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Veteran Columbia Professor Accused Of Sexually Harassing Doctoral Student For Years

A Columbia doctoral student is suing a veteran professor of Greco-Roman history for allegedly exploiting his power and sexually harassing her over the course of several years, ultimately disparaging her within her academic circle. The suit also accuses the administration of turning a blind eye to 79-year-old Professor William Harris's regular abuses towards women prior to him meeting the plaintiff.

"Professor Harris, aware of his position of power, understood his conduct violated sexual harassment policies and was beyond all possible bounds of decency," the suit states.

Harris's harassment "was enabled and encouraged by Columbia's longstanding history of willfully ignoring Professor Harris's history of sexualized behavior and harassment," it continues.

The 29-year-old student, identified only as Jane Doe, met Harris in the spring of 2014, according to court papers, during a lecture series at Columbia. Harris then invited her to participate in "one-on-one supervised readings," and Doe began visiting Harris's office once a week. During that time, Harris allegedly told Doe, "I want to help your career." He also asked her to co-author a publication with him, and she accepted.

The suit alleges that Harris began asking Doe questions about her personal life early on in their relationship, and "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 Doe responded that she felt uncomfortable. Things allegedly escalated on one occasion. From the suit:

Plaintiff was standing in front of the desk in the office of Professor Harris. Suddenly, and without warning, Professor Harris lunged forward, put his arms around Plaintiff, and started feeling up and down her back in a sexualized manner. Plaintiff froze in response. Professor Harris then took a step back and said, "I'm sorry, that wasn't appropriate, was it?"

The physical advances continued that spring and on through 2015, leaving Doe "emotionally traumatized," according to the suit.

Once, Harris allegedly forced Doe against a desk and kissed her, another time putting his mouth on her breast "suddenly, and without warning." He also explicitly asked her for sex, which she refused, and sent her a pornographic email. The behavior allegedly continued despite Doe's July 2014 email to Harris stating that, "I feel very strongly that going forward we should only see each other in professional contexts and never alone."

After that email, Harris invited Doe on a research trip under the pretense that he had booked two rooms, when in fact he had only booked one. Doe had until that point maintained the relationship fearing that breaking it off would negatively impact her career. But she ultimately withdrew from Columbia for the 2015-16 school year and officially withdrew from working with Harris in January 2016. This allegedly prompted Harris to "disparage her" to other students and faculty.

This past summer, Doe 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. Today, Doe continues to worry about encountering Harris on campus. She has suffered nightmares and insomnia and struggled to read.

"I have no comment on these allegations," Professor Harris told Gothamist via email.

"We treat any claim of harassment or other gender-based misconduct in our community with the utmost seriousness, but we do not comment in the press on allegations made in legal complaints," said the university in a statement.

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday in Manhattan Federal Court, accuses Columbia of gender-based discrimination violating the NYC Human Rights Law and Title IX. Harris is accused of "negligent infliction of emotional distress."

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