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Olin College professor remembers Facebook whistleblower as bright, committed student

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen talks with CBS's Scott Pelley on "60 Minutes."Robert Fortunato/Associated Press

Frances Haugen was a member of the first graduating class of Olin College, and during her years on the Needham campus the Facebook whistleblower stood out for intelligence, her commitment to others, and her enthusiasm, a professor said Monday.

“She was not just brilliant as most of our students were and are, she was enthusiastic, she was committed ... She was the student who always had her hand up,’' said Debbie Chachra, a professor of engineering who taught Haugen at Olin.

Haugen came forward in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night as the person who provided a trove of internal Facebook documents to federal regulators, elected officials, and the news media to publicly reveal deceptive statements and practices by the social media giant.


Haugen left Facebook in May and is scheduled to appear before Congress on the issue.

Chachra said she was surprised to see someone she knew surface as the Facebook whistleblower, but wasn’t surprised that it turned out to be Haugen, or that an engineer who risked their career for what they see as the greater good had ties to Olin.

“Those early students were risk-takers and almost all of them had acceptances from traditional engineering programs. Part of the reason they came to Olin was because they wanted to contribute to building something in the world, not just getting their education, but giving back to the world ... Frances was absolutely one of those students,” Chachra said.

Chachra said she is not sure what former Haugen’s future career will look like, but is certain that as a whistleblower, it will be even more challenging for her. Haugen graduated from Olin in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering, according to the school.

“To stand up and say I want to make technology better, to serve society better, I think, is a brave thing. But there will consequences ... that’s certainly been the case for whistleblowers,’' the professor said. “I certainly hope that this, as in the case of other issues of ethics, will make its way into the education of our engineering students.”


According to her website, Haugen was born in Iowa City and grew up “attending the Iowa caucuses with her parents, instilling a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation.”

Haugen began her career in tech in 2006, after graduating from Olin, according to her LinkedIn page. She later enrolled at Harvard Business School, where she earned an MBA in general management in 2011, according to her LinkedIn page.

While attending Olin, Haugen edited the college yearbook for three years and was an assistant coach for the Needham High School debate team from 2002 to 2006, according to her LinkedIn.

Haugen’s revelations about Facebook made national news on Sunday. The documents she released have informed a sweeping report by the Wall Street Journal dissecting everything from how Facebook has handled, or mishandled, the proliferation of misinformation on its platform to the toxic influence of Instagram, which Facebook owns, on teenage girls.

Among other revelations, the documents show Facebook’s weak response when employees raised concerns about how the platform was being used by human traffickers, drug cartels, and other nefarious groups around the world.

“When we live in an information environment that is full of angry, hateful, polarizing content, it erodes our civic trust, it erodes our faith in each other, it erodes our ability to want to care for each other,” Haugen told CBS’s Scott Pelley during their interview that aired Sunday night. “The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world.”


Prior to joining Facebook, Haugen made stops at Pinterest and Yelp and spent two stints at Google, where she worked for a total of more than seven years as a product manager and software engineer, according to her LinkedIn page.

Haugen started working at Facebook in June 2019, according to her LinkedIn page. Her personal website, franceshaugen.com says she was recruited to the company as the lead product manager on the civic misinformation team and later worked on “counter-espionage.”

We can have social media that brings out the best in humanity,”she wrote on her website, using bold type for some of the words.

John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.