Harvard has been all over academic twitter lately….and for all the wrong reasons. John Comaroff, a famed anthropologist and expert on South Africa has been accused of verbal and sexual harassment. Three women have now filed a lawsuit against Harvard for ignoring these allegations for years. Meanwhile, academics at the Ivy-league are split. 38 faculty members signed an open letter questioning the internal investigations and claiming “John Comaroff to be an excellent colleague, advisor and committed university citizen who has for five decades trained and advised hundreds of Ph.D. students of diverse backgrounds”. In response, 73 faculty members wrote a letter asking the university to better protect its students and calling into question the existing redressal mechanisms. One of Comaroff’s lawyers claims that Harvard’s internal investigations did not support accusations of unwanted sexual contact. Meanwhile, a student has openly stated that when she approached Title IX officer to raise a complaint against him, “it was met with predictable indifference” and that the Title IX officer guessed who she was talking about before she even mentioned Comaroff’s name. Now whether Harvard faithfully conducted the investigation or not can only be speculated with limited public information. In the meantime, the debate has now redirected towards whether a comment made by him on “corrective rape” while warning a student about the perils of fieldwork is appropriate or not. While I’m all for debating the ethics of supervisor-supervisee boundaries, did we just completely forget the numerous allegations of sexual assault brought on by several students in the past against him? How did we simply accept an internal investigation’s result (which is rife with bureaucracy and conflict of interest) as the truth? How can professors in support discount crucial contextual information and derail the debate by clinging on to the low-hanging fruit of the “comment”?

I’m not here to debate Comaroff’s (or any other accused academic’s) character or go into a tirade on morality. Rather, what I’m deeply concerned about is that this case highlights a deep, dark and safely buried secret within academia: the impunity of star-power academics.

Personally, I have nothing against famous (star-powered) academics. Not only have I had the privilege of meeting some of the “disciplinary superstars” in my graduate school journey, but I continue to look up to many of them for inspiration and mentorship. Academics are wonderfully smart people and the majority don’t worry me. Who worry me are the deviant savants, a subset of academics who achieve this star-power status and subsequently gain an institutional shield so powerful that they feel emboldened enough to brazenly exploit and harass less-powerful researchers. The scariest aspect (atleast for me as a young, female, brown PhD student) is that these deviants are notoriously difficult to spot in early interactions. Their h-index, papers, academic awards and famed lectures all seem to mask, or worse bury, their terrifying behavior which wreaks havoc only behind closed-doors.

Taking a step back, one could argue that professors who have weathered allegations of sexual harassment are simply “bad apples”. Maybe some academics are ingenious people, but with terrible intentions, just like anywhere else. While I concur with this idea, I’m personally enraged by the fact that university administrations don’t simply let such bad apples get away but do even lesser to protect the very students who are responsible for the institution’s existence. Universities often resort to the classic “radio silence” approach, opaque internal investigations, or the evergreen “we’re reworking our sexual harassment policies” narrative. While universities may shun firing accused professors over loss of professional/academic networks, reputational concerns, or the fear of perturbing donors, can any of these reasons even remotely justify the trauma faced by a student? The institutional shield which is supposed to protect students is instead protecting their famed deviant savants.

But how pervasive is the problem of sexual harassment in academia, you may ask? Previous studies have shown that the prevalence of sexual harassment in US academia stands at 58% (as of 2003), only second to the military’s 69%. Furthermore, women of colour experience particularly high rates of harassment, as do people from sexual minority groups. A study at the University of Texas campus showed that 20% of female science students reported being sexually harassed. A similar survey of the Pennsylvania State University system concluded that 43% of graduate students experienced harassment. Need more proof? See this comprehensive report from 2018. All of this before we account for the fact that reporting rates for harassment are already skewed.  

So why are universities notoriously choosing to minimize or ignore harassing behavior, especially when it involves higher-ranking faculty members? The broader academic system is to blame. Academia is characterized by a tight job market where hundreds of qualified PhDs apply for one academic position, where a small proportion of women and people of color are in faculty positions, and where your advisor can open (or conversely close) doors that can make or break your career. Such a lopsided system breeds a culture of strong power asymmetries that provides little agency to students/early career researchers.  

So what can you or I do? The issue is clearly pervasive and entrenched in a sticky institutional culture, which actively protects powerful academics, let alone harbinger change. I’m nobody to tell anyone what to do, but I present below some rudimentary ideas…

If you’re a student/young researcher:

Think about who you cite and how you form your opinion about a “respected” academic. When I first moved to Europe in 2020, I was bombarded with Foucault’s theories in every foundational class. Naturally, my immediate mental image was of him as this famed French philosopher who revolutionized social sciences. Months later, I came across articles which claimed he allegedly sexually abused young Tunisian children. I was shocked that academics in my institution were barely discussing, what in my mind, was a disturbing revelation. Now, I cannot get myself to cite theories about sexuality and power from a man who allegedly took advantage of children in a former colony. Maybe your approach is different, but my two cents is to form your own opinions about “revered” academics. Who your professor or friend admires need not automatically earn your respect.

