In tweets: academic economics reckons with its discriminatory culture

Here’s as comprehensive a summary of events and reactions as I can manage on vacation, currently in a cabin fresh off a hike in the middle of Tasmania. I think it is important to consider these events in the context of the #MeToo movement broadly and Alice Wu’s paper on the latent toxicity of academic economics, which I cannot adequately summarize in this space. I’ve been drafting this post on-and-off for the past week, which turned out to be much more eventful than anticipated.

I’ll state upfront that my experience with academic economics has been uniformly positive and I cannot be effusive enough of all my supervisors at NYU, Stanford, and Oxford who have only inspired and affirmed my commitment to this field of study; compared to even my peers’ positive experiences, I genuinely believe I lucked into the best situations possible at each of those universities.

As a bit of my own background: I am a Philippine national and when applying to full-time economics RAships in the US after my undergrad, I had to choose from the mere handful of such positions that could potentially sponsor a work visa. After starting my job, I found myself in a position wherein my right to live in the United States depended entirely on my continued employment at Stanford. With the increasing necessity of RAships to place into PhD programs, this is perhaps a growing concerning source of nationality-based inequality to be discussed another day. I bring this up only because the precariousness inherent in being an RA—being sort of associated with a department and university but also sort of not, working closely with faculty but having your livelihood and future rely critically on them—is familiar to me and thinking about it being used against others in the same vulnerable position is personally infuriating.

So I approach this topic not with any first-hand experience of being taken advantage of, but with frustration and regret that experiences like mine have been deprived from others who were just as enthusiastic and qualified (in many cases, surely more so). This post is just me documenting a critical turning point in my chosen line of work using two of my strengths: a tendency to fixate on topics I care about and spending time on Twitter.

I am embedding tweet reactions below, but will not transcribe them out of respect for the tweeters’ rights to remove it from the record given the sensitive nature of the topic. I’ve tried to especially highlight the voices of women in the profession and in particular those of junior researchers (i.e. grad students and post-bac RAs). On the latter, while many senior economists have been outspoken in light of recent news and their support is important, what jumps out at me is how much junior researchers know and how strong a stance they’re willing to take while they’re at a vulnerable juncture in their careers. It seems to me that the field is on the precipice of meaningful change towards inclusivity that will be ushered in by a generation of academics who even at personal risk refuses to tolerate any less. I applaud and am inspired by the many women and men helping to bring this change about sooner.

  • In April 2018, the American Economic Association unveils the candidates for their Executive Committee. The candidates are nominated unilaterally by the AEA’s Nominating Committee and the members of the AEA vote to elect candidates to those positions. Economist Roland Fryer is among the nominees; he is a natural candidate as a MacArthur Fellow, a John Bates Clark Medalist, the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard, and one of the most publicly engaged economists in the world, having appeared on late-night talk shows and having been profiled by The Economist, The New York Times, and The Financial Times.

  • In May, the Harvard Crimson publishes an article revealing that Fryer is under investigation by Harvard and the state of Massachusetts “and has been barred by University officials from setting foot in the research lab he heads and founded a decade ago.” That would be The Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University or “EdLabs,” which focuses on the intersection of American education policy, poverty, and racial achievement gaps. The investigations are based on “at least two Title IX complaints” filed by anonymous individuals that the Crimson is able to directly communicate with. (Coverage from Vox)

    • Lawyers speaking on behalf of two clients allege Fryer spoke about sex in the workplace, made “sexually inappropriate comments” to and about employees and others, and “objectified and sexualized” women including female staffers.”

    • One of these clients claims she approached Harvard HR in June 2017 and subsequently suffered “retaliation” from Fryer for doing so. What this alleged retaliation entailed was not publicized.

    • The other client filed a complaint in April 2018, the month before the Crimson article was published.

