Why Did Harvard University Go After One of Its Best Black Professors?

Roland Fryer Jr.’s life is a movie script: A man abandoned by his mom and raised by an alcoholic dad became the youngest black professor to ever secure tenure at Harvard University.

After ascending to the academic elite, Fryer didn’t resign himself to irrelevant technical puzzles; he put his genius to work investigating the most hotly contested issues of race in America, and translating his findings into concrete programs that dramatically improved the lives of poor black kids. He’s been praised as a genius, winning a MacArthur prize, a Time 100 listing, and the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to the best under-40 economist in the world.

And then, all of a sudden, his career was derailed by an opaque sexual-harassment investigation. And no one seemed to want to say anything about it. Until now.

Drawing on previously unreported documents and interviews with his colleagues and friends, my new documentary makes the argument that Professor Fryer was targeted for ideological reasons. Despite the best efforts of some of the university’s elite, Fryer is still at Harvard, but with severely downgraded status, denied the resources he once had, and marked with a sexual-harassment stigma.

Fryer’s life started inauspiciously in Daytona Beach, Florida. His mom fled the state shortly after he was born; and he wouldn’t meet her until he was 20. He grew up with his dad, an employment-challenged gambling addict who went to jail for sexual assault shortly after Roland graduated from high school.

A middling student who dabbled in small-time crime, Fryer attended the University of Texas on an athletic scholarship. Undergraduate distribution requirements forced him to take an economics class, and he reports having instantly fallen in love with the data sets and equations—a glimpse of order for a man whose life had so far been defined by chaos.

He went on to graduate school at Penn State. Some early flashes of technical brilliance coupled with a near-suicidal work ethic (he gave himself a heart attack in his 30s) earned him a fellowship at the University of Chicago, where he studied under Steve Levitt, the Freakonomics phenom famous for his unorthodox applications of economic theory.

Fryer’s first major published work, co-authored with Levitt, deconstructed the 1920s-era Ku Klux Klan. Drawing on state-level membership data and crime reports, their research revealed something curious: there was little correlation between the size of a state’s KKK chapter and the number of local lynchings.

And they were surprised how expensive it was to become a KKK foot soldier: a $10 initiation fee, $6.50 for branded robes, a $5 annual membership charge, plus a mysterious yearly $1.80 “imperial tax.” That’s equivalent to about $350 today—a lot of money for many of the joiners. Fryer tracked the money flow, and found that it fuelled lucrative paydays for upper management. An imperial “Kleagle” could pocket $300,000 a year (in 2006 dollars). D.C. Stephenson, the “Grand Dragon” of Indiana, made double that. The KKK has the look of what Levitt and Fryer call a “classic pyramid scheme,” but for gullible racists.

Fryer was heavily recruited after his time at the University of Chicago, and ultimately accepted a tenure-track position at Harvard. He quickly established himself as a political outlier through his willingness to ask provocative questions and publish the results, even when they challenged liberal pieties. There’s no apparent partisan agenda, only a genuine search for truth.

Consider Fryer’s investigation of “acting white.” This is the controversial theory that explains the underperformance of some young black Americans according to the idea that they risk being stigmatized by their peers for high academic achievement. Drawing on survey data pertaining to tens of thousands of public-school students, Fryer found that while white and Asian students tended to steadily gain friends as they excelled in school, black students often started losing friends once their GPA got significantly beyond 3.0. (For Hispanic students, the pattern is even more pronounced).

A figure from Fryer’s article, “Acting White," published in 2022. 

Or take Fryer’s work with the Harlem Children’s Zone, a pioneering nonprofit in which poor, mostly black students often outperform their white peers at richer schools. Fryer wanted to figure out the reasons for the Zone’s success, so the same strategies could be applied to failing schools all over the country. The politically correct solutions to lagging black academic achievement—reduce class size, increase per-pupil spending, and upgrade teachers’ nominal credentials—had all provided disappointing results.