If you’re a professor:

Please present to us (the students) the entire picture of academics whose theories we religiously dissect. I do not mean nitpicking every small detail of their personal life, but mention (atleast in passing) if they were subject to any major allegations. Often, your words and lectures are our first gateway into the works and lives of these academics. So, the more holistic your picture, the better and more easily we can inform ourselves and form our own opinions.

If you’re a university administrator:

Please inform incoming students (especially PhD advisees) about how to spot different forms of harassment (be it sexism, micro aggression or racism) and report them. The more I interact with people on this issue, the more apparent it becomes that basic concepts are obfuscated and brushed under the carpet as “grey” areas. Consent and power dynamics should have no greys. Professors and students need to be informed and trained alike in this regard. Educational institutions should have explicit and transparent policies on sexual harassment, redressal/investigation mechanisms and declaring (or condemning) romantic relationships between a student and professor. If a policy or rule isn’t explicit, it doesn’t exist.

This is simply the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, there are heaps of brilliant suggestions I may have not thought of, so please feel free to share them widely. The underlying point I’m making is: Yes, academia does a poor job of dealing with sexual harassment. Yes, it is systematically set up to protect deviants at the risk of endangering and traumatizing students. But you can still do something about it in your own small way.

The lawsuit against Harvard will hopefully serve as a grim reminder to all academic institutions alike that deviants do not warrant institutional shields. If we indeed believe that knowledge is power, let’s rethink whether this power demands checks and balances.


I recently rewatched Renee Bach’s controversial interview from 2019. Bach ran a charity in Uganda called “Serving His Children” and atleast 105 children died in the charity’s. She was accused of treating malnourished children without any formal medical training. A lawsuit was brought against her in Ugandan civil court and activists launched a #NoWhiteSaviors campaign on social media claiming it to be a textbook case of privileged white people trying to “save” Africa. In 2020, an agreement was reached and Bach agreed to pay $9,500 each to the mothers, with no admission of liability.

A few days later, I came across an article about Oxfam facing new allegations of sexual exploitation in the DRC. It brought me back to Oxfam’s 2018 scandal where several employees, including the Country Director were accused of hiring prostitutes while working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The multi-million-dollar organization didn’t simply cover up the Haiti investigations but allowed the Director (who was also accused of heading the 2006 operations in Chad where similar incidents occurred) to simply resign before the investigations concluded. Later, WHO came under fire for failing to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response.

As someone actively involved in this sector and belonging to a country which continues to be a hotbed for aid activities, these incidents trouble me deeply. Aid organizations/charities/philanthropies are failing to live up to core human values that they espouse. What makes it worse is that the staff, who are in-charge of materializing these values through their work, are often caught perpetrating these crimes. But why? Clearly there are deeper issues at play, because “bad apples” cannot account for the scale or frequency of such horrific indents.

I have 2 hunches. The first is the rather obvious and well-acknowledged fact that aid structures are often discriminatory, privilege western institutions and people while producing chronic outcomes for people of color worldwide. In this context is the growing call to “decolonize aid”, which is critical for any meaningful reform.

My second hunch takes this idea a bit deeper into the realm of “intentions”. Now, most aid workers enter the sector with the best intentions. Afterall, the workhours are unforgiving, personal sacrifices are monumental, and depending on the location, there is intense stress and trauma that one must deal with. But do good intentions also imply non-racist intentions? I can be a good person who wants to better the world and still view participants of an aid intervention that I’m leading in say South Sudan as somehow “lesser”. The aid sector currently does not distinguish (or even acknowledge) this distinction between “my intent to help” and “my intent to help because I know/am better”. In my opinion, this is the colossal ideological battle that aid organizations are up against.

But what can be done? Instead of scrambling to fix actions of astray staff, I think it might be smarter for aid organizations to simply hire better (I.e don’t hire racists, bigots, people who have limited sense of their privilege and/or show predisposition to exploit). Again, how do we do that? We can’t simply ask jargon-loving, social science graduates whether or not they are paternalistic…

Some preliminary suggestions (for aid organizations) include:

  • Institutionalize implicit bias testing during the interview processes
  • Try to gauge how individuals would react in tough situations by mimicking on-the-job dilemmas of aid workers
  • Transition from network-driven hiring to merit driven processes by following through on open calls for applications
  • Do not fall prey to tokenistic gestures of diversity (just hiring some people of color won’t automatically translate to diversity in thought, more steps are needed…)
  • Have a higher threshold for who can volunteer and/or join the aid sector. This need not be an entry criteria purely based on educational accomplishments or past experience, but it needs to be deeper (while I’m not sure what this finished criteria could look like, it’s an interesting thought experiment!)
  • Most importantly, where jobs can be carried out by local staff, do not bring in “expats” or “external experts”

While being critical of the pitfalls of the aid system, I must acknowledge that I have benefited enormously from the very same structures. Maybe there exist even deeper layers of “intent” to unveil….


