Star Economics Prof Fryer Facing Harvard and State-Level Investigations, Barred from Lab He Heads
Christopher Kwok — Crimson Photographer
UPDATED: May 22, 2018 at 5:15 p.m.
Economics Professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. is being investigated separately by Harvard and the state of Massachusetts and has been barred by University officials from setting foot in the research lab he heads, according to individuals with knowledge of the situation and documents obtained by The Crimson.
The Harvard investigation—led by the University’s Office for Dispute Resolution, which investigates allegations of sexual and gender-based harassment—is based on at least one Title IX complaint filed with the office. Fryer is the subject of at least two Title IX complaints, according to two of the individuals who filed the complaints.
One of the complaints specifically alleges Fryer committed “egregious” acts of verbal sexual harassment, according to Monica R. Shah and Naomi R. Shatz, lawyers at Boston-based firm Zalkind, Duncan, and Bernstein who are representing the woman who filed that complaint.
The woman's complaint alleges Fryer spoke about sex in the workplace, made “sexually inappropriate comments” to and about employees and others, and “objectified and sexualized” women including female staffers, according to the lawyers.
Shah and Shatz wrote their client first reported Fryer’s behavior to Harvard officials roughly a year ago and that “she was retaliated against for seeking relief.” The two lawyers also wrote Harvard failed to enforce its policies meant to protect employees from workplace discrimination and sexual harassment.
“Our client found that when the object of her complaint was a star faculty member, those policies were not enforced,” Shah and Shatz wrote.
Fryer wrote in an emailed statement provided by his lawyer that he denies committing acts of discrimination or harassment.
“Let me state unequivocally that I have not — and would not — engage in any discrimination or harassment of any form,” Fryer wrote in the statement. “Any claim to the contrary is patently false.”
Shah and Shatz wrote their client has filed complaints with Harvard and with the state of Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has accepted the woman’s complaint and is now investigating Fryer, according to documents obtained by The Crimson and two individuals with knowledge of the situation. MCAD enforces Massachusetts laws forbidding unlawful discrimination based on traits including gender, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
The Harvard investigation is also moving forward. In March, the University forbade Fryer and his chief of staff Bradley M. Allan from entering Harvard’s EdLabs—a think tank Fryer founded in 2008 that examines the economics and roots of racial inequality—according to Nancy B. Cyr, the EdLabs finance and grants director.
Fryer’s lawyer, Boston-based attorney George J. Leontire, wrote in an emailed statement Monday that the allegations against the professor are “outrageous.”
“It's disgraceful the complainant's lawyers have chosen to publicize their unproven accusations rather then [sic] to allow the legal process to determine the merits of their client's claims,” Leontire wrote. “Professor Fryer looks forward to a full and impartial forum to address these outrageous allegations.”
University spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement Monday that Harvard is aware of concerns surrounding the working environment in EdLabs.
“Harvard is deeply committed to providing a civil and inclusive work environment for all members of our community,” Dane wrote. “We are aware of and take seriously concerns raised about the treatment of staff in the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University (EdLabs), including whether staff members have been treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Fryer is a rising star both at Harvard and in the broader field of economics. The complaints and investigations come roughly three years after Fryer won the John Bates Clark Medal, the second-highest honor in economics after the Nobel Prize. He was the first African American to do so.
The outcomes of the two investigations could have implications for Fryer’s career. The Harvard investigation could result in penalties ranging from “reprimand to dismissal,” according to FAS procedures. The MCAD investigation could lead to a public hearing and—if Fryer is found to have committed illegal discrimination—a damages payment possibly amounting to thousands of dollars. The complainant could also choose to pursue the case as a lawsuit in state or federal court.
Leontire said in an interview last week he believes Fryer will emerge from any and all investigations unscathed.
“We’re confident, whether it’s Title IX or anything else, that Professor Fryer is going to come away from that situation without any issues,” Leontire said. “That’s all I can tell you.”
This account of events is based on interviews with 47 individuals, at least 23 of whom are current or former EdLabs employees. Many interviewed spoke only on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential Title IX proceedings or because they said they feared retaliation from Fryer.
Shah and Shatz wrote their client first approached Harvard’s human resources department with concerns regarding Fryer’s behavior in June 2017.
The two lawyers wrote the “treatment” their client had “endured” in EdLabs up to that point was “egregious.” Shah and Shatz—referencing comments Fryer allegedly made in EdLabs regarding sex—wrote their client “was subjected to a sexually hostile and demeaning environment” in the lab.