Fryer found that a central component of the Zone’s success was a culture of high expectations. The school is institutionally allergic to the condescension that’s become the fashionable response to black underachievement. Typified by Ibram X. Kendi, this logic goes: If achievement tests show persistent racial gaps, then the tests–not the schooling–are the problem, and they need to be scrapped.

This attitude only exacerbates underachievement, Fryer has argued. As he puts it, poor-performing schools tell kids from tough backgrounds, in effect, “We shouldn’t expect so much from you.” But the Zone tells those same kids, basically, “That’s too bad. Now let’s teach you the Pythagorean Theorem.”

The Zone’s culture is enforced through what might be termed aggressive human-capital management—economist-speak for firing teachers who expect less than excellence (which helps explain why the approach isn’t particularly fashionable within the education establishment). After being handed control of the 20 lowest-performing public schools in Houston, explicitly for the purpose of porting in the Zone’s pedagogy, Professor Fryer fired half the teachers and almost all of the principals. Within two years, he’d significantly boosted math scores and college matriculation.

More recently, Professor Fryer made national news when he jumped into an issue lying at the core of modern American race politics: police shootings. His colleagues painstakingly collected and categorized thousands of hand-written incident reports from the Houston police department. And their findings, reported in 2016, didn’t entirely fit the usual narrative.

Houston police were found to be more likely to engage in non-violent force on black suspects—tazing, handcuffing, and other physical submissions—than on white suspects, even when the suspect was described as compliant by the officer himself. No one had a problem with that part of the research. But the other major finding did create a stir: Black suspects were less likely to be shot by police than white suspects.

“People hate his guts because of the finding in Houston, because it runs counter to the Black Lives Matter narrative,” says Brown University professor Glenn Loury, who mentored Fryer early in his career. And this challenge to politically correct dogmas seems to have earned Fryer some powerful enemies at Harvard. He had no interest in going along with the received wisdom promoted by dominant members of the school’s black academic establishment. “I know that Roland was very dissatisfied with what he thought was the relatively modest intellectual acuity of some of his black colleagues,” says Professor Loury.

Four years ago, Fryer’s critics got an opportunity to undermine him when a former administrative assistant accused him of sexual harassment. That complaint initiated a Title IX proceeding, an opaque process that even non-conservatives acknowledged as being vulnerable to abuse. The standards of proof under Title IX are lower than in a proper trial. And defendants often aren’t allowed to confront their accuser or appeal the verdict.

Fryer isn’t flawless. The final Title IX report, which I have seen, paints a picture of a man who could be insensitive in the face of workplace power asymmetries, and who crossed boundaries with subordinates. He made some arguably inappropriate jokes in the office, like saying that an elderly university administrator “hadn’t been laid since black people were slaves.” Fryer also quipped that he’d learned his negotiating skills while “trying to get laid in high school”—standard locker-room talk from his days as a teenage football and basketball star.

Harvard investigators made an effort to dig up a second complainant, another former assistant who’d worked with him a decade prior. Fryer, who was not married at the time, had sent her a series of flirtatious messages. She’d formally complained to human resources, he’d stopped, and she ended up working with him for another eight months.

Harvard’s own investigators ultimately found that Prof. Fryer had never sexually propositioned or touched anyone, and their original recommendation for punishment was “training” on setting boundaries. That finding was transformed into an effort to derail his entire career: A small group of Harvard administrators overruled Harvard’s own Title IX office, suspended Professor Fryer without pay for two years, banned him from campus, and shut down his multi-million dollar education laboratory. He was a tenured professor, and they couldn’t get rid of him completely. But they could do their best to excommunicate him.

One of the administrators behind his punishment, Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, even reportedly went so far as to ask Harvard’s president to revoke Fryer’s tenure. Thankfully, the president declined. (There’s no known case of the university stripping a professor of tenure even once in the last hundred years.)

It’s notable that other Title IX cases at Harvard involving professors charged with more serious offenses have resulted in significantly less severe punishments. In the early 2000s, a STEM professor allegedly spent over two years exploiting one of his graduate students, demanding sexual favors in return for laboratory access and letters of recommendation. When she tried to end the relationship, he allegedly threatened to kill himself. The student went to Harvard authorities to press charges, and she reported being told that doing so would damage her career, and that she should “move on.”

Or take the case of Professor John Comaroff, a senior faculty member of the African American Studies Department, whose work conforms closely to the approved shibboleths about “the criminalization of race.” He was found guilty of sexually harassing graduate students in 2020, but his punishment consisted of mere paid administrative leave. For significantly less serious offenses, Fryer was subjected to far more severe punishment. His research operations, which once involved collaboration with over a hundred staff, were effectively ended.

Then came silence. Fryer’s friends and colleagues, many of whom I have interviewed, kept their concerns private, rightfully fearing Harvard’s wrath. None of the key figures, including Fryer himself, would appear on camera for our documentary. I submitted interview requests with Professors Fryer and Gay, as well as Social Science Dean Lawrence D. Bobo. All declined.

In quasi-exile, Roland has proven to be remarkably resilient. He raised money for a new outfit, Equal Opportunity Ventures, which is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs who can help close the racial gap in wealth and education. One of its first investments was “Reconstruction,” a black-led online education project that provides an alternative to the relentless focus on victimization served up by the likes of the 1619 Project. It focuses on empowerment, offering courses on entrepreneurship and celebrations of black genius.

In the summer of 2020, at the height of America’s modern racial reckoning, Fryer released a detailed investigation into the “Ferguson effect.” His team examined data from about a dozen cities, stretching back decades, and found that if a police department is subjected to a federal “Pattern-or-Practice” investigation in the wake of a viral police killing, officers tended to withdraw from the community. In a paper co-authored with colleague Tanaya Devi, he concluded that

For investigations that were preceded by a viral incident of deadly force—Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Riverside and Ferguson—there is a marked increase in both homicide and total crime. The cumulative amount of crime that we estimate due to pattern-or-practice investigations in the two years after the announcement for this sample is 21.10 … per 100,000 for homicides, and 1,191.77 … per 100,000 for total felony crime. Put plainly, the causal effect of the investigations in these five cities—triggered mainly by the deaths of Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Timothy Thomas, Tyisha Miller, and Michael Brown at the hands of police—has resulted in 893 more homicides than would have been expected with no investigation, and more than 33,472 additional felony crimes, relative to synthetic control cities.

Fryer found that that drawdown in police activity led to a surge in violent crime that predominantly victimized low-income black people. And he made a point of noting that the additional annual black deaths due to this withdrawal are roughly triple the number of black people killed per year at the height of lynching in America. You can guess how this kind of observation was treated by the likes of Profs. Gay and Bobo, both of whom grew up in far more privileged surroundings before taking their place among the chorus of Harvard’s bien pensants.

Last fall, Fryer returned to Harvard. But he’s been stripped of his named professorship, banned from interacting with graduate students, subjected to constant Title IX surveillance, and demoted to teaching undergraduates. All of which makes it hard not to conclude that Harvard is more concerned with protecting the integrity of its ideological codes—and making an example of a successful black scholar who challenged them—than with the future of black America.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/04/15/why-did-harvard-university-go-after-one-of-its-best-black-professors/
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Why doesn’t he quit? Why put up with this kind of crap? Go join a think tank or a hedge fund or something. Go teach at East Mediocrity State; at least they might allow you to maintain a semblance of dignity. Is the Harvard name really worth that much to academics? Part of how they get away with treating people like mere cogs in a machine is that, ya know, people allow themselves to be treated that way.

Progressive ideologies (feminism and CRT in particular) have been weaponized, and are being used as an instrument of oppression and control.
Diversity and inclusion is a tool used by an unworthy clique to infiltrate all levels of the academia (and the society in general). Once there, they will start to slowly push out anyone they deem inconvenient, namely anyone that doesn’t support their mantras.

