Advertisement

Dan Schrag, Top Harvard Climate Scientist, Faces Allegations of Bullying and Toxicity Spanning Two Decades

{shortcode-21d8ef458b5829b6c4c5b5b1dd1b347d1061f44e}

{shortcode-645f22b848d41868d488724a5618f6a73d6df0ff}hen Daniel P. Schrag arrived at Harvard in 1997, his research specialty — climate change — was beginning to take on existential importance.

Over the last two decades, as climate change has risen to the fore of American politics and academia, Schrag has risen with it to become one of the country’s top climate scientists — and a figure who is synonymous with the discipline at Harvard.

A former MacArthur “Genius” fellow who holds faculty appointments at three different Harvard schools, Schrag heads the Harvard University Center for the Environment, teaches the University’s flagship survey course on global warming, and served for eight years on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology.

But while Schrag is known nationally as a respected voice on climate science and policy, many of those he worked with described a different side to his rise in academia.

Advertisement

In interviews over the past year, more than two dozen current and former students, staff, colleagues have said Schrag created a poor working environment for those around him. Schrag often undermined subordinates and emphasized the power he held over their careers, fostering a culture of distrust and fear, ​​students and staff said.

Former advisees and staff alleged a pattern of behavior in which, over the last two decades, Schrag used demeaning language, questioned their intelligence, or set unreasonable expectations while neglecting some of his own advising duties. The Crimson granted most sources anonymity because they feared retaliation given Schrag’s stature within his field and at Harvard.

In spring 2021, following an inquiry conducted primarily by Harvard’s Office for Faculty Affairs, Schrag was barred from taking on new lab members for around half a year, asked to step down as area chair of Harvard’s Environmental Science and Engineering program, and required to receive external behavioral coaching, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the situation. The disciplinary measures were confirmed by three individuals who were interviewed as part of the inquiry and subsequently informed of its outcome, including in an email obtained by The Crimson.

In a statement, Schrag said he is “deeply committed” to his role as a mentor.

“I have trained dozens of students and postdocs, preparing them for the rigorous demands of scientific research at universities and companies around the world,” Schrag wrote. “I sincerely regret if I caused some students distress, as my intent is and always was to help my students become the best scholars they can be. Supporting students and researchers at all stages in conducting the most critical and impactful research remains my highest priority.”

Schrag declined to comment further on the allegations related to his conduct.

‘A Negative Atmosphere’

In recent years, some of Schrag’s advising relationships have been short-lived.

Five members of Schrag’s lab said they departed in 2020 and 2021 — midway through their academic programs — due to difficulties with the working conditions or professional differences with him.

The complaints about Schrag, which span two decades, are wide-ranging, but, 25 current and former advisees, staff, and colleagues said, illustrate a pattern of bullying. Schrag often called into question the competence of those in his lab in front of their peers and other faculty, students and staff said, and set unreasonable expectations for students while not following through on advising commitments.

“Dan created a negative atmosphere through serial bullying and manipulation,” said Andrew M. Bergman, a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Physics who terminated his advising relationship with Schrag in 2021.

Three former staff members said Schrag would at times verbally denigrate them.

Schrag often questioned the intelligence of students and staff members by belittling them in front of others, students and staff said. In 2020, he frequently spoke poorly of one specific advisee to other students in his lab, Bergman said, often “denigrating them, specifically, and saying that they were not cut out for research, that they had not met expectations.”

Schrag also compared students to one another and cast doubt upon their mental health and, in turn, “their capacity to successfully carry out research and a Ph.D.,” Bergman said.

Anatoly “Toly” Rinberg, a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Physics who terminated his advising relationship with Schrag alongside Bergman in 2021, said Schrag repeatedly singled out vulnerable advisees in his lab.

“Often over the course of the year, especially in one-on-one or in small group conversations, Dan would bring up his assessments of other advisees and former advisees,” Rinberg said. “Not just that, but he would compare their work ethic and productivity and then make assessments about how they’re doing in their Ph.D.”

Schrag’s assessments of others were “sort of taken as a vehicle of control — as a way to basically create a narrative around some students doing well and others not doing well,” Rinberg said.

{shortcode-7429734b1c16b65ad0e7d6326b03eebc6c4809c5}

Having heard Schrag speculate about how other students’ mental well-being affected their productivity and quality of research, one former advisee decided to leave the lab when Schrag told them they seemed to be struggling with their mental health.

“I need to get out of here before he starts seriously undermining my work to others the way that he undermines others’ work to me, and destroys my reputation as a budding scholar, and tells everybody that I’m struggling with my mental health — when I’ve never said that I was or indicated that I was or had any issues with my productivity,” the advisee said.

Despite the concerns raised about Schrag’s behavior, many other former students detailed positive experiences with him as an adviser, saying he was demanding but cared deeply about his advisees and their work.

Sierra V. Petersen, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s earth and environmental sciences department, wrote in an email that she has felt supported by Schrag and other faculty and staff in Harvard’s EPS Department and has continued to have a positive working relationship with him.

“Beginning as a graduate student and continuing to this day, I have had a very positive working relationship with Dr. Schrag,” she wrote. “I have always felt supported by him in both my career and as a human being.”

“Dan was a phenomenal supervisor and has been a tremendous support to me over the course of my career,” said Alexandra V. “Sasha” Turchyn, a former advisee and now an earth sciences professor at the University of Cambridge. “I wouldn’t trade the opportunity I had working with him for anything.”

