In a December 14, 2018 piece, the New York Times set the stage by noting in its opening sentences that Roland G. Fryer Jr. had attained tenure at Harvard, received a MacArthur “genius” grant, and won the most prestigious award for a young American economist.
In the second paragraph came the takedown: “But his rapid ascent has taken a troubling turn as Harvard officials review a university investigator’s conclusion that Dr. Fryer fostered a work environment hostile to women, one filled with sexual talk and bullying.”
This article, and Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution, have made a near-pariah of the youngest black professor ever tenured at Harvard University, a man born into poverty who is still much admired among many former female and male subordinates and other people who know him well – and who see the attacks on him as tinged with racism and “#MeToo” overreaction.
He is also admired among experts for his pioneering scholarship on how best to educate poor and minority children and other racial and gender issues. In an article littered with sins against honest journalism, The Times vastly overstated the criticism of Fryer in a confidential, 81-page November report by ODR, which has a staff of 10 -- eight women and two men, including William McCants, the director.
The report seems subtly and skillfully biased against a man whom ODR branded a sexual harasser for (among other things) the kind of off-color jokes and teasing of both male and female subordinates that more risk-averse bosses avoid. But at least it made clear that Fryer, 41, has never been accused of making a pass at a subordinate or asking for sex. The 2,600-word Times article did not.
More on the Times below. First, let’s look at some of the flaws in the report by ODR, which decides whether professors accused of sexual harassment are guilty. The weight of the evidence suggests to me, and some former Fryer subordinates with knowledge of the details, that contrary to the ODR report, Fryer never intentionally sexually harassed any of the four female subordinates whom Harvard’s white, female investigator concluded he probably harassed.
Might Fryer unintentionally have slipped across the line from collegial kidding into raunchy talk or gestures in a few insensitive moments? Perhaps. But only if you believe the two most serious allegations that Harvard’s investigator credited. Fryer adamantly denies them. The Harvard report seems to be a case of what could be called harassment inflation. Only one woman in the completed Harvard investigation, Fryer’s former personal assistant, even filed a sexual harassment complaint.
How did Harvard’s large sex bureaucracy, including both ODR and the school’s sprawling Title IX apparatus, spin one victim into four? After the complainant and her lawyers filed her allegations against Fryer (and three other people), she -- and perhaps one or more Harvard officials -- apparently put out the word that they would like to know of any other sexual harassment allegations against Fryer.
This eventually turned up a second alleged victim-complainant, who in 2018 filed allegations of harassment in 2010, which are still under investigation, and a single episode of sexually tinged banter led by Fryer in the common area of his Harvard Education Innovation Laboratory (“Edlabs”) in the summer of 2016. He riffed off an odd story volunteered by a research assistant about how she had helped tie (or perhaps remove) an elderly professor’s shoes.
This woman recalled Fryer saying, “Oh, you bent over for [the professor]? What else did you do for him?” All or most of the eight or more people who were present, including two other female and two male research assistants, laughed.
More than a year later, according to Fryer, a male research assistant mentioned the shoe-tying episode to a Harvard official. Then the Harvard sex bureaucracy was put into contact with the woman Fryer had teased and the two other female research assistants, who were also acting as witnesses for the main complainant and were identified in the ODR report as “potential Complainants” against Fryer. They did not file sexual harassment complaints of their own but, according to the ODR report, “indicated that they wished to participate as witnesses.”
A male Title IX coordinator was appointed to file a complaint that Fryer had sexually harassed all three female research assistants. They and other witnesses to the shoe-tying episode were later interviewed by the same female ODR investigator who investigated the complaint filed by Fryer’s personal assistant. Fryer told the investigator (and me) that the general laughter showed he had no reason to be aware that his shoe-tying joke was unwelcome. But the investigator asserted that the laughter was indicative only of the “power dynamic” between Fryer and the others.
Based on the research assistants’ accounts of the shoe-tying episode and their feelings about it, ODR found that Fryer had committed “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” -- Harvard’s exceedingly broad definition of sexual harassment -- on that day and that his teasing “was sufficiently severe that it interfered with or limited their [sic] ability of these three RAs to participate in or benefit from the University’s work programs or activities.”