The feminist-instated inquisition makes it easy to get rid of anyone, all you need is someone to point a finger at you and say “he/she harassed me”, and bang you’re dead. The pointing finger has become a deadly weapon, who needs a gun anymore?

The removal or marginalization of valuable intellectuals from the academia has become a common occurrence, and the methods used to get rid of them are always the same, namely they are accused of racism or sexual misconduct, and any slip of the tongue can turn into an accusation of racism or sexism.
Wonder who or what is behind all this, because there is an outside force empowering the so-called progressives. The fact the MSM never questions these ideologies and presents them as absolute truth, is a bit weird.

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Great to know such a man as Fryer is pounding away at Victimhood, Inc. Odd to see no parallels to Thomas Sowell.

Side note: Harvard has lost its sense of humor. I found this line hilarious: “an elderly university administrator ‘hadn’t been laid since black people were slaves.’ ” I dare say every black person I know would also find it funny. But then, we don’t hang out in the halls of Harvard.

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Interesting and significant research, and it sounds like he has been treated terribly by Harvard. But there is an even more important issue, and that is the overly-important role that Harvard and similar institutions have been able to claim for themselves in American life.

Peter Drucker, the Austrian-born management consultant and social thinker, wrote 50 years ago that America had a huge advantage over Europe because we did not have overly-dominant ‘elite’ universities:

One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…

We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above.

From the Quillette article: “(Fryer’s treatment) makes it hard not to conclude that Harvard is more concerned with protecting the integrity of its ideological codes—and making an example of a successful black scholar who challenged them—than with the future of black America.”

What Harvard is most concerned about, I’m afraid, is maintaining and expanding the power position of Harvard.

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How disgusting and shameful of Harvard.

“A small group of Harvard administrators overruled Harvard’s own Title IX office”
Who appointed that committee?

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This piece is, dare I say it, “problematic”.

He had multiple complaints made against him that he made constant inappropriate and demeaning remarks to subordinates. The investigation found (and both he and this essay admit) that he did engage in that behavior. However they found that it did not rise to the level of “sexual harassment”. Did they make the right call?

One could just as easily use the same arguments presented in this essay to make the claim that the University went easy on its star professor in a situation where someone else would have lost their job entirely. Very few of us have employers who would not fire us immediately if we said an elderly Black co-worker “hadn’t been laid since black people were slaves.”

Racial discrimination, age discrimination, and a demeaning comment about someone’s sexual capacities all in the space of an 8 word sentence. That is impressive, but not in a good way.

“flirtatious”? That’s one word to describe constantly sending sexual messages to your “assistant” which only stop once she is forced to make a complaint to HR. Another word would be “harassing”.

Yes, a small group that was tasked to decide on the punishment. That is their role. This is akin to claiming “Only one man alone decided on the punishment” when discussing a Judge’s role in a court proceeding. This is phrased to intentional mislead.

  • "he’s been stripped of his named professorship" Stripped of an honorary title that doesn’t even seem to come with a pay bump. For actions that even this essay admits occurred.
  • "Banned from interacting with graduate students" How “banned” can this be when he is still teaching graduate level classes?
  • "subjected to constant Title IX surveillance" what does this even mean? Is he wearing a Title IX ankle bracelet?
  • "demoted to teaching undergraduates" yet he teaches BOTH graduate and undergraduate classes. He simply can only do workshops with the latter.

This essay is 30 paragraphs.
20 of which just describe his background and current activities. As if hard workers cannot be guilty of harassment.
1 of which corroborates the charges against him.
5 (just 5!) of which discuss the case against him.
2 of which the author uses to show that Harvard usually refuses to hold its people accountable. Which could just as easily prove that the charges against Fryer are damning but were downplayed by the investigators. Or perhaps he is trying to say that since other people got off on worse charges, Fryer should as well?

