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‘I Had to Leave’: Misinformation Expert Joan Donovan Exits Harvard, Joins Boston University Faculty

Online misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan speaks at an Insitute of Politics forum. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf forced Donovan out from her role at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, three HKS staff members with knowledge of the situation said in February.
Online misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan speaks at an Insitute of Politics forum. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf forced Donovan out from her role at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, three HKS staff members with knowledge of the situation said in February. By Julian J. Giordano
By Miles J. Herszenhorn, Crimson Staff Writer

Online misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan will join Boston University on Sept. 1, ending her affiliation with the Harvard Kennedy School after a monthslong dispute over the school’s decision to terminate Donovan’s Technology and Social Change research project.

“Once I felt the Kennedy School didn’t back me as a scholar, I had to leave,” Donovan said in an interview with The Crimson on Wednesday.

“An institution is only as good as its leadership,” she added. “Institutions have bad years and good years, but if you don’t feel protected by your institution to do the work that you’re doing, you’re not safe to do the work there.”

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy will shutter the Technology and Social Change project at the end of August, one day before Donovan begins her position as a tenure-track assistant professor at Boston University’s College of Communication.

The Kennedy School’s decision to end Donovan’s Technology and Social Change project, first reported by The Crimson in February, shocked many academics in the small but growing field of media manipulation and disinformation. Since joining the Shorenstein Center in 2019, Donovan has served as a leading force in bringing the field of online misinformation and disinformation to prominence in academia.

HKS had previously said Donovan’s project — which seeks to investigate media manipulation as it relates to democracy and public discourse — would continue until June 2024. HKS spokesperson Sofiya C. Cabalquinto confirmed in an emailed statement Wednesday that Donovan’s Technology and Social Change project will end on Aug. 31.

Shorenstein Center Director Nancy R. Gibbs wrote in a February email to the center’s advisory board that HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf “informed Joan last summer that because research has to be led by a full faculty member, her Technology and Social Change Project would need to wind down over the next two years, by June of 2024.”

“The TASC project is fully funded until then and the research can continue through that period with its current leadership and the team needed to complete the work,” Gibbs wrote in February.

But Cabalquinto wrote in a statement on Wednesday that “completion of grant-funded research on the TaSC project is the reason that the project is ending at this time; this has nothing to do with minimizing the importance of the topics of misinformation and disinformation, or with limiting academic freedom.”

As of Thursday, the Shorenstein Center website showed at least 11 people, including Donovan, are currently affiliated with the Technology and Social Change project as staff members, research fellows, and research assistants.

“When research projects are completed at the Kennedy School (as they are frequently), we work closely with the staff who are affected to help their transitions,” Cabalquinto wrote. “Some members of the TaSC team are headed to other jobs, and some will be working on new projects here.”

Donovan had raised $12 million to support the Technology and Social Change project since she joined the Shorenstein Center, she wrote in a statement Friday following this article’s publication. It is unclear if the project will have spent all of its funding by the time it shuts down at the end of the month.

Cabalquinto wrote in a statement that “all sponsored research by the TaSC team has been completed.”

Donovan, however, was never hired to a tenure-track faculty position at the Kennedy School. She directed the Technology and Social Change project as a research staff member and served as an adjunct lecturer teaching the HKS course Democracy, Politics and Institutions 622: “Media Manipulation and Disinformation Campaigns.”

Donovan said that the offer of a tenure-track position was “an incredibly large factor” in her decision to join Boston University.

Shorenstein Center Executive Director Laura Manley wrote in a statement on Wednesday that “while Joan was hired at HKS as a staff member, she has always been clear that she wanted a tenure track faculty position.”

“She did teach here as an adjunct lecturer, in addition to her staff position, and turned down the opportunity to continue that adjunct position at Harvard for this fall,” Manley added. “We are happy for her that she has now found a tenure track faculty position at BU for the upcoming year.”

Donovan said that while she had other offers for tenure-track positions, she opted to join Boston University because she felt like it was “at a really important point in its own industry.”

“The College of Communication and the School of Journalism have excellent leadership that I can learn a lot from,” she said. “When you’re in academia, you look for positions where not only you can do your work and your research, but you also want to be in a position where people can push you forward.”

Donovan wrote in a statement Wednesday evening that she “loved teaching at HKS and always had great students — both smart and inquisitive.”

“I turned down the opportunity to teach so I could start my new role at BU,” she added.

Many of Donovan’s former students at HKS were dismayed by reports about her looming departure from the school. More than 100 people signed a petition in February calling on Elmendorf to resign after the school announced it would wind down the Technology and Social Change project.

In an interview, Donovan said she is concerned about Harvard’s ability to remain at the forefront of media manipulation and disinformation studies following her departure from the University.

“I do not think Harvard is positioned to be a world leader on media manipulation and disinformation at this point,” Donovan said. “I don’t know of any faculty member that can teach a class similar to my class. I don’t know a faculty member who is as embedded in the research field as I am.”

Cabalquinto, the HKS spokesperson, wrote in a statement that the “Shorenstein Center continues to foster faculty-led projects on the challenges of misinformation, including hosting a public archive of the material released by the Facebook whistleblower and publishing a journal on misinformation with articles by researchers at many institutions.”

Gibbs, the Shorenstein Center director, wrote in a statement on Wednesday that “challenges to our information environment keep evolving, and the Shorenstein Center’s work will continue to evolve with it.”

“In collaboration with the Belfer Center, we just completed the first Democracy and Internet Governance Initiative report on recommendations for improving the regulation of social media, including the issue of mis- and disinformation,” Gibbs added. “We will be continuing this work going forward.”

Donovan, however, was much less optimistic about the future of the field at the Shorenstein Center.

“There is potential in different places at Harvard to study these issues, but I don’t think the Shorenstein Center is equipped,” she added.

The team at the Technology and Social Change research project is uniquely talented, according to Donovan.

“What I did at Harvard is I built the X-Men of internet studies. I got journalists from world-class publications, I got researchers from all over the globe,” Donovan said. “We were doing really important work that was changing how Congress, and how technologists, and how journalists did their jobs.”

“I think that it’s an incredible loss to the institution of Harvard to remove us at this juncture,” she added.

Correction: August 18, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Donovan had raised $5 million for the Technology and Social Change project since joining the Shorenstein Center. In fact, Donovan raised $12 million.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @mherszenhorn.

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