The ODR report did not find either of the similarly situated male assistants – one of whom had been the first to mention the episode to a Harvard official -- to be victims, perhaps because that would have made all too obvious the incongruity of calling this “sexual harassment.”
The same Title IX coordinator also complained more generally of “awful, cruel and frequent ... verbal sexual harassment” by Fryer – such as “talking about women’s big butts” and about “the bazonga’s [sic] on that chick.” The evidence that this Harvard official cited for the more general allegations turned out to be so flimsy that the ODR investigator rejected them.
Apart from the Title IX coordinator’s complaint about the shoe-tying episode, ODR and its investigator filled about 70 of their report’s 81 pages with the allegations by the lone female complainant, Fryer’s former personal assistant. She had filed at least 32 allegations of sex-tinged jokes or remarks by Fryer over a two-year period ending in the spring of 2017.
ODR rejected 26 of them and upheld six. Fryer and several eyewitnesses say plausibly that the two most offensive remarks attributed to him by the complainant and credited by ODR were fabrications. The other remarks alleged by the complainant would strike a great many people as racy but harmless. Fryer maintains that the complainant, who has retained expensive lawyers, was motivated to claim sexual harassment primarily in response to Fryer’s sometimes harsh criticisms of her job performance and Harvard’s offer of a severance package that she considered unfair and inadequate.
In what Fryer calls her “scorched earth campaign,” she also filed sexual harassment complaints against a Fryer aide, a Harvard human resources official, and a Harvard Title IX coordinator. She filed a similar complaint against Fryer and the aide with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. She also urged another Harvard bureaucracy to investigate EdLabs’ finances and Fryer’s spending. It hired an outside auditing firm that has been at work since last October.
Brigid Harrington, the ODR investigator and primary author of its report, is still looking into another former Fryer personal assistant’s April 2018 complaint alleging that he sexually harassed her in 2008. Meanwhile, Harvard has barred Fryer and another EdLabs official from entering the lab since last March 14 as an “interim measure” pending completion of the investigations.
While Fryer declined to comment on the university’s procedures, his lawyer, Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan, told me that “this process has been deeply flawed and deeply unfair. … It shows what the current [#MeToo] movement, some blood in the water, and good coaching [of witnesses] can produce.”
Sullivan said that there was “no semblance of due process or the presumption of innocence.” He told me that ODR turned a blind eye to rampant witness coaching, allowed the complainant to avoid turning over all relevant electronic communications, and even to white-out portions of documents that she did turn over.
Also, Sullivan said, in assessing the complainant’s two most serious allegations, ODR gave more credence to many-months-after-the-fact statements by the complainant’s then-roommate (and best friend) – who was not present to hear Fryer’s alleged comments -- than to the contrary recollections of eyewitnesses who supported his denials.
“Sexual harassment” is classified by Harvard (and many others) to include everything from a boss’ crude demand to “give me sex or I’ll fire you” to a mild sexual reference that someone, long after the fact, may choose to call “unwelcome.”
This tempts some people motivated by a desire for revenge or money – as some Fryer supporters describes the complainant -- to seize on sex-tinged jokes that had little or no emotional impact on them. But the catch-all “sexual harassment” puts men who did no serious wrong in the same category as accused predators such as Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves.
Also, under Harvard’s rules of evidence, all seven of the investigator’s findings of sexual harassment by Fryer come down to meticulously documented and apparently sincere -- but quite possibly erroneous -- guesswork. She used a “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof in pronouncing these seven of the 35 allegations against Fryer to be probably factually accurate. Sometimes referred to as a 50 percent probability plus a feather, this is very close to being a tossup.
At many American campuses, tossups tend to go against accused males, especially black males. The “believe the woman” rallying cry drowns out facts, evidence, and due process.
Says one Fryer supporter at Harvard: “There’s a climate of fear of defending Roland. You can’t be seen to be out of line on this. If you defend someone who’s accused, there’s an attitude that you’re perpetuating the system and we’re coming after you next, because you must be guilty too.”
Credibility by Skin Color?
Sullivan asserts that Harvard’s handling of Fryer’s case has been racially biased as well as procedurally flawed. Fryer wrote to a friend, and later shared with me, a letter stating: “30 years after watching my father be sentenced to 8 years in prison because of a ‘he say, she say’ type encounter with a white woman in Texas with no physical evidence, I am fighting every day to prove I am innocent of allegations that threaten the work I have devoted my life to.”