Its worth again pointing out that what he has admitted to would earn him a far worse punishment outside of the ivory towers of Harvard. This essay is doing precisely what the author is accusing Harvard of. Deciding on the appropriateness of the penalties based on how well the accused has flattered anti-Progressive viewpoints.

Roland Fryer has not been “gone after” by Harvard. Rather he has used his privilege to protect him from consequences anyone else would have suffered in his place.

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Fryer’s academic findings make him unpopular with the woke crowd. Doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that happening. School administrators these days are pretty woke. Also, water is wet.

He has boundary issues, esp when it comes to subordinates. This is not a good look.

However, this sums up where the guy sits:

He’s got some learning to do. But he’s no douchebag. And this should inform the “punishment”. So really, the question boils down to: has it?

To which I would then ask:

Is that standard? How often has that happened before?

That guy seemed like much more of a douchebag. Why the difference? (acknowledging the world was a different place 20 years ago)

But this is contemporary. Also seemingly more of a douchebag. Why the difference?

All the other stuff is just window dressing. Comes down to procedural fairness. Punishment should fit crime. This piece suggests Fryer’s punishment is disproportionate to his crimes, particularly in comparison to some (possibly cherry picked) alternate examples. Is that truly the case? If so, then why?

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Agreed, Fryer’s conduct seems pretty meh when weighed against his punishment. A slight whiff of “I can say whatever the hell I want because I’m a brilliant professor” but not much more than that. That said, bad judgment is going to get punished severely at institutions nowadays. Even those singing kumbaya aren’t going to be spared by the vindictive and petty pricks that seem to seem to populate the administration of a place like Harvard.

That a judge has the right to sentencing discretion is stipulated, recognized, and earned. Does that “small group of Harvard administrators” fall into the same category?

Also, it does raise eyebrows when a judge hands down something harsher than what the prosecutor recommends. And there is a recourse to appeal. How does that augur with this case?

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Yes. Despite starting with the friendly sounding introduction “Dear Colleague” the guidance made clear that Title IX protections for sexual discrimination were not optional for institutions that receive federal financial assistance from the Department of Education.

Depends on your point of view. I think it should raise eyebrows that Harvard clearly was not taking sexual harassment seriously until the #metoo movement. It is just as possible that the review board was being too lenient with their recommendation as it was that the final decision was too harsh.

He was doing things like making sex and age jokes about people he worked with. Sending sexual messages to subordinates and would not stop until they complained. For this the review board decided he just needed to attend some training classes? That doesn’t sound pretty close to “No punishment at all” to you?

And again, it should be noted that he was indeed doing the things he is accused of. The only argument is over how egregious the transgressions were in light of other factors. You may disagree with me that he should have been terminated for the offenses. But lets remember that he was not. He is still employed at one of the most elite institutions in the entire world.

We are only talking about him because of the level of privilege he enjoys. And because he made the right enemies with his scholarship to attract the defense of magazines such as this.

Unless there is evidence that Harvard’s appeal process was changed while he was being investigated I do not see how this matters one way or the other as to the merits of his case.

Offhand I cannot find anything online that suggests that it was. If you have found something please provide it. If Harvard changed or eliminated their appeal process while he was being investigated it would be a significant red flag that he was being treated with bad faith

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The word “constant” is obviously a hyperbole, also what is considered as “inappropriate” and “demeaning” is subjective and open to interpretation.

Since when making “inappropriate or demeaning” comments is a situation for losing one’s job?
Oh yes, since the feminist-instated hystrionics inquisition.
If a tenured professor’s behavior is deemed offending by some professional victims, in the worst case scenario the “offender” should get a warning, nothing more.

You added “Black”, in the article it’s just elderly coworker, race is not specified, and even if it was, it wouldn’t change anything, because firing people over poor jokes is not an acceptable response in a civilized society.