“Her supervisor [Fryer] frequently discussed sex in the workplace, made sexually inappropriate comments to and about employees and others, and objectified and sexualized women, including his staff,” Shah and Shatz wrote in an emailed statement Monday.
In an interview last week attended by Fryer’s lawyer and a court stenographer, four current and former EdLabs employees—Cyr, Rucha P. Vankudre ’07, Meghan Howard Noveck, and Tanaya Devi—said the professor and lab staff at times participated in “banter” that included discussion of employees’ dating lives. Vankudre said that, had the conversation made anyone feel “uncomfortable,” EdLabs staffers and Fryer would have “stopped immediately.”
In a separate interview last week also attended by his lawyer and the stenographer, Fryer admitted participating in these conversations but said he never spoke about the physical act of sex. Fryer said he has “zero recollection” of commenting on individuals’ sex lives publicly in EdLabs.
Cyr, Vankudre, Howard Noveck, and Devi said they do not remember Fryer ever making remarks about individuals’ sex lives in the workplace.
“To the best of my knowledge, none of the banter has ever been sexist or misogynistic,” Vankudre said.
Fryer admitted in the interview he sometimes discussed employees’ dating lives and said he always did so in “a group of people.”
“If someone comes up to a group of people and says, I went out on a date and went to play putt-putt golf—I’m just making up a hypothetical—it is quite possible I said, ‘Really? You went to putt-putt golf on a first date?’” Fryer said. “Or if someone said they took me to McDonald’s but it was really cool, I might say, ‘Wow, McDonald’s.’”
“Commenting on someone’s dating life—I guess I have commented in that way, but other than that, no,” Fryer said.
In their statement Monday, Shah and Shatz noted Harvard has specific policies meant to “protect employees from discrimination, sexual harassment, and other workplace treatment.”
The University’s Title IX policy, which forbids all forms of sex discrimination including sexual harassment, defines sexual harassment in part as “lewd or sexually suggestive comments, jokes, innuendoes, or gestures.”
Shah and Shatz alleged Harvard failed to enforce its policy after their client raised concerns regarding Fryer.
“Our client and others who have worked in EdLabs have encountered Harvard’s two-tiered system of justice: one for high profile faculty members and the other for the rank and file,” Shah and Shatz wrote.
For the past several years, EdLabs has produced research—including a controversial study on racial bias in police shootings—regularly re-reported in national news outlets. The lab boasts prominent donors and supporters including Condoleezza Rice, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.
Fryer has headed the lab, located on Mass. Ave just feet from Harvard Yard, since he established it a decade ago. He has served as the public face of EdLabs, featured in glowing media profiles as he racked up awards and accolades. Three years after founding the lab, Fryer won a MacArthur Genius Grant for his research examining racial and economic inequality.
The two lawyers also wrote their client suffered “retaliation” after she reported allegations regarding Fryer, though the lawyers did not specify who perpetrated that retaliation.
Harvard’s Human Resources department has a strict policy forbidding retaliation against affiliates who “in good faith” raise concerns or file complaints regarding “actual or perceived violations of Harvard University’s policy or unlawful acts.”
Harvard’s Title IX policy also prohibits the subject of a complaint from retaliating against those who filed the complaint.
“Retaliation against an individual for raising an allegation of sexual or gender-based harassment, for cooperating in an investigation of such a complaint, or for opposing discriminatory practices is prohibited,” the policy reads.
Dane declined to comment on the woman’s charge that Harvard failed to enforce its policies.
Harvard’s Title IX Office began looking into EdLabs at least as early as Dec. 2017.
Six former EdLabs employees said they were contacted by Seth Avakian, Harvard’s Title IX coordinator for FAS and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, at various times between Dec. 2017 and March 2018.
One individual contacted said they spoke to Avakian about concerns and allegations regarding Fryer’s behavior that, if true, would violate Harvard’s policies forbidding sexual harassment. The individual said Avakian replied he previously heard similar allegations.
During the conversation, Avakian and the individual also discussed a hypothetical Title IX investigation into Fryer and what that might entail, the individual said.
Responding in part on Avakian’s behalf, Dane declined to comment on Harvard-led inquiries surrounding Fryer and EdLabs.