Sullivan told me ODR “weighted the credibility of white witnesses far above minority witnesses” -- the main complainant against Fryer is white -- and that “in the absence of real data, the process used racial stereotypes.” As an example, he cited ODR’s disparagement of the credibility of Tanaya Devi, who was present for many of the allegedly harassing comments. Insisting that she saw no harassment, she spoke very highly of Fryer. Devi happens to be a dark-skinned native of India. Although the investigator and ODR praised the credibility of the complainant’s (white) roommate, they tended to dismiss Devi’s eyewitness recollections of what she saw and heard at EdLabs.
“Roland was constantly portrayed as an over-sexualized black man who no one could tell no,” Sullivan added. “Yet, there was not one piece of evidence of someone telling him no and him doing something mean to them. … Angry black man who yells and berates. Even [a hostile witness whom he had fired] said in her interview that Roland’s so-called ‘yelling’ is not about raising his voice but it’s the intensity of his look and how his voice sounds.”
ODR investigator Harrington has not responded to an email detailing my criticisms of the ODR report and requesting comment.
Like Devi and other supporters, Alex Bell, a PhD student advised by Fryer, views him as a truth-seeker who asks questions other people dare not ask, entertains answers others dare not tolerate, and flouts convention – and that this has cost him. “It's not just white people who think Roland is too black; black people also think Roland is too white, especially after his police shootings paper.”
That July 2017 analysis “stoked a national debate” by finding no evidence of racial bias in police shootings, as the Times stressed in the first paragraph of its December 14 article portraying Fryer as a rampant sexual harasser. This, Fryer emailed me, was a signal by the Times to progressive readers that “he’s not one of us.” He explained: “To make me seem less human they highlighted the part of my research that was the most controversial and failed to mention that the same paper also found racial bias in the form of huge racial differences on lower-level uses of force.”
The Times’ virtue signaling achieved its purpose. An Afrocentric magazine’s article on the sexual harassment allegations, for example, began: “The Harvard professor whose false and misleading research is routinely cited by white people now says that a sexual-misconduct investigation by Harvard University and the state of Massachusetts is based on false and misleading evidence.”
The Times Article
The entire Times article was a harsh and one-sided portrayal of a man who is by all accounts a tough and demanding boss – for male and female subordinates alike – but who makes a good case that he was unaware that four of the many women who have worked for him were offended by his off-color humor.
The newspaper, says Alex Bell, “painted Roland as a criminal.” It also ignored big problems with the credibility of both complainants and a third woman whose accounts it credited. Those were not the article’s only shortcomings:
- Nowhere did the Times acknowledge that ODR’s 81-page report suggests that many of the main complainant’s 32 allegations attributing crude comments to Fryer were probable fabrications, which the report glosses over with euphemisms such as “the investigator did not find on a preponderance of the evidence” that Fryer made some of the alleged comments at all. Rather than reporting that ODR concluded that the complainant lied repeatedly, the Times said that “[t]he investigator could not substantiate some allegations, including one asserting retaliation by Dr. Fryer.”
- The Times also ignored the findings in the ODR report, which was leaked to the Times and others including me, that the complainant “significantly overstated” and “broadly mischaracterized” Fryer’s “unwelcome conduct toward her,” and “minimized her responses to such conduct,” which included “continuing the conversation on sexual topics, or introducing sexual topics to the conversation herself.” Nor did the Times allude to the ancient legal principle known as falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means roughly that a witness proven to have testified falsely about one matter is not credible (or, at least, less credible) when testifying about other matters.
- The Times stressed that the still-pending April 2018 complaint by the woman who alleges sexual harassment in 2008 says that Fryer made “flirtatious and sexual overtures that made me uncomfortable,” which she “rebuffed.” Some of Fryer’s emails to her were flirtatious, as were some of hers to him. But the Times neglected to mention that -- contrary to the implication of “sexual overtures” -- neither this woman nor any other claims that Fryer ever made a pass at her or asked for sex. The Times also ignored Fryer’s assertion that this woman did not mention her concerns to any Harvard official until weeks after Fryer told her that she was not doing well and put her on probation.
