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More than 100 people signed a petition calling on Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf to resign after The Crimson reported he is forcing out online misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan from her role at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and ending her research project.
The petition — which passed 100 signatures Wednesday afternoon — demands Elmendorf’s resignation, the continuation of Donovan’s Technology and Social Change project, and the hiring of Donovan as a full faculty member at HKS. It also requests the reversal of the Harvard policy that stipulates research projects must be led by tenured faculty members.
“Donovan is tirelessly dedicated to uncovering bad actors online, teaching her students how to do the same, and promoting social justice throughout her work,” the petition stated. “Defunding and stripping her of a position at HKS will only hurt the institution and prevent students from becoming effective beacons of truth, justice, and power.”
This petition is the second in the span of one month to call for Elmendorf’s resignation. More than one thousand Harvard affiliates signed a similar petition in January after he blocked former Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth from a fellowship at the school’s Carr Center for Human Rights. Amid backlash, Elmendorf reversed course and offered Roth the fellowship.
The Crimson reported last week that the Kennedy School is shutting down the Technology and Social Change project, which has been led by Donovan at the Shorenstein Center since 2019. The project is set to end by June 2024.
Devika Balachandran, who authored the petition calling for Donovan to be hired as a full faculty member, said she believes Donavan’s work combating misinformation is critical to protecting democracy. Balachandran, an HKS graduate who took a course taught by Donovan, said the scholar’s departure from the school will be a “huge loss.”
“Nobody else is doing this work at the Kennedy School,” she said.
HKS spokesperson James F. Smith wrote in a statement Wednesday that the Technology and Social Change project will remain active and has the funding to continue research over the next 16 months.
“This nearly two-year transition offers an unusually lengthy period to conclude the work,” Smith wrote. “If the TaSC project finds a home at another institution, HKS will assist in any such transition to help the work continue.”
The Kennedy School has also pledged to continue initiatives related to the study of misinformation and disinformation at the Shorenstein Center, including work on the Facebook archive project and the Misinformation Review, an online academic journal.
Kennedy School officials have pointed to the school’s faculty handbook’s guidance on principal investigators — which requires research projects to be led by a full-time faculty member — to justify the decision to end the Technology and Social Change project.
“The principal investigator must be centrally engaged in a project in ways that are reflected in the proposal budget as well as proposed activities,” the handbook states. “Only individuals with full-time Harvard faculty appointments or others explicitly designated by the Dean may serve as principal investigators.”
Donovan, who is not a tenure-track faculty member, currently serves as the Shorenstein Center’s research director and has taught as an adjunct lecturer in public policy at HKS.
“While there can be limited exceptions, those can’t continue indefinitely without a faculty member as the principal project leader and academic head,” Shorenstein Center Director Nancy R. Gibbs wrote in an email to the center’s faculty and staff last Thursday. “The decision to wind the TaSC project down is solely driven by that policy, which has been followed across the school for many years.”
Smith, the HKS spokesperson, wrote in a statement that “many projects are undertaken for a time and then sunsetted for various reasons — funding; relevance; leadership.”
“This is why we usually hire research project staff on time-limited appointments,” Smith wrote.
In an email to the Shorenstein Center’s advisory council on Friday, Gibbs wrote that Donovan was informed in summer 2022 that the project would need to shut down because it was not in compliance with the policy.
Donovan declined to comment on her status at HKS and the termination of her project.
Craig A. Newmark, the founder of Craigslist and a member of the Shorenstein Center Advisory Board, also called on HKS to hire Donovan as a faculty member. Newmark has donated $5 million to the Shorenstein Center to support the work of Donovan’s Technology and Social Change project.
“I know that Harvard has controls regarding a promotion, but the deal is that in major obvious cases like that, there is always room to do the right thing,” Newmark said. “I don’t understand why that doesn’t happen.”
“Joan’s work is vital for national security because there are people who wish us harm — and she is helping stop them,” Newmark added.
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