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Harvard reviewing conduct of well-known economist Roland Fryer Jr.

Roland Fryer Jr. denied any allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination.
Getty Images/File 2011
Roland Fryer Jr. denied any allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination.

A renowned Harvard University economist has been barred from the lab he founded as university officials investigate allegations that he and others there made sexually inappropriate comments and created a hostile work environment.

Roland Fryer Jr., a former MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner who a decade ago earned tenure at Harvard at just 30 years old, is at the center of an investigation by both the university and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Since March, Harvard limited Fryer’s contact with EdLabs, a research and consulting group focused on race, education, and inequality, Fryer’s attorney said. EdLabs’ chief of staff, Brad Allan, has also been barred from the laboratory.

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Fryer is alleged to have discussed sex often at work, sexualized female workers, and created a demeaning workplace, said Monica Shah, an attorney with Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein, who is representing a woman who worked at EdLabs. Her client complained about Fryer’s behavior to Harvard in 2017 and filed a formal complaint earlier this year with the Massachusetts agency that investigates workplace discrimination.

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The allegations against Fryer were first reported by the Harvard Crimson.

“We are aware of and take seriously concerns raised about the treatment of staff in the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University (EdLabs), including whether staff members have been treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Rachael Dane, a spokeswoman for the university. “Harvard is deeply committed to providing a civil and inclusive work environment for all members of our community.”

In a statement released through his attorney, Fryer denied any allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination.

“Let me state unequivocally that I have not — and would not — engage in any discrimination or harassment of any form,” Fryer said. “Any claim to the contrary is patently false.”

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Fryer’s attorney, George Leontire, said he is aware that two workers have filed complaints against the economist with Harvard. But he disputed the allegations.

Since EdLabs launched in 2008, more than 80 research assistants have worked there and “overwhelmingly they deny this kind of activity took place,” Leontire said.

Allan, the lab’s chief of staff, could not be reached for comment.

This is the second high-profile professor at Harvard in recent months to come under scrutiny for sexual harassment.

In March, Jorge Dominguez, a government professor was accused of sexual misconduct spanning more than three decades. Dominguez announced his sudden retirement about a week after an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education detailed the allegations against him.

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Even at Harvard, which draws notable professors, Fryer’s rise has been meteoric. Fryer grew up with little money among family members who sold cocaine, according to multiple articles that have been written about him by the national media and Harvard publications in recent years. Yet in 2015 he became the first African-American to win the American Economic Association’s John Bates Clark Medal. The award is given to economists under the age of 40 who have made significant contributions to the field and is referred to as the “Baby Nobel” because past winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

Fryer’s pioneering research on issues such as racial differences in police use of force, black teen student achievement, and school reform has been cited in trade journals and mainstream media.

Fryer’s stature at Harvard made it difficult for her client to get relief when she complained about his behavior, Shah told the Harvard Crimson.

Some EdLabs workers said that while Fryer was a demanding boss, they disputed complaints that the environment was toxic or demeaning.

Tanaya Devi, who is earning her doctoral degree in economics at Harvard and has worked with Fryer for five years, said she never witnessed any conversations that were misogynistic, or verbally sexually harassing.

Devi, who is coauthoring two papers with Fryer, said he has been supportive and has encouraged her interest in race and crime, a topic that few female economists pursue.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.