National News

Columbia Professor Retires in Settlement of Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Posted December 18, 2017 11:39 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Dr. William V. Harris, a renowned Greco-Roman historian and longtime professor at Columbia University, retired on Monday as part of the settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit.

The retirement, which Columbia announced in an email to students and faculty members on Monday afternoon, came nearly three months after an anonymous graduate student filed a lawsuit against Harris alleging that he had kissed and groped her repeatedly while he was her academic mentor, and then disparaged her to colleagues when she rebuffed his advances. The student, identified only as Jane Doe, also sued the university for what she called its “deliberate indifference” to her complaints about him.

After the lawsuit was filed on Oct. 2, Harris wrote in an email to The New York Times that he had no comment and referred a reporter to Columbia’s lawyers. Neither Harris nor his lawyer returned requests for comment on Monday evening.

The terms of the settlement were not immediately known.

In a statement, David Sanford, Jane Doe’s lawyer, called the settlement “excellent.”

“Columbia is now a safer institution because of Jane Doe’s courage,” he said. “Jane Doe can proceed in life knowing she made a material difference in one of the premier institutions of higher education and meaningfully participated in a cultural moment of significance for all Americans.”

The retirement was something of a formality: Harris, 79, stepped down from teaching and other student-related duties at the end of October. The university said at the time that Harris had agreed to the move.

In the weeks after the lawsuit was filed, several other women came forward with their own stories alleging harassment by Harris over the decades. Like Jane Doe, they suggested that Harris’ behavior had been an open secret within the department. And, like Jane Doe, they said they felt powerless in the face of his prestige and influence within the field.

In the wake of the announcement, current graduate students at Columbia took to social media to demand more information about the settlement, in particular whether Harris had received a severance package.

Kellen Heniford, a graduate student in the history department, said she found the seeming gentleness and slowness of the outcome galling.

“He shouldn’t get to retire,” she said in an interview. “He should be fired. He shouldn’t have been in the department as he has been for the last several months.”

Heniford said she had also been frustrated by professors’ and administrators’ responses to the revelations of Harris’ behavior over the years. Heniford, who works as on gender and sexual respect issues as part of the history department’s graduate student association, said she had spoken to some senior faculty members who seemed eager to dismiss Harris as an aberration.

“The fact that he’s stepping down is welcome, but it’s not enough and it certainly doesn’t change the culture that allowed him to thrive and continue to abuse his graduate students over the course of decades,” Heniford said.

“There is a fervent desire to view this as an isolated instance rather than symptomatic of a culture that deprecates women and doesn’t take the concerns seriously.”