- The Times further ignored (or failed to learn) that Fryer’s written response to ODR included his recollection of a startling discovery he made when -- after his relationship with this woman had soured late in 2008 -- he looked at the laptop computer she had left open on his conference table. He recalled that he “glanced at her screen and saw an email conversation with her mother where they were discussing (or perhaps fantasizing about) my death. The description, in general, involved pushing me down in icy water such that my body would no longer respond, and they ([she] and her mother) would watch me slip under and die.”
- The Times quoted June Daniel, a former executive director of Fryer’s lab, saying that he routinely made “inappropriate comments about women or their body parts, men’s body parts, homosexuals, minorities, or other groups,” and had a “reputation for vindictiveness” for which the newspaper cited scant evidence. But the newspaper ignored the fact that ODR had rejected Daniel’s similar allegation to its investigator, and never mentioned that Daniel had been fired from her position at EdLabs. (Daniel has not responded to an email requesting comment.)
- The Times said the ODR investigator had said EdLabs was “filled with sexual talk and bullying.” In fact, the report does not use the word “bullying,” or any variant, in describing Fryer’s conduct. It does not use “sexual talk” either. Nothing in the report suggests EdLabs was “filled” with either. I spoke to many former EdLabs employees and all of them said that there was a great deal of joking and teasing, but most of it was not sexual.
- Among Fryer’s other criticisms of the Times are its crediting of what he says are false, anonymous assertions that he “was told repeatedly over the course of 10 years – by employees and by at least one university official – that his conduct was out of line” and that he had written negative recommendations of “several women” after “they had angered him in some way.” Asserted Fryer: “Nobody told me I was out of line and I have never written a bad recommendation about anyone.
I emailed the authors of the Times piece, reporters Jim Tankersley and Ben Casselman, a detailed summary of these criticisms. In response, Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times spokesperson, emailed me: "Our months-long investigation was rigorously reported and based on interviews with more than a dozen of Dr. Fryer’s current and former laboratory employees, as well as other colleagues and associates, many of whom supplied copies of electronic communications with him. Dr. Fryer was asked to comment on our findings and his representatives provided responses that we included in the story. We are confident in the accuracy and fairness of our reporting."
Yet Casselman spent several hours on the phone with Tanaya Devi, according to her. She has spent five years working with Fryer while pursuing a doctorate in economics at Harvard, and was an eyewitness to most of the joking episodes that gave rise to the sexual harassment allegations.
Devi has also been Fryer’s most outspoken defender, at great personal and professional cost in what she calls the “suffocating, strongly policed” Harvard environment. Revealingly, the newspaper did not publish a word of what Devi told Cassselman.
Leaving America 'to Speak My Mind'
But Devi’s perspective deserves to be heard, both for her powerful defense of Fryer and for readers interested in understanding the “believe the woman,” guilt-presuming political climate at Harvard and campuses across America.
While Fryer expected long hours of hard work and could be a “difficult person to work with” when displeased with subordinates’ work, Devi told me, she has never heard or seen him sexually harass or discriminate against a woman.
She added that the complainant, who was Fryer’s personal assistant with largely secretarial duties, was “my closest friend” and confidant until after she left EdLabs in anger in June 2017.
Devi could not recall “a single instance” when the complainant “expressed the slightest hint of discomfort” with the off-color tenor of some of the jokes and teasing by Fryer and others that were common in the lab. She said her former friend is “weaponizing an incredibly important movement for personal gains or revenge.”
“I witnessed all this,” Devi told me. “I want to be able to tell the world this is a false allegation. I am going against a lot of people’s advice in supporting Roland. People do not want to hear that an accuser might not be telling the truth. They tell me, ‘They’ve already taken Roland down and they’ll take you down.’ I’ve been isolated.”
Devi added that what has happened to Fryer and to her for supporting him has convinced her not to pursue her career in America. “I wanted to be a professor at a top American university,” she explained. “But I want to be able to speak my mind. I want a free life. I want to do social science without so many rules about what I can say and do, especially with friends! It seems that there are many places in America that won’t let me speak my mind.”
Far from being hostile to the more than 20 women who have worked for him as research assistants and 10 more as project managers, the Fryer and his supporters say he has helped more than half of the research assistants win positions at Stanford, MIT, Harvard and other prestigious economics programs.
He and his predominantly female subordinates at EdLabs, which he founded in 2008, have done research on sex discrimination and gender gaps in test scores as well as racial issues, Fryer says. The off-color humor came from women – including the complainant – as well as from Fryer and other men, according to the ODR report and Fryer.
I asked Fryer for the names and emails of any 10 former subordinates who might discuss whether, based on their experience, the sexual harassment allegations ring true. Nine responded, including Devi and three other women. All nine said the allegations did not ring true. They also expressed high opinions of him. Most also noted that he was a demanding boss.
ODR’s findings of sexual harassment by Fryer boil down to being an occasionally verbally harsh boss who uttered or joined in sex-tinged jokes, sometimes at the expense of individual subordinates. The main complainant explicitly alleged that many of Fryer's sex-tinged jokes had made her uncomfortable, and the investigator inferred from interviews with the three female RAs present during the shoe-tying episode that Fryer had made them uncomfortable on that occasion.
While acknowledging that they almost always laughed, those four said this was sometimes to avoid antagonizing a boss with a temper who they felt could help or harm their careers. The complainant also stressed that she could harm his career as well, in an exchange of text messages with her then-roommate on June 9, 2017, when she was hoping to get a new job but worried that Fryer had apparently soured on her job performance and might not give her a good reference.
“I have stuff on him too,” she wrote. “He doesn’t have all the control. … [I]f I publicized the texts he would look bad.” The complainant also mentioned three of Fryer’s wealthy funders, saying they “would not want to be identified with something like this.” The roommate wrote, “yeah, this is like, ‘if you try to ruin my future or blackball me I’m not going quietly, motherf-----’ stuff.”
Fraction of Allegations Upheld
In rejecting 28 of the 35 specific allegations of harassment (including 26 of the main complainant’s 32), the Harvard report found that some were made-up by the complainant and others were not “unwelcome comments of a sexual nature” – Harvard’s definition of sexual harassment – because they were either not unwelcome or not sexual.
The only allegation by anyone other than the complainant that ODR has so far sustained was Fryer’s teasing of the RA who told the shoe-tying story. But Fryer’s lawyer told me: “The RA’s cannot be viewed as independent witnesses. They were all best friends and did their best to prove how ‘woke’ they are. They were in touch with [the complainant’s] lawyers all along.” He added that the complainant “attempted to coach every witness on exactly what to say” and “others got the rundown.”
One male research assistant who laughed heartily at the time of the jokes told the investigator months later that, after reflecting, he felt bad for having thought it was funny.
As the ODR report notes, Fryer asked, “Why am I the only one who violated policy when many others, including managers, participated? . . . Is it because I am the only professor or because of my skin color?” He is clearly rankled by the fact that another manager who is white “was present for 90 percent of these conversations, including the shoe-tying episode and was totally exonerated.”
ODR responded in its report that its investigator “was troubled [that Fryer] appeared to discount the significance of his roles as a senior faculty member at the University and Faculty Director of EdLabs.” A fair point, perhaps, even to some Fryer supporters. But he isn’t convinced.
She Said, They Said
The most serious of the complainant’s assertions involved alleged statements by Fryer and a male staffer one day in May 2017 joking that they thought she was having sex with her female former supervisor, and describing in graphic detail the latter’s breasts and “body parts” and the two women “doing sexual things to one another.”
Fryer and the staffer angrily denied and denounced this allegation as a fabrication. So did another witness who (according to the complainant) was present. No eyewitness supported the allegation. The staffer told the ODR investigator that the complainant had apparently concocted this allegation, and others, out of anger at Fryer. She first put them in writing in the above-mentioned exchange of text messages with her then-roommate/best friend on June 9, 2017.
Electronic messages show that the complainant – already upset that Fryer seemed personally distant and unhappy with her – was especially angry to learn on June 5 that he planned to reduce her hours (and pay). The ODR investigator disbelieved Fryer’s denials of the crude alleged comments. She relied on a statement made many months later by the complainant’s roommate that -- before the complainant knew her hours might be reduced -- she had told the roommate a far milder version of the May 2017 allegation.
