On October 7, 1983, two other Harvard undergraduates and I published a letter in The Harvard Crimson condemning the University’s public silence about a sexual harassment complaint brought against Professor Jorge I. Dominguez, a prominent academic in Harvard’s Government Department. A young professor at Harvard, Terry Lynn Karl, alleged that Dominguez had repeatedly subjected her to unwanted sexual advances. The university found Dominguez guilty of serious misconduct but gave him only a “slap on the wrist,” allowing his continued academic rise. Meanwhile, it said nothing publicly about the matter.
Our letter to The Crimson was ignored. Harvard did next to nothing to protect students and professors from Dominguez (in the intervening decades, many more women would be harassed by him), while going to great lengths to protect the reputation of both the university and the harasser it employed, while silencing critics. Among other things, I was hauled into the Government Department that I belonged to and threatened with legal action for my public statements. Looking back, it was a deeply disturbing attempt to intimidate a 21-year-old student, who was dependent on his department for academic success, into silence.
After graduating from Harvard that spring, I moved on, turning my attention and voice to other social justice causes. The Dominguez case left a bitter taste in my mouth, even more so because Professor Karl had been my mentor and thesis advisor. At the time, I felt our student advocacy had been for naught. Although Harvard made a huge difference in my life, opening up opportunities that otherwise would not have been available to me given where I grew up, I could never feel proud about my alma mater. I declined all requests to make alum gifts and refused to join the Harvard Club. As my work on LGBTQ rights gradually gained attention and I was invited to speak at Harvard, I did so only hesitantly and with decidedly mixed feelings, even decades later.
Meanwhile, Jorge Dominguez continued rising in the ranks at Harvard, with the university promoting him to positions of greater and greater responsibility. (Professor Karl left Harvard shortly after filing her harassment claim and went to Stanford, where she gained tenure and went on to a storied career as an academic and human rights advocate.)
In the months since the #MeToo movement emerged, I’ve often thought about my exposure to the politics of sexual harassment as a young man and wondered how much damage was caused by Harvard’s decision to elevate its reputation and that of Jorge Dominguez over the University’s responsibility to respond effectively to sexual harassment. I got my answer two weeks ago, when I read an extensive feature story in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In that story, Professor Karl bravely stepped out to talk about her harassment by Jorge Dominguez in the 1980s, and how little Harvard did about it. In the initial Chronicle story, nine additional women stepped forward to reveal their own experiences of harassment by Dominguez in the years since Professor Karl’s case. Later that week, another nine women went public with their own Dominguez stories. Several of the nearly 20 women had complained to Harvard officials; as in Professor Karl’s case, the university did little.
In the weeks since the Chronicle story was published, Harvard suddenly took action and spoke publicly about the allegations. Dominguez has been forced into early retirement and removed from campus, while a full investigation has been promised. While the letter my fellow students and I wrote in the 1980s never got a response, Harvard’s president quickly responded to a letter signed by hundreds of students and alums in the wake of the Chronicle story, declaring the university’s commitment to tackling sexual harassment on campus in a robust way.
I have to confess a certain degree of cynicism about Harvard suddenly “seeing the light” when it comes to sexual harassment, but only after the university’s inaction and enabling has been subjected to the harsh glare of publicity. To me, expressions of shock by Harvard’s leadership at Dominguez’s harassment of so many students and professors ring hollow given that several women were brave enough to complain to the university over the years, only to have nothing come of it other than the university’s continued promotion of Dominguez.
At the same time, I see the Harvard-Dominguez saga of sexual harassment ignored and enabled, and the eventual public reckoning, as a reminder of the importance of speaking out regardless of the odds, and never giving up regardless of how long it takes. The bravery of Terry Karl in the 1980s, and her willingness to step forward again in 2018, is a testament to the kind of resilience that creates social change. The letter my fellow students and I sent to the Harvard Crimson in 1983 seemed like “spitting into the wind” back then, but decades later helped to create the paper trail that reveals Harvard’s current admissions of shock and disbelief for the hollow statements they are, and counsels continued pushing of the university.
These days, I spend my time surrounded by LGBT elders who stood out and spoke up for their rights and humanity decades ago, when it often seemed hopeless. Today, in these darkest of political times, I sometimes wonder what makes these fierce elders, now in their 70s and 80s and 90s, get up at the crack of dawn to board a bus for the next protest march. What keeps them in the resistance to the evils of Trumpism? What stops them from giving up? Reading Terry Karl’s story recently, and looking at the contrasting pictures of her as a hopeful 28-year-old junior professor at Harvard in the early 1980s and as a determined elder stateswoman holding Harvard to account today, reminds me of why our elders stay with the fight year in and year out.
None of us can know how many decades of speaking out will be required to right a wrong, how many hairs must turn gray, how many years of wisdom must accumulate, how many talented individuals must remain thwarted — unable or unwilling to lift themselves from the burden of harassment to the place they rightfully belong. But our elders — from Terry Karl to Edie Windsor to Angela Blackwell — know that we must keep fighting. We must remain resilient, knowing that the actions of each of us, no matter how large or small, no matter how recent or long ago — eventually help bend the moral arc of the universe a little more toward justice.
MICHAEL ADAMS is the CEO of SAGE, the country's largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults.