When a brilliant economist is accused of harassment, can you separate the research from the man?

Harvard faces a moral quandary
Harvard faces a moral quandary
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Accusations that Harvard economist Roland Fryer sexually harassed his research assistants rocked the academic world when the news broke Dec. 14. Economists on twitter expressed outrage, disgust, and also sadness. The Fryer case brings up issues the economic profession, and all research fields, must face when confronted with a brilliant academic accused of deplorable actions: Can you separate the researcher from the man?

According to the New York Times, Fryer wrote a research assistant (who had complained about his behavior) in a online chat message, “I write papers that I think will help the world…I’m far less interested in people’s feelings. They can quit if they don’t like it.”

The first sentence is not wrong. Fryer’s work is important, path-breaking, and important for society. He is not afraid to probe questions and get hard answers about what keeps many black Americans from wealth and prosperity. His work attempted to find solutions that removes barriers and make America a more fair and just place. His papers have identified the factors that prevent minority student from excelling in school, and what policies and kinds of schools can eliminate the achievement gap.

The second sentence may be true, as well. He is accused of sexually inappropriate comments and retaliatory behavior that derailed the careers of women who rebuffed his advances and complained. It is hard to square the accusations with the societal good that came from his past and potentially future research. Fryer denies he ever made sexual advances or retaliated against an employee.

Are there different standards for the arts and the sciences?

Culture writers have long wrestled with the question of separating the artist from the man. Can we or should we enjoy the art created by someone who has done bad things? Should they be allowed to continue to show and sell their art after the behavior is revealed? As more cases like Fryer’s come out, we must also answer these questions for academic researchers.

One could argue such behavior means the accused, if an investigation concludes guilt, should not run a lab or mentor students. Harsher punishments could include losing their jobs or banishment from top journals and prestigious conferences, which will prevent them from doing research in the future. An even more extreme censure would be if fellow academics no longer cited their research, effectively erasing past contributions. The right punishment obviously depends on the severity of the harassment and if there’s a pattern of abuse. And in every case a question hangs over us, should it matter if their research is making the world a better place?

In the arts and media, the punishment for the behavior of which Fryer is accused is swift and unforgiving. Actors and on-air personalities lose their jobs and are rarely heard from again. Entire careers are destroyed in an instant, and all past work is viewed differently. Guilt is determined not in a court, but in the public square of Twitter and think pieces that attempt to set new standards for acceptable and moral behavior. Because our society has tolerated bad behavior for so many years, this may be the necessary course correction. History will tell us if some cases were an overreaction or the start of a new set of social norms. But there are factors that make research different than the arts.

It is one thing to remove Kevin Spacey from a movie. He can be replaced with Christopher Plummer and the movie will  be just as good, or even if it is not, the world won’t be significantly worse for it. Research is different. Path-breaking scholarship takes decades of training, mentorships, and a specific genius and creativity. It is harder to remove a talented researcher from a project without threatening to destroy it. And if the research is doing some social good, like lessening inequality or curing cancer, the costs to the world are bigger.

Research is also unique because there are so few gatekeepers to a successful career. In economics, undergraduate students, or new graduates, often begin as assistants to a well-known economist. If the economist likes the assistant’s work, they will write a recommendation which can ensure acceptance to a top graduate program (this is how I got my start). Then as graduate students, they work closely with an advisor, who train them through one-on-one mentorships that go on for years. At the end of graduate school, mentors write letters and make calls that determine their students’ first job.

The uncomfortable power of an academic mentor

Advisors decide how good you are and your status in the field (though having a great research to back it up is also necessary). This system means, at various points in a young economist’s career, a single person has an enormous influence their life.  Mentors have a tremendous amount of power and sometimes—too much of the time—it gets abused. Throw in a skewed gender balance, and the power dynamics get even more complicated. A super-star academic is arguably even more influential in an aspiring academic’s career than Harvey Weinstein was for young actresses.

James Mahon, a philosophy professor at the City University of New York’s Lehman College, specializes in ethics. He thinks there is something inherently wrong with a system where one person has so much power over another. Mahon argues, channeling German philosopher Immanuel Kant, that we are all equal and everyone should be treated equally. Things get hairy when someone decides that because their work is morally superior, it entitles them to believe they can  “do to others what they can’t do to them,” Mahon said.”And their moral superiority means they abide by different rules.”

Mahon believes we can’t give anyone a free pass, or even judge them more lightly, just because their work is socially useful. Actually, he argues, they must be held to a higher moral standard. Possessing both the genius and the opportunity to do critical research is a privilege. It is an opportunity few will ever have because money for research is finite and slots at top universities are scarce. If past research is morally tainted or future breakthroughs are cut short because of morally reprehensible behavior, we all lose.  “Just like with great power come great responsibility, so does great intellect,” Mahon said.

But what if someone is on the verge of curing cancer? Mahon says he’d bite the bullet and find another scientist. The research may be set back a few years, but if a scientist is abusing his power and destroying the careers of others because they rebuffed a sexual advance—or just out of jealousy or pettiness—society might be deprived of even better researchers who never got to realize their potential. Perhaps those scholars would have solved important problems, too. Maybe they’d have done even better work that would have had more impact.

Following calls by many economists, Fryer resigned from the executive committee of the American Economic Association, the industry’s largest and most powerful professional organization.  Most agree he should not have a leadership role in economics, but whether he’ll keep his lab, continue to mentor students, or keep his job won’t be known until Harvard finishes its investigation.