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Prominent Harvard Scholar Faces Decades Of Sexual Misconduct Allegations

Terry Karl was a rising star when she arrived at Harvard University in 1981 as an assistant professor. Her mentor was Jorge Domínguez, a senior Latin American scholar. Karl says she fought off his sexual harassment, and then reported him.

Harvard found Dominguez guilty of “serious misconduct,” but he was allowed to stay. Karl eventually left for Stanford University. Then, she heard from other women.

Chronicle of Higher Education reporters Nell Gluckman (@nellgluckman) and Tom Bartlett (@tebartl) tell the story in a recent investigation, and join Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about Karl’s case.

Domínguez will retire from his administrative roles and leave teaching at the end of the semester, the university confirmed Tuesday.

Interview Highlights

On Karl’s allegations against Domínguez

Tom Bartlett: “I mean he did kiss her. He, according to Terry, groped her, he propositioned her. This took place over two years, and according to Terry was constant and relentless, and really made her time at Harvard just almost impossible to deal with.”

On Domínguez holding a position of power at the university

Nell Gluckman: “He was the person [Karl] was paired with. He could have potentially reviewed her books, determined whether she got promoted, determined eventually whether she got tenured. So yeah, she did interpret that as threatening.”

TB: “When Terry got there in 1981, he was a tenured professor of government. He was on the boards of many journals, and then continued to move up at Harvard into higher administrative places. And for Terry he was also, since he was a Latin Americanist and she was a Latin Americanist, he was sort of her natural mentor.”

On how Domínguez cast the allegations during their reporting

NG: “When we spoke to him, he wasn’t able to comment on Karl’s accusations. When we asked him about the later accusations that we learned about, he cast the whole thing as a misunderstanding. And from what we heard from other people who spoke to him at the time, that was similar to things that he said to them about the Karl case.”

On Domínguez casting Karl’s allegations as an affair gone sour

TB: “That’s certainly what we heard from students that [Karl and Domínguez] shared in common. And that was one of Terry’s concerns. She felt that the process at Harvard was not transparent, and while they found him guilty of serious misconduct, the details remained private, and so that allowed him to talk about this in whatever way he wished to talk about it, and she worried about her reputation moving forward.”

On other women who’ve come forward

TB: “I mean some of their experiences mirrored what happened with Terry Karl. One thing to note is the women we’ve spoken to, they include fellow professors, graduate students, undergraduate students, staff members. And they talk about a range of experiences, from being suddenly kissed, from being touched in ways that are inappropriate, from constant unwanted attention, flirtatious emails. It’s a range of behavior, and a lot of their stories also share a real similarity, where they first see Domínguez as a mentor and as someone who can be helpful to them, and then things turn uncomfortable.”

On Karl’s concerns about her academic career after making allegations against Domínguez

TB: “Terry goes on to have this really just amazing career at Stanford. But there’s a moment there where she leaves Harvard where she’s not sure her academic career is going to continue. There are whispers of scandal that are going to follow her. Leaving Harvard is … for anyone, going to Harvard would be a dream job. But she’s convinced that she can’t stay. She really sees Domínguez as a threat, and she doesn’t believe the university is going to protect her.”

NG: “She still was in meetings with him. He was still on campus. So she still felt his presence.”

On Harvard’s response to the allegations over the course of their reporting

TB: “They say that they dealt with this back in the ’80s. They will certainly acknowledge that we’ve had a big culture change from 1983 to now, obviously, and that they dealt with this sort of as best they could in that era. At the time in private letters to Terry, they acknowledged that this was misconduct, that this was horrible, that they are very upset this has ever happened. And while Terry appreciated the acknowledgement, she felt that they weren’t actually following through and protecting her, and actually doing something to stop this.”

On the question of how many other women had similar experiences

TB: “I mean I think that’s one of the larger takeaways from this story for us, is thinking about reporting procedures. There were women who for decades, in various ways, were speaking out. They were speaking at the higher-ups — they were talking to counselors, they were talking to advisers, they were talking to deans. And in many cases they felt that they weren’t being heard and those complaints weren’t going beyond that conversation.”

On whether there’s a sense these allegations represent more than just one professor or university

TB: “I think there are women who would say yes, it definitely does. And I think one of the reasons — and one of the reasons we wanted to focus on Terry Karl’s case — is because it’s Harvard, and other universities look to Harvard. Harvard sort of thinks of itself as ‘America’s university,’ and as this real brand name and this iconic place. And so what happens there sort of has meaning beyond just that institution.”

On those who have defended Domínguez

NG: “We’ve talked to people who thought he was a fantastic teacher and a fantastic mentor. And that’s one of the sad things about this, because some of the women that we spoke to for this story also found him to be those things, but they felt like they were denied access to his classes, to research projects that he might have been a part of, because they felt they needed to avoid him.”

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