“In keeping with University policy, we do not discuss details of individual circumstances,” she wrote in an emailed statement Monday.
Harvard affiliates can report violations of the University’s policy forbidding sexual and gender-based harassment in one of two ways. In one option, affiliates can file an informal complaint—meaning Harvard will not conduct an official investigation, but may take steps to address issues raised in the complaint.
The second option involves filing a formal Title IX complaint. To do so, Harvard students, professors, staffers, or some third party must submit a written complaint to ODR.
As of May 2018, Harvard had received at least two formal complaints against Fryer.
One complaint was filed by the client now represented by Shah and Shatz. A separate complaint was filed by an individual roughly a month ago.
“I can confirm that on DATE: Monday, April 16, 2018 5:50p. I filed a formal complaint against Prof. Roland G. Fryer, Jr. with the Office for Dispute Resolution, alleging violations of both Title IX and workplace sexual and gender harassment policy in place at the time of my employment,” the individual wrote in a statement last week.
Both complainants spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
After a formal complaint is filed, ODR performs an initial review of the allegations contained therein. If ODR decides the behavior described in the complaint likely violates Harvard’s sexual and gender-based harassment policy, the office launches an investigation.
The University considers alleged conduct a violation of its policy when the behavior is “sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it interferes with or limits a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the University’s education or work programs or activities,” FAS policy states.
Three individuals with knowledge of the situation said ODR has launched at least one investigation into Fryer. Two individuals confirmed ODR is also investigating Allan.
Allan did not respond to a request for comment. Fryer wrote in an emailed statement that he has sought to create a welcoming atmosphere in EdLabs.
“The environment at EdLabs is very intense, fast moving and demanding -- reflecting the urgency of its mission to understand, and help reduce, racial and gender inequality in America,” Fryer wrote. “That said, I have worked diligently to foster a deeply inclusive environment at EdLabs where all people and all perspectives from all walks of life are welcome and respected.”
Four former EdLabs employees said they were contacted within the last two months by Brigid Harrington, an investigator for ODR, about an investigation her office is conducting.
Harrington sent at least three of the four individuals an email in mid-May asking them to provide testimony related to an investigation being conducted by ODR specifically under the FAS sexual and gender-based harassment procedures. The Crimson reviewed copies of all three emails.
ODR Director Bill D. McCants confirmed via email that his office only contacts individuals asking for testimony if ODR is leading an investigation.
University spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga declined to comment on Harrington’s behalf.
Two current EdLabs employees—Noveck and Vankudre—said Fryer has never, to their knowledge, behaved in a sexist or misogynistic manner.
“I’ve never witnessed Roland engage in anything that I would consider to be sexist, misogynistic, racist,” Noveck said in the interview last week. In an earlier interview, Noveck said she currently works remotely roughly 80 percent of the time and last worked full-time in EdLabs in 2012.
“I find the idea that he’s sexist, it’s completely absurd,” Vankudre said in the group interview.
Vankudre pointed to the fact that three of the four senior managers in EdLabs are women.
“I think if you’re sexist, you don’t choose women to run your lab,” she said.
At least since March, Fryer has been unable to enter the lab he founded.
At any point during the complaint process, Harvard’s Title IX Office can implement “interim measures” designed to “protect the initiating party or the Harvard community,” according to FAS procedures.
These interim measures may include “restrictions on contact, course or work schedule alterations, changes in housing, or increased monitoring of certain areas of campus,” the procedures state.
Harvard appears to have taken interim measures against Fryer roughly two months ago.
On March 14, five University officials stopped by EdLabs and held a closed-door meeting with lab staffers, according to EdLabs finance director Cyr. She said the visiting officials included Avakian, Dean of Social Sciences Claudine Gay, FAS Senior Human Resources Consultant Sandy Stergiou, FAS Assistant Dean for Faculty Affairs Kwok W. Yu, and Executive Director of Harvard’s Center for African Studies Susan E. Cook.
At the meeting, the five officials told EdLabs staff Harvard was taking several steps related to Fryer and the lab, according to Cyr. The officials did not explain why Harvard was taking these steps, Cyr said.
Specifically, the officials said the University had banned Fryer and EdLabs Chief of Staff Allan from setting foot in EdLabs, according to Cyr. The officials also announced Harvard had installed Cook as the interim executive director of the lab, Cyr said.