The complainant also alleged that in early June 2017, after Fryer had groused about a long wait to get his car registered and she had suggested checking the wait times in advance, he had retorted “loudly and angrily ‘good to know, next time I’ll walk in with my pussy hanging out.’”
Fryer said this was another lie. Two eyewitnesses (a woman and a man) strongly supported his denial, telling investigator Harrington that they had heard all or part of the conversation and Fryer never said the word “pussy.” One told me that Fryer “never uses that word” and it would have been a bizarre thing to say.
Even the Harvard investigator concluded that the complainant was probably not telling the truth in claiming that Fryer “frequently . . . talked about his testicles”; “insisted” that she “stay over in his bed” to help with a move while he was out of town; joked about her having sex with her roommate; and was alluding to the shape of her buttocks when he nicknamed her “Yoga.” In fact, that appears to have been a reference to her frequently wearing yoga pants at work – a practice that she denied but that nine other witnesses confirmed.
It’s not hard to believe that this disgruntled woman was stressed by Fryer’s sometimes harsh criticism of her work, such as a text message that “[m]y three-year-old could do your job better than you do.” But a pile of evidence casts doubt on her claim of being stressed by his sex jokes. She was comfortable enough with sex talk in the office to have often volunteered unsolicited stories about her dates implying that they had sex, and to add touches such as a note on a group birthday card for a male colleague that “glitter on this card has been replaced with sex dust.”
ODR nonetheless chose to believe this complainant’s claim that the six Fryer comments it found to have been uttered, and of a sexual nature and also unwelcome, added up to a “persistent and pervasive [and] nontrivial . . . hostile working environment” so stressful as to raise “health concerns that led her to go on disability, which also negatively affected her income.”
This conclusion seems driven less by evidence than by sympathy for the complainant and a need to win applause from people steeped in “believe-the-woman” – and disbelieve-the-man – ideology by finding Fryer guilty of something. For an ever-expanding, and surely costly, investigation to do less would not have played well in, say, the New York Times.
Accuser's Job Performance
The complainant first told human resources on June 27, 2017 that sex-tinged jokes told by Fryer weeks before had harmed her health and she needed a paid disability leave. The timing, and the details of her June 9 text message exchange with her roommate, suggest that she was indeed becoming anguished, but that Fryer’s sex-tinged jokes weren’t the reason.
Her sexual harassment allegations to Harvard came within hours after a meeting with her immediate supervisor, a representative of her union, and a Harvard human resources official, at which she had angrily rejected the supervisor’s explanation that her many mistakes on the job required a “performance management” plan.
Five days before that, she had also angrily rejected a severance package offered by Harvard as another option. Sullivan, Fryer’s lawyer, asserts that had Harvard been willing to approve the severance package that the complainant felt she deserved and EdLabs management wanted to give her – roughly $25,000 more than Harvard offered -- she would probably never have charged Fryer with sexual harassment. Nor, probably, would any other woman have followed her example.
But the complainant blamed Fryer for not getting her that $25,000. And at about that time, recalls her then-friend Tanaya Devi, she said that “I will do anything possible to make sure I get the money I deserve.”
Some 16 months later, on November 5, 2018, in the Harvard ODR’s report on its first investigation of Fryer, investigator Harrington recommended “educational/counseling outreach” for Fryer and related outreach for EdLabs staff to prevent future harassment, according to the ODR report.
The decision on discipline -- whether to give Fryer no punishment at all, or a reprimand, or more severe punishment -- is up to more senior Harvard officials. Only the Harvard Corporation, the university’s highest governing body, could revoke Fryer’s tenure, which seems highly unlikely.
Old Incidents, New Charges
Harrington is continuing the Harvard ODR’s investigation of the allegations by the second complainant, who last April filed her sexual harassment accusation against Fryer, dating to the fall of 2008, when she became his personal assistant for about 10 months.
She was then a 23-year-old Harvard grad; Fryer was 31 and single. She attached to her complaint text messages showing that before and during her first few weeks on the job, he saw her after business hours, played video games with her at his apartment, and initiated online flirtation for a few weeks before the friendship soured.
