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What Fryer’s Return Says About Sexual Harassment Culture at Harvard

By Aiyana G. White
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

In July of 2019, Harvard disciplined Economics professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. with a two-year administrative leave for sexual harassment — the consequence of his abhorrent treatment of his female employees.

Now, two years have passed, and Fryer is back.

Precipitating his dismissal, female staff and researchers in EdLabs — the think tank Fryer directed — accused him of creating a hostile environment and engaging in years of unwelcome sexual conduct. Fryer denied these allegations, but the University’s decision made it clear they found otherwise.

The upshot? Fryer’s return to the esteemed position of professor sends the message that Harvard is a university that permits a culture of sexual harassment.

Ideally, sexual misconduct — verbal or physical — should be grounds for removing a faculty member from Harvard and revoking their tenure. Instead, Fryer is back in the classroom, teaching undergraduates; the two-year suspension is but a slap on the wrist.

Harvard has an obligation to protect its students. Instead, it is allowing a faculty member who it has found “violated University sexual harassment policies” to educate its undergraduates. This undermines the University’s Title IX policy — and the training it has us complete every year to understand it — ultimately sending a message of hypocrisy to its students. Women in the Economics department now must decide whether or not they wish to take a class from a professor who allegedly “objectified and sexualized” his female employees.

This is an unfortunate side-effect of tenure-related decisions that contradict the interests of students they serve. In an environment where one in three undergraduate women have attested to experiencing “some form of nonconsensual sexual contact,” the safety and education of students should be at the forefront of all hiring (and firing) decisions. The University should have a very high bar for the professors it expects us to take classes from and interact with, and at a very minimum, that bar should be safety and nondiscrimination.

This is all not to say that perpetrators cannot change and become restored in their community — they can. But this instance is a matter of students’ safety and comfort under the skewed power dynamic of a professor-student relationship: Fryer should not return to Harvard classrooms. Since, to our dismay, Fryer will be teaching this fall, Harvard should notify students in Fryer’s course of the findings of their investigations against him. He should not be allowed to interact with students alone, in office hours or any other spaces.

We do not make this ask lightly: The loss of Fryer as a trusted educator and mentor at Harvard is a heavy one. His history of misconduct prods at the spirits of those who have been following his work and accomplishments for years. In 2008, then 30-year-old Fryer became the youngest Black professor ever to earn tenure at Harvard — that’s massive. But Fryer’s actions of sexual harassment have turned what was once a source of hope into a collective disappointment, distributed and carried amongst all of the students who once looked up to him. Students of color, especially, have been stripped of a role model. Fryer could have been an excellent advisor to students eager to tackle the economics of inequality — an immensely important area of research — but students have been denied this opportunity, and the world is worse off because of it.

Students will have exceptional trouble looking elsewhere for mentorship and guidance, namely because Fryer’s expertise and background is somewhat one-of-a-kind at Harvard. This speaks loudly to the deeply rooted problems of exclusivity within the University’s hiring process. It is simply unreasonable that only one professor had dominated the Department of Economics at Harvard.

But while Fryer’s research, mentoring, and teaching are important to Harvard students, his actions have made the decision easy. Fryer cannot stay here if the University’s position on sexual harassment is to be tenable.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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