Why Harvard’s canceling of Roland Fryer matters
Harvard economist and professor Roland Fryer Jr. has built his name on asking tough questions. As a MacArthur Fellow, recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal, and the founder of Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory, Fryer has dedicated his career to understanding the persistent performance gap in low-income K-12 schooling, with a specific emphasis on black students. He has questioned how students respond to financial incentives and peer pressure, and identified the critical role that both parents and high quality teachers play in student achievement. Unafraid to challenge established orthodoxy around both race and education, Fryer’s work offers a practical path, backed by decades of empirical evidence, to improving outcomes for America’s most vulnerable students.
In spite of, or maybe because of, the transformative nature of Fryer’s work, Harvard University has effectively canceled this uniquely gifted researcher—silencing a clearly influential voice when it may be needed most. A new documentary titled Harvard Canceled its Best Black Professor. Why?, seeks to uncover the truth behind Fryer’s sanction. Produced by Rob Montz’s Good Kid Productions, the short film outlines Fryer’s early celebrity, storied career, and most notably his 2011 findings from the Harlem Children’s Zone, in which he concluded that “high-quality schools are enough to significantly increase academic achievement among the poor,” while “community programs appear neither necessary nor sufficient.”
Using first-person interviews with Fryer’s students, witnesses, and Harvard staff, the film seeks to understand the Title IX complaint that is the basis for Harvard’s sanctioning of its celebrity professor. Elsewhere, the film explores Fryer’s challenging upbringing of parental abandonment and poverty, rightly casting Fryer as the perfect voice to address the issues that black America faces in the twenty-first century. Since Fryer has declined to publicly speak on the sexual harrassment complaint, the legendary economist Glenn Loury, who has long served as Fryer’s professional mentor and personal father-figure, acts as his surrogate in the film, offering viewers a glimpse into Fryer’s emotional world without compromising the treasured intimacy shared between the two men.
Filed in 2018 by Fryer’s former personal assistant, the Title IX complaint arose after Harvard fired the unnamed woman for failure to perform. Of the thirty-eight complaints filed against Fryer, six were immediately rejected by Harvard, with an additional twenty-six being dismissed after the completion of the investigation. Taking an objective look at the hundreds of pages of evidence, Montz acknowledges that Fryer is not entirely blameless in this affair. He erred in creating an overly familiar culture in his lab, which may have inadvertently led to the complaints against him, the resulting penalties, his suspension, and the closure of EdLabs. With witnesses testifying that the complainant lied before the committee, however, and with evidence showing that there existed a mutual state of intimate familiarity between her and Fryer, the punishments placed on Fryer seem excessive when measured against the university’s sexual harassment policy.
What endears me most to Fryer is that he seems to easily meld the urban swagger familiar in many black men with a staggering intellectual excellence, without regard for the opinions of his peers—qualities that Montz and Loury believe hold the key to understanding Harvard’s clearly unfair treatment of the superstar economist. Reading Fryer’s work, you are confronted with uncompromising truths and radical prescriptions that, when applied to the classroom, indirectly cast a light on the failings of many prevailing theories. Focusing specifically on black K-12 students, Fryer’s 2009 study, An Empirical Analysis of “Acting White,” makes clear that academic success for black students often results in a correlated diminished social status.
Refusing to be confined to a lab, Fryer places himself in spaces that allow him to both collect data and directly experience the subjects that he studies. In his 2010 study, Policing the Police: The Impact of “Pattern-or-Practice'' Investigations on Crime, Fryer embedded himself with multiple police departments to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the police and the public in response to federal investigations after viral police shootings. Like many, Fryer’s views on policing in the black community were framed by his upbringing in urban America and the recent frequency of viral videos depicting police brutality. In a 2020 interview with the Manhattan Institute, he admits to initially being moved by the “abhorrent behavior” of police officers in these videos and believing that they were the norm. He states that he began his 2010 study expecting to find no significant changes in police behavior in response to these viral incidents. After compiling millions of data points, Fryer found that in the aggregate Pattern-or-Practice investigations do not have a significant effect on crime rates. However, Fryer was shocked to find that total crime—specifically, murders in the black community—increased when an investigation was conducted after a viral incident of police use of force.
Many see Fryer as heir to a powerful tradition of freethinking black academics like the legendary Thomas Sowell, the late Walter Williams, and Fryer’s mentor, Glenn Loury. Despite the struggles they faced growing up—whether from good old boys in the Jim Crow south, or from gangs on the streets of Chicago—these exceptional minds all acknowledge the impact of America’s history of racial discrimination while also insisting that this past does not determine the future of black America.
Fryer’s work is a perfect embodiment of what academic research should be: identifying issues of great importance to society, developing a hypothesis and testing it through rigorous empirical analysis, following the data wherever it leads, no matter how unpleasant or unpopular, and pugnaciously defending the results. He would seem like the quintessential Harvard man—in a different time, perhaps.
Fryer’s work calls us to a simple truth: that the noblest paths to success and dignity are found in truth and accountability. This is a maxim that all of us would do well to adopt. But the question is, as Fryer would say, “Do we have the courage to do it?”
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The Truth Fairy – Abigail Shrier
Skeptic – Michael Shermer
Habits of a Free Mind – Pamela Paresky
Journal of Free Black Thought – Erec Smith et al.
INQUIRE – Zaid Jilani
Beyond Woke – Peter Boghossian
The Glenn Show – Glenn Loury
It Bears Mentioning – John McWhorter
The Weekly Dish – Andrew Sullivan
Notes of an Omni-American – Thomas Chatterton-Williams