First and foremost, I hope everyone has been keeping safe through these difficult times! While the COVID pandemic has exposed colossal systemic vulnerabilities, I sincerely hope we can continue practicing compassion and empathy to collectively move forward. Please reach out if I can be of any assistance.

Now on to the blog post…

After spending a little over 2 years in M&E (monitoring and evaluation) practice in different parts of Africa, I moved to Geneva last fall to commence my doctoral degree. This move felt akin to starting a new chapter in my life, not just geographically, but also emotionally and intellectually. I was no longer surrounded by a group of friendly aid workers who understood the thrills of having one extra hour of electricity or finding that one new item in the market which made you feel a little closer to home. When in the “field” (which is a problematic term in itself, but we’ll get to that another time), the lifeworld of aid workers and the collective goal of creating incremental change through one’s work brings them together.

But getting out of the “aid world” and re-integrating into a western, academic setting poses some unexpected challenges. On the emotional front, I think a lot of it comes down to how my own identity has evolved over time. In hindsight, I feel that the 2 years I spent working and travelling in Africa were a deeply transformative part of my life. My confidence grew multifold, I learnt to seek comfort in starkly different places, confronted tough questions about my own privilege, learnt a great deal about my mental health and saw the world through a slightly different lens. But verbalizing all of this and more becomes difficult. For starters, I’m never sure if the listener is interested or even cares about any of this. While some take profound interest in my experiences, for others, it is a simply another data point. Afterall, there is no incentive to take a particular interest in what happens in a rather ignored part of the world or a person who chooses to spend time there….

On the intellectual front, it has been interesting to channelize work experience to develop a research topic. Essentially, academia values practical experiences in so far you can use them to answer a “puzzle”. However, the process of putting together these puzzle pieces seems to prioritize literature and theories over real-world experience, which I find quite unsettling. For instance, for every research idea that I pitch to academics which is rooted in past experiences, I am recommended literature to read. While I love reading, it has been frustrating on two levels. One, I never seem to know enough about the literature, philosophers or concepts, which makes me feel like I’m speaking some parochial language of the commoners. Two, while I have deep respect for academics, I am disillusioned by how they take a brazen approach of operating within their privileged and astute siloes without considering policy impact or the real world. Also, the high entry barrier in academia (in terms of knowing jargons, networking and learning to name-drop philosophers or concepts) often makes one feel like practical experiences have little value in this space. 

While foraying from practice to patios has been slightly challenging, it has also been rewarding. Afterall, the world needs more generalists who can shuttle between the worlds of academia and practice and mesh the best of both to create meaningful change….


I’m 24, Indian, relatively privileged and a proud feminist. On women’s day, after tuning in to a panel on gender equality in India, I couldn’t help but reflect why the discussion left me so unsettled. Feminism has meant different things to me in every juncture of life. While studying, it was a prism to reflect on my younger self and confront problematic thoughts and the structures which perpetuated them. While working in the humanitarian sector, it was a lens to defy the narrative of elites and understand power at its core. Now as a doctoral student, I can question who creates the knowledge we know, for who, and how it is gendered.  

While we have made some progress in terms of right to work, vote and equal pay, I feel unsettled because I (and perhaps several other women) constantly negotiate between working towards the lofty ideals while giving in to the “practical”. Reflecting back, there are times when I have called people out for distasteful jokes on women, while simultaneously not contradicting close family members who perpetuate gender roles or even participating in highly gendered rituals. As a champion of women uplifting other women, I’m also guilty of feeling proud as the sole woman on the table. There are countless examples like these. I wonder if in this constant process of picking one’s battles and negotiating the “practical”, we are diluting the ideals we work towards. Afterall, why do some practical concerns such as job security, respecting cultural boundaries or personal relations have to be at odds with feminist goals and why is it that women are having to negotiate them constantly?  

In our fuzzy middle ground where we pick and choose our battles while working towards the goals of equality, I wonder who this middle ground caters to, whose story does it tell and how. For instance, is ours a middle ground that will treat men who help in care-giving as the laudable “exceptions” OR will it normalize burden sharing and simply denounce men who don’t participate? How will our middle ground be inclusive of women like me who are constantly dawdling between their sometimes incompatible cultural identity and feminist values?

These questions have no straightforward answer. But I’m concerned that a collective response which is split on these critical issues could weaken the progress. As we step into a far more complex world with colossal technological change, clash of cultures and a rapidly shifting political climate, these omnipresent gender-role negotiations will only become more pronounced.

So what do we do about this, you may ask. For the men, it might be worthwhile to step back and introspect on what these everyday negotiations look like for women at your workplace, university and/or home and how can you can become better allies. As for the women, acknowledging these trade-offs and reflecting why we each choose certain everyday battles over others will shed light on our own priorities, vision and even biases.