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Joan Donovan: How Corporate Money Threatens Academic Freedom

By Lara R. Berliner
By Joan M. Donovan
Joan M. Donovan was the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. She is now Assistant Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media Studies at Boston University.

Universities have long championed the idea that knowledge is power. As a former Harvard researcher who fell out of favor at the Kennedy School after daring to uncover information Meta would rather keep secret, I have seen first-hand where the limits of that support lie.

Academic freedom only holds weight if every member of the academic community is committed to safeguarding academic freedom from external pressures.

At Harvard, defending academic freedom is crucial. Today, universities worldwide are subject to significant influence from corporations, donors, and governments, shaping research agendas and educational missions. For Harvard to move past recent scandals and upheavals, it must prioritize the protection of academic freedom for all, a duty shared by faculty, students, staff, and administrators alike.

When universities yield to these pressures, they betray their core promise to uphold academic freedom, allowing prestige to be exploited for profit and political gain. Recent controversies, such as billionaires’ attempts to influence Harvard’s Board of Overseers and HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf’s rejection of human rights defender Kenneth Roth as a fellow, highlight the urgency of this issue.

I speak from personal experience. My commitment to academic integrity led to conflicts with University leadership when I sought to study Meta, a massive company with close ties to Harvard.

In fact, when I began researching Meta in October 2021, Harvard was close to receiving one of its largest donations ever — $500 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a multi-billion dollar philanthropic organization created with Facebook wealth. At this time, Harvard’s endowment held hundreds of millions in Meta stock, currently its largest publicly-disclosed holding.

Despite contractual obligations and available research funding, my research into Meta led to my position at Harvard ending abruptly.

I was recruited to the Harvard Kennedy School from the Data and Society Research Institute in 2018, where I led a team focusing on media manipulation and disinformation. Initially directing the Technology and Social Change project at HKS’ Shorenstein on Media, Politics and Public Policy, I was promoted to Research Director in February 2020.

As adjunct faculty, I taught a popular course on media manipulation and created the Media Manipulation Casebook, documenting tactics disrupting democracy. My team studied how platforms facilitated hate speech, harassment, and incitement, and our research became widely utilized by governments, security agencies, newsrooms, academics, civil society, and tech companies worldwide. It was an exciting time to be researching communication and democratic practices.

My troubles with Harvard began when I obtained crucial documents, known as The Facebook Files, exposing corporate wrongdoing at Meta. In my whistleblower disclosure, I describe how I invited professor Latanya A. Sweeney and the Shorenstein Center’s leadership to collaborate on a public archive of Meta’s corporate documents, which we named the FB Archive.

Rather than pursuing an academic article or forming a closed consortium, I believed it imperative to involve international academics, civil society, and journalists in examining the contents comprehensively. This initiative triggered a clash with HKS’ Dean Elmendorf, who maintains a decades-long personal relationship with former Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl K. Sandberg ’91.

HKS leadership’s attempts to suppress my scholarship and undermine my credibility as a scholar culminated in a meeting with Elmendorf in August 2022, where he told me the University owned the rights to my research, later telling The Crimson that this and other aspects of academic freedom are reserved for faculty.

I was puzzled. Despite being granted principal investigator status with autonomy over my research agenda and working as adjunct faculty, I was somehow not entitled to full academic freedom.

Before long, I became the target of bureaucratic suppression, strangled in red tape for broaching the topic of Meta. Elmendorf claimed Harvard owned the rights to my book, Meme Wars, before he had seen it — even though it was written off-campus and under a private contract. To avoid a lawsuit, my co-authors and I signed a legal release written by Harvard stipulating that the University owned the copyright jointly with us.

It felt like HKS leadership did everything it could to push me out. I could tell that I was under increased scrutiny, received legalistic messages that felt like threats, and suddenly faced difficulties hiring for my research team. Yet HR didn’t recognize any evidence of workplace retaliation. Other faculty told me they were afraid of getting involved.

Alone and terrified, I confided in my friend, Maria A. Ressa, former Shorenstein Fellow and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who introduced me to Whistleblower Aid. In December 2023, I went public on CNN and NBC and in the Washington Post with my whistleblower declaration.

What’s most jarring is that it’s precisely Elmendorf’s job to protect academic freedom. What does it say about the state of academic freedom at Harvard that he did the reverse?

HKS’s response to my research exposed broader issues of institutional integrity and academic freedom that then reached a fever pitch when professor Claudine Gay resigned under less-than-transparent circumstances after powerful donors called for her downfall publicly and behind closed doors.

By prioritizing donor interests over academic freedom, Harvard’s leadership has failed in its duty to uphold the principles of free expression and intellectual honesty. The future of Harvard will require limits and oversight of faculty and administrators’ financial and personal ties to actors and industries under study.

The quest for a new University president will undoubtedly attract considerable attention from factions with political designs for Harvard, desiring to make it more a hedge fund than a center of higher learning. Already, Meta’s Mark E. Zuckerberg — a former member of the Class of 2006 — tried, but failed, to install an ally on the Board of Overseers.

As sociologist Max Weber wrote, a useful professor teaches students to confront inconvenient facts, regardless of their ideological leanings. Similarly, members of the academic community must uphold academic freedom as a sacred principle, defending it against all attempts at suppression and co-option. Only then can universities fulfill their vital role in advancing society through the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

Everything else is public relations.

Joan M. Donovan was the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. She is now Assistant Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media Studies at Boston University.

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