An internal Harvard directory currently lists one of Cook’s titles at the school as “Executive Director (FAS FCOR EdLabs Staff).” Cook is not listed on the EdLabs website, which still names Fryer as the lab’s faculty director.
The five officials also outlined a new protocol for all communications between Fryer and staffers, Cyr said. Under the new system, Fryer and Allan were required to copy Cook on all messages the two sent to EdLabs staff, according to Cyr.
Four individuals with knowledge of the situation confirmed Cyr’s account. The individuals also said the Harvard officials at the March 14 meeting specifically described the new policies as “interim measures.”
Dane declined to confirm or deny whether Harvard had taken interim measures against Fryer, though she pointed to the FAS sexual and gender-based harassment policy and procedures.
“We review all concerns brought to our attention to determine whether there is a hostile environment on our campus, and as needed, put in place measures to support members of the community. We continue to encourage any member of our community who has experienced inappropriate behavior to come forward,” she wrote.
Asked about the March meeting and directives in an interview last week, Fryer’s lawyer Leontire confirmed Harvard has barred the professor from EdLabs as part of an ongoing investigation. He declined to say whether the inquiry is a Title IX investigation.
“I’m not saying Title IX; I’m just saying investigation. I think that’s what we do have here,” Leontire said in an interview last week. “No one is going to deny this event took place and that some interim measures have been put in place.”
Leontire added he believes the measures imposed comprise “standard protocol.”
“Obviously the University has received some information that caused them to use what has been described to me as fairly standard protocol in the process of evaluating information,” Leontire said.
Leontire declined to say who told him the policies were “standard protocol.”
University Title IX Officer Nicole M. Merhill confirmed via email that, though Title IX coordinators can implement interim measures during any formal or informal complaint process, not every ODR investigation involves interim measures. Merhill noted the majority of complaints result in interim measures.
Merhill added there are no uniform set of interim measures. She confirmed the measures applied are always tailor-made for that situation.
In the interview last week, Leontire repeatedly refused to elaborate on either the March measures or what he called the “information” that sparked them.
“In that process, people who were involved in discussion on that are told not to discuss,” he said.
People involved in a formal Title IX complaint are “free to share their own experiences” but cannot reveal “information that they have learned solely through the investigatory process,” according to FAS policies on sexual and gender-based harassment.
Leontire confirmed in the interview that the interim measures against Fryer and Allan were still in place. He also speculated as to why Harvard implemented the policies.
“I think the fact that the University took the actions that they took means that they’re looking at a question,” he said. “It could be a serious question. It might not be a serious question.”
At the close of an ODR investigation, the office compiles a report detailing its findings and makes a set of recommendations. Given Fryer is a Faculty member, ODR will send its final report to the FAS dean, who will then decide whether to take action.
FAS procedures for sexual and gender-based harassment by faculty state ODR-suggested “sanctions may range from reprimand to dismissal.”
Only the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, can vote to revoke a faculty member’s tenure. Fryer earned tenure in 2008 at age 30, making him the youngest African American to ever win a tenured professorship at Harvard.
As ODR continues its investigation, a separate inquiry into Fryer is progressing at the state level—specifically, within the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
MCAD enforces Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of “membership in a protected class, such as race, color, creed, national origin, age, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and more,” according to the MCAD website.
It is unclear exactly when the woman represented by Shah and Shatz filed the MCAD complaint. Massachusetts law stipulates MCAD complaints must be filed within 300 days of the most recent alleged instance of discrimination.
After an individual files a complaint with MCAD, the Commission must determine whether the complaint “can be accepted,” according to the MCAD website. If the Commission accepts the complaint, MCAD will then kickstart a “formal investigation,” according to the site.
As one of the first steps of that investigation, MCAD mails a copy of the complaint to the “named ‘Respondent(s),’” the website reads.
Fryer has received a copy of the MCAD complaint, according to documents obtained by The Crimson—meaning the Commission has chosen to pursue an investigation.
The complaint names Fryer, Allan, and Harvard as respondents, the documents reveal.
During an MCAD investigation, a Commission investigator gathers information by interviewing witnesses, making “site visits,” and reviewing relevant documents, according to the MCAD website.
The MCAD process could ultimately result in a decision ranging from dismissal of the complaint to the imposition of damages against Fryer potentially amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The complainant could also choose to withdraw their complaint from the MCAD and instead pursue a lawsuit in state or federal court.
—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.
—Staff Writer Angela N. Fu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @angelanfu.