In an October 2008 chat, for example, Fryer joked: “I will move to southern france and live out my last days on a chateau…wanna come with me?” She responded: “field trip! I know some French from ballet…and people think I look French…hahaha I like cheese!” Fryer continued: “and I love wine that’s all we really need if we start running out of money, we can have kids so they can work.”
“I largely found these messages to be uncomfortable,” the woman said in her complaint. “My job [required staying] on good terms with Professor Fryer. … However, my discomfort was at times noticeable, and he remarked on it [and] began to send more explicitly flirtatious emails.” One BlackBerry message sent late in 2008 said, “Ur lucky ur not here. I would either tackle, bite u or both.”
As this accuser began distancing herself from Fryer in late November 2008, she alleges, he first complained and then subjected her to “bullying and harassment,” including “screaming at me saying how ... I am so incompetent, etc.,” while failing give helpful direction. After being warned about her job performance, she went in January 2009 to human resources and “laid out my concern about the sudden change in satisfaction around my job performance ... in context with the flirtatious overtures with which I had shied away from engaging.”
She decided not to file a formal complaint then because it would “permanently damage my chance for further opportunity there,” her April 2018 complaint says. She also claimed that Fryer retaliated against her by curtailing her job responsibilities for going to HR. Although “the flirtatious overtures stopped, the tirades did not.” She resigned in August 2009, after turning down Fryer’s offer of a research assistant position.
Fryer told me that this accuser had taken his messages “wildly out of context.” He explained that “I played video games at my house with many guys at work. Someone said women like to play video games and drink scotch too. So, I opened it up to people like [her] -- the only female video game aficionado in the lab. … We spent hours at my house playing video games and drinking wine and everyone agrees I never made a pass at her.”
As of 2008, Fryer told me, “I felt like an outsider at Harvard. … I saw in her another person of African descent who might be able to relate. … I thought she and I were friends. … I joked, teased, cajoled, and spent a lot of social time with her. … I just thought she liked this kind of banter. I was wrong. I apologized when I realized I was wrong 10 years ago.”
“She is very talented,” he said, “but she just didn't want to do the job of an assistant. … The day-to-day assistant duties were boring and she did not perform well [tasks such as] delving into the details of how to get someone from point to point throughout their day and briefing packets to prepare them for a series of meetings the next day, etc. It was a poor fit.”
The Times asserted that Fryer “refused to write recommendations for economics graduate programs she was applying to, according to her complaint, and all rejected her,” and she “pursued a career in a different academic field.”
Fryer told me the he would not write a recommendation because “I had no clue whether she had the skills to do economics” and that “I have never written a letter of rec for any [personal] assistant to go to grad school in economics.” He added: “The Times makes it sound like I destroyed a budding economist. This is pure BS.”
In any event, the flirtation alleged by this woman was more than 10 years ago -- in a state where 10 years is the statute of limitations for attempted murder with a dangerous weapon. Since 2008, despite the complaints about Fryer’s ribald jokes, neither the main complainant nor anyone else has accused him of “sexual overtures.”
The Times article has inspired swipes by others in the media, on social media, and on the economics grapevine including, for example, a Bloomberg News column by Noah Smith using the allegations against Fryer to launch an argument that “much of the [economics] profession has long had a toxic, sexist culture that makes many women feel unwelcome or persecuted.” The headline was “Economics Needs to Dump the Sexism.”
In his January 2 letter to a friend, Fryer wrote: “Within hours of the NYT coverage, people I considered colleagues seemed to believe what was written and did not step back and ask, would the Roland I know – the man I have spent hundreds of hours with – do something like this? I was, and am, guilty until proven innocent. Being black probably doesn’t help.”
In a January 11 statement solicited and published by the Wall Street Journal, under the online headline “Top Economists Grapple with Industry’s ‘Reputation for Hostility’ Toward Women,” Fryer wrote:
“We must do more to include underrepresented minorities in our profession to insure that diverse perspectives are represented and new and innovative approaches to research are pursued. If false allegations against me are a necessary catalyst to elevate this issue and help the profession generate a constructive, systemic response, I can live with that.”
Stuart Taylor Jr. is a Harvard Law School graduate and wrote for the New York Times from 1980 to 1988. He has written critically about Harvard University and the newspaper in more recent years.