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‘Bullied Into Leaving’: Harvard Research Admin File Workplace Complaints, Leave Department En Masse

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{shortcode-7e6a614019889c9532d246ae6efec34aab951b08}op Harvard officials repeatedly failed to address workplace complaints against Associate Dean for Research Administration Services Lauren Ferrell that accused her of creating a toxic work environment, according to 10 current and former University administrators.

The administrators allege that Ferrell harassed and bullied members of the department, including by retaliating against staff, questioning their intelligence, and insulting and diminishing them in both public and private settings. Ferrell leads the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Research Administration Services, which provides research development and administrative support for faculty in the FAS and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

When Ferrell arrived in the FAS RAS department in June 2021, there were 26 other staffers. In just under two and a half years, that number has fallen to only 10. According to the current and former University administrators, many of the employees who resigned cited Ferrell’s behavior as a reason for their departure.

Some staff members resigned from the department before successfully securing new employment, which the administrators cite as a direct result of dissatisfaction with the work environment.

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According to the current and former University administrators, there have been 14 informal complaints to Title IX about Ferrell since her appointment to the associate deanship. Employees have also repeatedly reached out to FAS Human Resources with concerns about Ferrell’s behavior.

At least three complaints have also been filed with the state, two through the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and one through the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

Current and former University administrators spoke to The Crimson on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Ferrell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in an emailed statement that the “FAS takes seriously all concerns raised regarding challenges in the workplace.”

“There are policies and processes in place to allow employees to share feedback and to enable FAS to address concerns,” he wrote. “We cannot comment to anyone about confidential personnel matters, especially ongoing matters.”

“Nevertheless, we affirm our commitment to ensuring that all employees are held to the same high standards, and that everyone is treated fairly and with respect,” he added.

In a Thursday evening email addressed to “colleagues,” FAS Dean of Administration and Finance Scott Jordan — to whom Ferrell directly reports — announced that the RAS will now jointly report to Harvard Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs in addition to himself.

“Under this expanded leadership, RAS will continue to solidify its commitment to keep pace with the transformative changes in the research landscape,” Jordan wrote. “RAS’ reimagining effort began this summer with updated job descriptions and recruitment practices, and will continue with onboarding that supports the recruitment and retention of a strong networked team that values diversity, integrity, ethics, outreach, and engagement.”

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A ‘Hostile Workplace Environment’

In a misconduct allegation sent to FAS HR in October 2021 obtained by The Crimson, a former staff member wrote that they were “terrified to come to work, feel completely isolated from my coworkers.”

“Harvard used to feel like ‘home’, but within the last two months or so, I have been bullied, gaslighted, excluded and manipulated by Lauren Ferrell,” the former staffer wrote.

According to the former staffer, FAS HR convinced them not to pursue an investigation but kept the report on file as an official misconduct complaint.

Two complaints have also been filed through Harvard’s internal EthicsPoint anonymous reporting hotline.

An internal HR investigation began on June 7, 2023, when Program Manager for Professional Conduct Lance Houston contacted the department. Houston met with departmental staff, but less than five months later, he departed his post at the University at the conclusion of his temporary appointment. Attempts to contact his email bounced back with an error message, but no updates on the investigation had been provided to the staff.

When reached by phone, Houston declined to comment, citing HR policy against discussing confidential investigations.

According to a July 2022 complaint filed through Harvard’s anonymous reporting system EthicsPoint obtained by The Crimson, Ferrell “yelled” at a third-party hire during a virtual work meeting.

“Ms Ferrell’s erratic and unprofessional behavior continued to escalate, culminating in two zoom calls during which she yelled, stood up and pointed, waved hands, called my work terrible and unusable, the overall experience ‘disappointing’ as well as using condescending, derogatory language and body language,” the complaint reads.

In a September 2022 state complaint filed against Ferrell obtained by The Crimson, a former staff member claimed Ferrell created a “hostile workplace environment,” including multiple “instances of harassment and humiliation.”

The complaint, filed through MCAD, alleges that Ferrell’s actions caused “undue stress and emotional harm.”

During individual meetings, the MCAD complaint reads, Ferrell leveled misleading and unsubstantiated claims about the staffer and their work performance. Ferrell allegedly told the former employee twice in a “demeaning and negative tone” that she had “heard” they were “difficult.”

Despite repeated staff attempts to raise concerns, “senior leaders at FAS ignored Title IX staff complaints filed against Ferrell.”

