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A Harvard economics researcher has been accused of making “sexually inappropriate” comments

Roland Fryer is accused of creating a hostile work environment at his Harvard lab.

ssviluppo/Adobe Stock via AP

An influential Harvard economics professor is under investigation by the university and the state of Massachusetts for allegations of creating a hostile work environment through “sexually inappropriate” comments.

A report in the Harvard Crimson said the investigation into Roland Fryer, who founded the university’s Education Innovation Labs (EdLabs), is based on at least one complaint under Title IX, which forbids sex-based discrimination in education; two people claim to have filed such complaints with the university. According to the Crimson, Fryer has not been allowed to enter the research lab he runs since March.

Fryer is one of the most prominent economics researchers working today, conducting studies on the racial achievement gap, the effects of charter schools, and racial disparities in police shootings (a somewhat disputed study). The allegations, part of a broader #MeToo reckoning, are likely to reverberate through academia and the field of economics.

The allegations are a bit fuzzy — but two investigations are underway

Harvard has received two formal Title IX complaints against Fryer, according to the Harvard Crimson.

One woman who filed a complaint last June said that Fryer subjected her to a “sexually hostile and demeaning environment,” according to a statement from her attorneys, Monica R. Shah and Naomi R. Shatz of Zalkind, Duncan & Bernstein.

The woman also claims 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 said in a statement that their client filed a complaint against Fryer last June but Harvard failed to take action, and instead, she was “retaliated against,” though they did not specify how.

Another individual told the Harvard Crimson they filed a Title IX complaint against Fryer last month. The person did not describe the complaint.

Fryer denied the claims through a statement provided by his attorney, George Leontire.

“Let me state unequivocally that I have not — and would not — engage in any discrimination or harassment of any form,” the statement read. “Any claim to the contrary is patently false.”

Fryer added that EdLabs is “very intense, fast moving and demanding” but that he’s worked to foster an “inclusive environment.”

At least three people who had been colleagues of Fryer’s wrote letters of support in anticipation of the article in the Harvard Crimson. All praised Fryer and defended his leadership at EdLabs, saying the work sometimes forced uncomfortable questions, or its employees needed to meet high standards — but nothing out of the ordinary.

Harvard has been looking into at least one complaint since December 2017. A university spokesperson said the school reviews all complaints that come to its attention. “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,” the spokesperson, Rachel Dane, said in a statement.

Fryer is also facing a state inquiry. The woman who filed a Title IX complaint last year also reported him to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

The #MeToo movement moves to academia

Fryer is accused of making sexually inappropriate comments and thus creating a hostile work environment. Based on the nature of the complaints made public so far, there is no evidence of any physical misconduct. But the accusations against Fryer are part of a broader #MeToo reckoning within universities and academia, where students are speaking out against powerful professors and administrators.

Fryer is something of a celebrity in the research world, and his work has been extraordinarily influential in the past decade. In 2015, he won the John Bates Clark Medal, a prestigious honor given to American economists under 40.

Fryer’s work spans many topics, but he’s been particularly influential in education, where his research on the racial achievement gap has been used to support the expansion of charter schools. Fryer’s research has identified the charter school practices that correlate with higher test scores. He’s evaluated policies including providing intensive tutoring, texting students about the lifelong effects of education, and encouraging teachers to specialize.

Fryer’s response also shows the complications the #MeToo era has created for schools, which have faced public pressure for mishandling of misconduct allegations, especially when it comes to star professors or programs that contribute to the schools’ clout.

There are egregious examples, such as Larry Nassar at Michigan State. But, more broadly, as Vox’s Anna North has written, the #MeToo movement has spotlighted the problem of harassment in academia. It’s particularly acute at the doctoral level, where students sometimes choose to work with particular professors, or must because of particular field of study — and people don’t always speak out for fear of derailing their academic careers.