Citing 'Unwelcome Sexual Conduct,' Harvard Suspends A Star Economist

Harvard has placed the high-profile economist Roland Fryer on administrative leave for two years in response to findings that he created a hostile work environment, especially for women.

Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences, announced the suspension in an email to the university’s economics department. She wrote that the university’s Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR), which investigates claims of sexual harassment, found that Fryer “engaged in unwelcome sexual conduct toward several individuals … over the course of several years.”

As another consequence, Fryer will be barred from advising roles for two years after his suspension ends, and the laboratory he ran — Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory, or EdLabs — will be closed.

Fryer has been embroiled in controversy since 2017, when members of his research team alleged that he made sexual jokes and objectifying remarks as head of a diverse team at EdLabs. They also alleged that Fryer retaliated after those initial reports were made.

In a letter to the New York Times in December, Fryer touted his record of hiring and promoting women, and denied that he ever retaliated against assistants. But he did apologize for making what he called “off-color remarks.”

Fryer could not be reached for comment Wednesday. And several former associates and assistants who spoke both for and against Fryer declined to comment on the record for this article.

But Tanaya Devi, a fourth-year doctoral student in economics, said she was "stunned and very disappointed" by news of the suspension.

Devi has worked with Fryer for seven years and is his advisee. She and others acknowledged that Fryer was "tough to work with — when you didn't produce good work." But Devi said she never saw Fryer cross lines.

Devi argued that Gay didn't reckon with the unintended consequences of the suspension — and not just for students like her. "What suffers, most of all, is the incredible research that we were doing — on racial differences in America, on criminal justice," Devi said. "Dean Gay's decision takes all of that away."

In her email, Gay acknowledged "the important work of the EdLabs," and said the faculty remains "committed to the mission" of studying educational inequality.

The suspension represents the latest blow to Fryer’s reputation. He came to Harvard in 2007 as a wunderkind, and received a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ and the John Bates Clark Medal — for exceptional young economists — in the years after arriving on campus.

Fryer’s research often led to controversial, headline-grabbing findings, such as a 2010 paper that suggested that low-income students performed better when paid to study, and a finding of no racial bias in police shootings that the Times published in 2016.

For two years, Fryer — whose research has historically found favorable results for charter schools — had a hand in education politics in Massachusetts. Gov. Charlie Baker appointed Fryer to the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2015, citing his “deep knowledge and experience in education policy.” Fryer resigned in April of 2017 before his two-year term was complete.

Fryer's suspension marks the third penalty imposed on a high-profile Harvard professor in recent memory. It follows the barring of Jorge Dominguez from campus (citing sexual harassment), and the removal of Ron Sullivan as the faculty dean of Winthrop House, both in May.

All three are men of color on a faculty that, in 2018, was more than three-quarters white.

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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