“In addition, it also demonstrates a pattern at FAS of ignoring Title IX staff complaints filed against Ferrell with staff repeatedly told by Ferrell’s supervisor, Dean Scott Jordan, that they needed to support Ferrell,” the complaint reads.

Jordan received multiple email correspondences detailing Ferrell’s behavior and seeking resources for support. Harvard President Claudine Gay, then-President Lawrence S. Bacow, and Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 were also copied on emailed complaints about Ferrell.

According to the University administrators, Ferrell has a close relationship with Gay — who was dean of the FAS at the time and hired Ferrell. Ferrell has allegedly invoked her name on multiple occasions to intimidate staff members.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment.

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According to the current and former administrators, the lack of action from HR and the University at large seemed to indicate that Harvard’s administration would protect Ferrell.

The complaints leveled against Harvard and Ferrell came as the University was in the process of instating new policies to address power-based harassment and bullying.

Harvard has fielded criticism in the past for the way it handled complaints of power-based harassment or bullying, particularly from graduate students. The Crimson reported earlier this year that more than two dozen current and former students, staff, and colleagues alleged that top Harvard climate scientist Daniel P. Schrag had created a poor working environment for two decades by undermining subordinates, using demeaning language, and setting unreasonable expectations.

In April 2022, Harvard released drafts of the University’s first non-discrimination and anti-bullying policies, launching a six-month period during which affiliates could provide feedback on them. Harvard published its official policies in March 2023.

According to the University’s policies, bullying is broadly defined as harmful interpersonal behavior — through “words or actions” — that “humiliate, degrade, demean, intimidate, or threaten an individual or individuals.”

For the behavior to qualify as a violation of the policy, it must create an environment that a “reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive” and prevent someone from having an opportunity in their workplace or program. The policy further states that a single instance would not fall under bullying unless “sufficiently severe or pervasive.”

Under the policy, bullying can include “abusive expression” directed at someone that would fall “outside the range of commonly accepted expressions of disagreement, disapproval, or critique,” including “feedback delivered by yelling, screaming, making threats or gratuitous insults” and “malicious comments” about someone’s appearance or family. Bullying can also take the form of abusing one’s authority “using inappropriate threats or retaliation.”

Complaints of Retaliation

In another state complaint obtained by The Crimson, a former staffer alleged that Ferrell discriminated against them “on the basis of race and retaliation.” The complaint — filed through MCAD — also cited Harvard University as one of the defendants.

The complainant detailed going on medical leave, during which Ferrell attempted to contact them. When the staffer did not respond, Ferrell allegedly told another employee that the staffer needed to “learn responsibility” and “teach her kids what responsibility is.”

In meetings with the former staffer, Ferrell also “started to talk down” to them, including telling the staffer that “you need to catch yourself.”

The complaint also states that Ferrell made the former staffer follow a new accountability structure that involved regular check-in meetings with Ferrell at 30, 60, and 90 days — which the staffer alleges Ferrell had not imposed on other department members returning around the same time. The difference in treatment, the complaint claims, was due to an HR complaint the staffer had filed three months before, prior to going on leave.

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In an email exchange with a senior human resources consultant in FAS HR obtained by The Crimson, a former staff member detailed facing retaliation from Ferrell after returning from a medical leave.

The former employee wrote that Ferrell’s behavior caused an “unbearable level of stress,” making them feel as if they were “drowning in isolation” and “being bullied into leaving.” The staffer said they ultimately turned to a therapist for help.

According to the email exchange with HR, Ferrell made comments about the staffer’s personal and family life during one of their individual check-in meetings.

“Harvard is not paying us to raise our kids, you need to figure it out,” Ferrell allegedly said.

In the email, the former staffer asked HR to attend meetings with Ferrell, since they felt uncomfortable meeting individually with her following retaliatory behavior.

In response, the HR department notified the staffer that Ferrell would be informed of the complaints and given the chance to respond “to ensure that we understand the full set of facts, instead of the views of any one person.”

The HR representative also wrote that Ferrell’s job as the department’s supervisor necessitated meeting regularly with staff and that they “worry that some of her efforts to provide you with support are being misconstrued.”

Still, the staffer asked HR for help with improving the environment in the FAS Research Administration Services office so they wouldn’t feel compelled to quit their job.

“How can the university protect me from this behavior? What are my options? I would like to stay in the school/ department but i cannot continue to endure this behavior,” the former staffer wrote to HR.

Despite the email exchanges, there was no further action by FAS HR to assist the staffer. Without help remedying the situation, the staffer resigned.

“Please, help me,” the staffer wrote.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at claire.yuan@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @claireyuan33.

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