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Prominent professor warned Harvard of sex harassment threat to grad students

Stephen Blyth said he was no longer comfortable staying silent, given his own concerns and those he was hearing privately from colleagues.
Stephen Blyth said he was no longer comfortable staying silent, given his own concerns and those he was hearing privately from colleagues.(Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff/file)

As Harvard University grapples with its failure to address decades of sexual misconduct by a former professor, some faculty and graduate students say they have been pressing for at least a year for greater urgency in changing a culture of tolerating “open secrets” on campus.

In particular, they have raised alarms and staged protests about the problems faced by graduate students at the hands of the powerful professors who are supposed to be their mentors.

One professor a full year ago said he was no longer comfortable staying silent, given his own concerns and those he was hearing privately from colleagues.

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“We exhort students and other victims of harassment to come forward and speak up,” Stephen Blyth, a statistics professor and the former head of Harvard’s multibillion-dollar endowment, wrote in a May 2018 letter to then-president Drew Gilpin Faust. Yet Harvard has a history of failing to act, Blyth said: “Victims and witnesses need to have confidence that perpetrators will, when appropriate, be removed from the university.”

Jorge Dominguez at the Harvard University JFK School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Institute of Politics.
Jorge Dominguez at the Harvard University JFK School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Institute of Politics. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images/File 2013)

A copy of the letter was obtained by the Globe in the wake of recent sanctions against Jorge Dominguez, a retired Harvard government professor who was found to have engaged in “unwelcome sexual conduct” with female students and junior faculty over four decades.

The Blyth letter was shared last year with other top Harvard officials, including president Lawrence Bacow after he took over in July, a university spokesman confirmed.

Blyth said he stands by his letter. “We have an urgent collective responsibility to tackle harassment at Harvard robustly and promptly, in order to deserve the full trust of our students,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, graduate students at Harvard, who are in a labor dispute with the university, have been protesting for months, demanding greater protections against harassment as part of their negotiated contract.

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Earlier this month, Harvard acknowledged — after a yearlong investigation — its findings against Dominguez, the retired professor and onetime vice provost. The school took the rare step of stripping him of the privileges granted to retired faculty and barred him from campus.

At the same time, Bacow agreed to an external review of the university’s policies. The probe is meant to examine why alleged victims may be reluctant to report misconduct, and what barriers may prevent Harvard from effectively responding to complaints.

Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain confirmed that Faust, Bacow, and other top Harvard officials had seen Blyth’s warning letter. But he said Harvard has been tackling harassment on a number of fronts since 2015 and making vigorous changes in its practices, outreach, and training for at least the past two years.

“As President Bacow has said, the university’s highest priority is providing a welcoming, healthy and safe community where all students, faculty, and staff can do their best work,” Swain said in a statement. This includes “ensuring Harvard is an environment where individuals are empowered to come forward when misconduct occurs.”

For graduate students, reporting misconduct by a professor can be particularly fraught. Professors and department chairs guide their research and apply for grants that can help fund their pay. They also provide important recommendations for future positions, and help students establish contacts that can propel their careers.

At Harvard, that power imbalance can be magnified even further: Professors are often superstars in their fields, known worldwide and teaching at one of the country’s premier institutions, graduate students said.

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“The power relationships in academia are difficult. Your supervisor has control over your whole career,” said Ege Yumusak, a second-year graduate student in philosophy and a member of the graduate student worker union. “Harvard is a place where there are many powerful people.”

Blyth, in his letter, said the bravery required for a doctoral student to complain about a top professor rivals what Hollywood actors had to summon in the face of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment.

Even younger professors, on whom students might lean for help if they are being mistreated, are often reticent to rock the boat, the letter said. “I encountered professors who would not speak on the record for fear of retribution or disruption to their own career.”

Harvard is moving ahead in earnest, said Swain, the school spokesman.

He noted that in March of 2018, Faust had asked a committee that oversees Harvard’s gender and sexual discrimination matters to look into harassment by faculty members, two months before the Blyth letter was written.

Harvard saw a 56 percent increase in reports of sexual or gender-based harassment in 2018 — from 266 incidents to 416, and the largest portion identified involve faculty or staff. Harvard officials attribute the rise in reports to more training and raising awareness among students, faculty, and staff.

Since 2017, under newly appointed Title IX officer Nicole Merhill, Harvard has offered students more ways to file complaints, officials say. Students can bring to her office reports of sexual harassment or assault by students or faculty members. Sometimes alleged victims don’t want to file formal complaints and are informed of other options, officials say.

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Harvard also has a formal complaint process handled by its Office of Dispute Resolution, which investigates allegations.

But Harvard officials would not say whether the spike in incident reports has led to more disciplinary actions against faculty or staff for violations. Sanctions against faculty are left up to each individual school on the campus and punishment for bad behavior can vary.

Recent publicized sexual harassment cases show that Harvard has not been good at policing itself, graduate students said.

“It’s a systemic problem that needs a systemic solution,” said Vail Kohnert-Yount, a Harvard Law School student and a founder of the Pipeline Parity Project, fighting to end sexual harassment and discrimination in the legal profession. She said a university wide examination is sorely needed and long overdue.

Roland Fryer.
Roland Fryer.(Jodi Hilton/Getty Images/File 2011)

Aside from the Dominguez case, Harvard also is investigating complaints of sexual harassment by other professors. For instance, allegations have been made against Roland Fryer, a high-profile economist. Fryer is alleged to have discussed sex at work, sexualized female workers, and created a demeaning workplace at his research lab going back several years, according to an attorney representing a lab worker who filed a complaint.

In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, Fryer apologized for making “bad jokes,” but denied retaliating against employees or fostering an environment where women felt alienated.

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Fryer’s attorney said recently the professor is still waiting for a ruling from Harvard.

The problem of graduate student sexual harassment has been gaining greater attention on campuses across the country and goes far beyond Harvard Yard.

At Dartmouth College, three former psychology professors have been accused of sexual assault and harassment in a high-profile case. Earlier this year, a Michigan State University professor was alleged to have exchanged sexual favors for academic guidance to graduate students dating back to 2002. And last month, Boston University fired a well-known geologist over allegations that he harassed two former graduate students during research trips to Antarctica. The geologist has denied the allegations.

Terry Karl, an professor emeritus at Stanford University who first raised the alarm on Dominguez in the early 1980s when she was a young professor at Harvard, said the university must confront what she calls institutional failings in dealing with faculty such as Dominguez.

The external review could be a step in the right direction, she said, and “could be a turning point and an example for all universities or one more effort to stonewall, protect faculty, at all costs and shove abuse of power under the rug.”


Beth Healy can be reached at beth.healy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.