelessness, it also suggests something else: about just how casual and reflexive open letters have become, and what can follow when they’re treated as easy gestures or unalloyed goods. Without clarity and purpose, you might regret signing one. Thirty-four Harvard professors already have.

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