A veteran professor of Greco-Roman history at Columbia University has withdrawn from teaching and other student-related activities in the wake of allegations that he exploited his position of power to sexually harass women for decades. He nevertheless remains employed by the university.
Professor William V. Harris, 79, is accused in a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month of sexually harassing one doctoral student in particular for several years, ultimately disparaging her within her academic circle.
The news of Harris's withdrawal came in a Monday evening email to graduate students and faculty in History, Classics and Classical Studies, according to a redacted version supplied to Gothamist.
"Earlier today, students enrolled in Professor William Harris's classes were told that he has agreed with the University to withdraw from his teaching, advising and other student-related activities," it states. "We share this information more broadly with you to clarify what has been a subject of considerable discussion and concern. We also want to take this opportunity to reiterate that Columbia must be a place where students and scholars are able to purse [sic] their academic work free from worry about harassment of any sort."
The email was signed by David B. Madigan, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Carlos J. Alonso, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Reached by email, Harris declined to comment.
“Professor Harris remains an employee of the University," a university spokesperson said. "We do not comment on personnel matters and have nothing further to add beyond what already has been communicated to our students and faculty."
The federal suit alleges that Harris began asking the anonymous 29-year-old plaintiff personal questions shortly after meeting her in the spring of 2014. He also "ingratiated himself as a trusted confidant" as he learned about her father's suicide, among other things. That same spring he started telling her frequently that she was attractive, to which she responded that she felt uncomfortable.
Harris allegedly made physical advances that spring and on through 2015, leaving the woman "emotionally traumatized," according to the suit. Once, Harris allegedly forced her against a desk and kissed her, another time putting his mouth on her breast "suddenly, and without warning." He also allegedly asked her for sex, which she refused, and allegedly sent her a pornographic email.
This past summer, the plaintiff allegedly contacted Columbia's Title IX Coordinator, Associate Vice President Marjory Fisher, and asked that Harris not be allowed to enter her department building. Harris was subsequently scheduled to teach twice a week in the building, according to the suit.
The lawsuit accuses Columbia of gender-based discrimination violating the NYC Human Rights Law and Title IX. Harris is accused of "negligent infliction of emotional distress."
"We are glad that Columbia has done the right thing," the plaintiff's attorney, David Sanford, told Gothamist. "The problem is, it took Columbia 30 years to do the right thing, and that's part of what the case is about."
"I think we are at a cultural tipping point, and I think that tipping point is in part evidenced by what Columbia did," Sanford said. "I think Columbia understands the cultural moment, but again it's a cultural moment years too late."