No discrimination whatsoever, just a poor joke.
Oh and if you consider that this was discrimination, then you will find blunt discrimination against middle-aged white males in the mainstream media on a daily basis.
In a short sentence, a female boss at Cambridge Analytica said: “i’m tired of making excuses for middle-aged white men”. So there you go, racial gender and age discrimination in one sentence. Nobody had any comment about the article.

People like you have come to consider the hysteric inquisition as being normal.
No sir, firing people over some poor joke is not an acceptable response, and the fact that this madness has become mainstream and widely accepted, does not make it any less insane.

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Stop that man!

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Or maybe we are talking about him because of his exceptional merits?. He made enemies among the privileged woke that got into academia surfing the diversity wave, and he made those enemies because he was more qualified than them and his ideas were going against the mainstream woke doctrines.

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Calm down Kaay. He did not lose his job. You can continue to be sexual demeaning to the women you work with. At least if you are a Harvard Professor. Or an actor in a “Mad Men” reboot.

No one expects the feminist-instated histrionics inquisition!

Letting people be sexually harassed just because the harasser “didn’t mean anything by it” is also not an acceptable response in a civilized society.

I am not a member of the “two wrongs make a right” club.

I do agree at least one of us is coming off as “hysteric”.

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True, you are just a member of the double standard club. Also the mentioning of the second wrong was not meant to excuse the first wrong, just to point out at the double standard.

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Seems like you cant make the difference between a joke and sexual harassment.

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Was that a demeaning comment aimed at me? According to your logic, you should be fired, or banned from the forums or something. Good thing this place doesnt function according to your ideology.

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The culture in places where they have human resources departments and DIE administrators is something I can’t comment on, but I can tellya that in the world of real people doing real work, a joke like that would most likely have been told by a member of the ‘target’ Identity. I don’t think it can be explained if you’ve never spent any time with working people – and if you have, no explanation is necessary – but real people bond with each other by telling jokes about themselves – their own Identity. It says to the group: ‘Don’t worry guys, I’m not some humorless snowflake, I don’t take myself too seriously, let’s laugh together.’ An Indian, a Cowboy and a Lawyer walk into a bar … well never mind. If it needs to be explained you won’t understand anyway.

On the contrary … well, as above all I can say is that in the real world it wouldn’t even be noticed. When men and women work together there is constant sexual … not ‘tension’ … maybe ‘awareness’. Jokes, some of them rather raw, inuendo, flirtation – both ways! – bosses very slightly favoring the hot chick, everyone noticing it, and so on and so forth. In the places where I’ve worked if the Fryer standards had been applied, 90% of the staff would be let go – both sexes and all 120 genders. Just to get anecdotal here’s some of the hundreds of similar non-incidents that pop easily to mind in my own working life:

  • Vicki showing me pictures of her skinnydipping.
  • Vicki pinching her nipple and smiling at me suggestively.
  • Me touching Virginia’s boob as we both made mockery of the sort of thing we’re talking about here.
  • Lelani making suggestions as to how we might end up in the same bed.
  • Marianne leaving a condom on my desk.
  • Nancy (my boss at the time) … nevermind, that’s getting to personal.

Anyway, I could go on for as long as you like. And that’s just me. Things I’ve seen and heard … sheesh. Like when Ernie got a wee bit too fresh with Viv, and Big Harold … nevermind. But there were always limits. Everyone knew that banter happens and that various people become and un-become attached. But don’t go too far.

Edit:

Oh, just for the record I was sweet on Lelani too at the time, but I was sweeter on Nancy, my boss. Nice to have … well, as to choices there was the time when I had three ladies vying for my attention at the same time. I didn’t charge them with anything tho, it’s rather flattering.

Men are usually honest about enjoying female attention even if not solicited. Women usually enjoy the attention too, but they can also pretend that they don’t at the same time. And, if the politics demands it, what was even welcomed at the time can be reconstructed as ‘harassment’ at any later date.

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