    • Four former and active EdLabs employees—including current Chief Academic Officer Meghan Howard Noveck and Research Director Rucha P. Vankudre—deny on the record any knowledge of Fryer’s ever behaving in a sexist or misogynistic manner, calling the notion “absurd” and citing the fact that three of the lab’s four senior managers were women. They agree that banter about employees’ dating lives took place but deny any discriminative, sexist, misogynistic, or harassing banter, claiming Fryer never commented on the physical act of sex directly. Vankudre argues that if Fryer had known that their banter about dating lives had made anyone uncomfortable, he would have “stopped immediately.”

  • At the time, I was able to find a Cambridge-area economics researcher who considered the allegations very credible, saying that among the RAs and graduate students at Harvard and MIT, the environment of EdLabs was notoriously toxic. I should note I have no meaningful connections at either university, let alone the lab, yet finding this corroborating account was very easy and took very little effort.

  • In August, voting opens to confirm the aforementioned AEA executive committee nominees

  • It becomes apparent that many economists and voters were unaware of the ongoing investigation despite public coverage in the Crimson and Vox. Some who are aware see it as too unsubstantiated for punitive action.

  • Later that month, the AEA issues a statement acknowledging the ongoing investigation claiming it had not been aware of the allegations prior. It still notes that “We take such allegations seriously, but they are, at this point, just allegations… We have decided that, before proceeding further, we should wait for those conclusions, if they are made public and they come within a reasonable amount of time.  If not, we shall reexamine our position.”

  • On December 14, Jim Tankersley and Ben Casselman of the New York Times publish new details arising from the aforementioned investigation as well as an independent Times investigation. The number of accusers has increased, multiple women allege retaliation in the form of withheld or negative performance reviews, and the Times is able to substantiate multiple claims, including vulgar unsolicited text messages and multiple instances of female employees exiting EdLabs prematurely.

    • It is reported that there are now at least three Title IX complaints brought against Fryer, one of which was filed on behalf of several women, expanding on the subset reported in the Crimson article

    • The article quotes Fryer: “I have never and would not retaliate against any employee.”

    • Vankudre, as in the Crimson article, goes on record to defend Fryer: “I don’t feel like I was ever judged on anything other than the quality of my work. He takes me and my ideas seriously.”

    • Fryer: “Why am I the only one who violated policy when many others participated? …Is it because I am the only professor or because of my skin color?”

    • In the Twitter responses to the article, some themes emerge:

      • Many lament the loss of several highly promising young academic careers

      • Some RAs express frustration about the hazards of pursuing their chosen field of study

      • Junior researchers had already been aware of the environment at EdLabs but lacked a credible system for reporting or being believed. Some see this as reason for supporting graduate-student unionization

      • Many report feelings of betrayal about an academic idol

      • Many lament that the first high-profile case of abuse of power makes a black professor the face of a long-pervasive and endemic problem. Indeed, Fryer himself seems to make this point in his defense. Brad DeLong cites a specific example naming another professor that had apparently not been public knowledge prior.

  • On December 18, Fryer resigns from his elected position before the AEA could make any punitive decision. The Harvard and Massachusetts investigations are still ongoing. In the meantime, the New York Times reporters are still soliciting any relevant information or other cases of harassment in academic economics.

  • On December 26, former academic economist Noah Smith publishes a Bloomberg column titled “Economics Needs to Dump the Sexism” and describing the Fryer revelations as economics’ “#MeToo moment”. Among other recommendations, it calls for the creation of a new AEA code of conduct, highlights the work of the Sadie Tanner Collective and Undergraduate Women in Economics to encourage young minority and female participation in the field, and calls for change from the top economics departments and journals.

  • On December 27, an open letter written and co-signed by hundreds of graduate students and RAs at American universities is published: "We are tired of seeing friends and colleagues who could have been brilliant economists forced out by the terrible climate in our discipline. We are tired of leaders in the field refusing to see problems happening right under their noses." The letter calls for departments and universities to enforce codes of conduct and provide channels through which complaints can be channeled, highlighting the relative vulnerability and lack of power of graduate students and RAs.