‘Harvard Failed Her’: University Apologizes to Scholar Who Endured Harassment
It took nearly four decades, but Terry Karl finally got her apology.
Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Harvard University, formally apologized on Thursday to Karl, a former government professor, for the university’s failure to enforce sanctions against another professor, Jorge Domínguez, whom she had reported for sexual harassment in the early 1980s. Karl left Harvard for Stanford University, where she is an emerita professor, while Domínguez stayed and allegedly continued to sexually harass women at Harvard for almost four decades,
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It took nearly four decades, but Terry Karl finally got her apology.
Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Harvard University, formally apologized on Thursday to Karl, a former government professor, for the university’s failure to enforce sanctions against another professor, Jorge Domínguez, whom she had reported for sexual harassment in the early 1980s. Karl left Harvard for Stanford University, where she is an emerita professor, while Domínguez stayed and allegedly continued to sexually harass women at Harvard for almost four decades, a 2018 Chronicle investigation found.
“Harvard failed her,” Bacow wrote in a letter that was shared on Thursday with the the university community. “She deserved better, and she and others suffered greatly as a result. I also apologize to those whose subsequent sexual harassment might have been avoided if Harvard had taken timely and appropriate actions. We all owe Dr. Karl a debt of gratitude for doing the right thing, especially when it was difficult, and for being persistent in her efforts to demand justice.”
The university also released a report of recommendations made by an external review committee that was charged with examining “factors that may inhibit Harvard’s ability” to assure “a working and teaching environment free from harassment and discrimination for all members of our community.” The recommendations include fostering greater “psychological safety,” better communicating the process for reporting misconduct, improving the gender imbalance on the faculty, expanding transparency around investigations and sanctions, and standardizing a process for vetting candidates for leadership positions.
Reached by phone at her home in San Francisco on Thursday afternoon, Karl said she had cried when she read the apology.
“Apologies mean such a great deal when an institution, a department, and a predator try to take away your dignity and your future,” she said. But she knew, she said, that most people who make such complaints don’t get that kind of response. “Make no mistake,” she said. “I am the exception.”
The apology and the report followed years of advocacy by Karl and many other women who said that Harvard had failed to protect them from someone the university knew to be a sexual harasser. After Karl reported Domínguez as harassing her repeatedly for two years, the university sanctioned him in 1983. But Karl didn’t feel that the measures taken to insulate her from Domínguez were enough, and in 1984 she left for Stanford. Domínguez rose through the ranks of the department and the university over the following decades.
In 2018, at the outset of the #MeToo movement, a Chronicle investigation found that Karl was not the only person at Harvard allegedly harassed by Domínguez. Former students, faculty members, and staff members at Harvard described misconduct dating from 1979 to 2015. Domínguez has denied making “sexual advances” and said at the time that there might have been “a terrible misinterpretation” of his behavior. Harvard put him on leave and announced an investigation. In 2019, when the investigation was complete, Domínguez’s emeritus status was revoked. The government department conducted an internal review and announced changes meant to improve its climate.
‘More Work to Do’
But there was one thing that Karl and the other women always wanted: an external investigation into the conditions that allowed this kind of abuse to go on for so long, to so many women. The report released on Thursday, written by a committee of three professors at other institutions, is meant to provide that. In his letter Bacow said he accepts the report’s recommendations, and has “asked the Title IX Office to accelerate existing plans … to amplify and expand its critical work on behalf of the university.”
“The review and the recommendations,” he wrote, “make clear that we have more work to do.”
The report emphasizes that people need to feel comfortable coming forward about misconduct. It noted that several people whom the committee members interviewed said they had not reported harassment because they did not have confidence in the reporting procedures. “Many interviewees described the overwhelming fear created by power hierarchies in the government department,” the report said. The committee recommended that the university improve how it educates the Harvard community about making reports, and said the government department should hire more women to fix a gender imbalance. (In 2019 the department’s faculty was 31 percent female, which the report said was on par with its peers.)
The report confirmed that Harvard did have a record of other disclosures about Domínguez, but that the university had failed to act on them even though one of the professor’s sanctions had been that a second offense could trigger his firing. Those sanctions were kept private. The report recommended against keeping sanctions confidential, except those stemming from minor incidents, and said the university should do a better job of monitoring employees with past infractions.
Another issue that the report highlighted: Disclosures were made about Domínguez to different offices, many years apart. The university should ensure that all disclosures about employees are received in a central location, the report said. It described a searchable system for maintaining personnel records.
The university should create a standardized process for vetting candidates for leadership positions, the report said. The process should apply to people entering the university as well as leaving it for other institutions.
The report also praised the university. Harvard’s treatment of Karl’s complaint in 1983 was appropriate for its time, he report said, but the sanctions the dean issued then were not enforced because they were not public. Harvard’s handling of the 2018 investigation “may reflect how the university has evolved in the past decades.”
Karl said that she was personally gratified by Bacow’s apology, which he emailed to her. But she said that the work of holding universities accountable for the sexual harassment they’ve allowed to happen has just begun.
“This is not what usually occurs,” she said. She has heard from many women, especially in the last three years, about egregious sexual misconduct. “As much as this apology means to me personally, I fear that the changes that need to be made to redress systematic harassment at Harvard and other universities still lie in the future.”
She said she was grateful to everyone who had stood by her — for almost 40 years to the day — especially the women who came forward in 2017 and 2018 to share their stories.