Itay Halevy, an associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel who completed his Ph.D. at Harvard under Schrag’s guidance in 2010, said Schrag “always had smart and insightful things to say about our research.”

“He’s very, very intense. Very sharp,” Halevy said. “I remember that as an early-stage graduate student, that kind of stressed me out. But, with time, as my understanding deepened and evolved, I got to enjoy that aspect of his personality.”

Kurt Z. House, a former graduate student who was advised by Schrag and completed his degree in 2008, described Schrag as a “very intuitive scientist,” saying his ability to guide students to the “main core of the problem” taught him “how to do science.”

House said scientific discussions with Schrag could be “intense,” adding that he could see how “the intensity of the scientific discussion might be hard” for some. But, he said, Schrag was “gentle” afterward and generally cared for students’ well-being.

Julie K. Shoemaker, an assistant professor at Lesley University who worked under Schrag during her time as a postdoctoral fellow and graduate student between 2002 and 2014, praised him as an adviser. She said he was “super supportive” of her as she navigated the birth of her first child and health issues that caused her to take time off.

“He’s nothing but supportive of me during those times — focused on me taking the time I needed to recover and come back in a way that felt right to me,” she said. “So I’m super appreciative of him for that. I think that it doesn’t — especially in the sciences — doesn’t always go that way.”

Schrag set high but reasonable expectations for those working in his lab, Shoemaker said, characterizing difficulties as typical for a Ph.D. program.

But not everyone in Schrag’s orbit felt his expectations were reasonable.

Three former students and staff said Schrag called them late at night, often around or after midnight, without advance notice. Former students and staff also said he would set tight deadlines for work — but forget or fail to follow up.

“That’s an ongoing trend — calling us at night, expecting like next-day deadlines, but then not following through when you do submit the work the next day,” Rinberg said.

“He would say, ‘You’re not working enough and you’re not getting things done fast enough’ and then completely forget about it after you put in like 70 hours that week to get it all done for him,” a former staff member said.

Some students also said Schrag was unhelpful and at times disruptive as an adviser, joining meetings late, derailing required gatherings with off-topic discussions, and not paying attention.

“Essentially, we would get almost to the point where actual scientific discussion or deep dives would happen and then things would just get derailed by Dan or go completely off topic,” said Eric M. Fell, a Ph.D. candidate in Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering who was a member of a research subgroup that Schrag co-advised.

Less than two months after the subgroup meetings began, Fell told his adviser the meetings were “a waste of my time” due to Schrag’s behavior. He soon stopped attending.

Under Review

Schrag’s conduct came under scrutiny from administrators after multiple students anonymously reported comments he made during a departmental diversity, inclusion, and belonging subcommittee meeting in September 2020.

The students’ concerns, which were forwarded to Harvard’s Office for Faculty Affairs, centered around comments Schrag made sharing a student of color’s private information, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Two graduate students who attended the meeting said his remarks were “tokenizing” of the student. Schrag later apologized to one of the co-chairs of the DIB subcommittee in an email that was read out at a subsequent meeting.

The Office for Faculty Affairs looked into Schrag’s behavior following the concerns about the meeting. The office’s review uncovered broader complaints about Schrag’s behavior: Six among those interviewed by the office told The Crimson they relayed concerns about his workplace conduct.

{shortcode-cff6d6b1044b1d06ee2e0d73c708ec808b4a845c}

As part of its inquiry, the office interviewed students and employees who had worked with Schrag across the three academic units where he holds faculty appointments: the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Harvard Kennedy School.

Following the inquiry, which concluded in early 2021, FAS Science Dean Christopher W. Stubbs and SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III told Schrag to step down from his role as area chair of the Environmental Science and Engineering program — a position akin to a department chair at SEAS — and temporarily barred him from taking on new lab members, according to two individuals with direct knowledge of the situation. Schrag was also assigned an external investigator to monitor his behavior for a period of time after the review and offer feedback, the sources said.

Three individuals interviewed for the office’s inquiry and subsequently informed of its outcome, including in an email obtained by The Crimson, confirmed the interim disciplinary measures.

In a joint statement, Doyle and Stubbs declined to comment on the inquiry, writing that they “cannot comment on matters related to individual faculty members.”

“We can share generally that the FAS responds to concerns that are brought forward and implements measures to support the community as appropriate,” the joint statement reads.

“The FAS Science Division and SEAS are committed to ensuring that graduate students in our programs can conduct their dissertation research and training in a supportive environment with effective advising and mentorship,” the deans added.

Schrag declined to answer specific questions about the inquiry.

The Climate

Many affiliates of Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department and Environmental Science and Engineering program said the academic units’ problems aren’t limited to Schrag.

In a 2020 EPS climate survey, 47 percent of faculty respondents reported experiencing bullying or harassment in the department. Three-quarters of all respondents reported that someone in the department had put them down or was condescending. The survey analysis included graduate students, faculty, and staff.

{shortcode-ae9ce3545aefec5d28a960c8e1ddca3c85823983}

The department’s climate survey “demonstrated some serious issues” with the treatment of its members, wrote Camille Hankel, an EPS Ph.D. candidate who previously led the department’s GeoClub, a student group that represents graduate students in meetings with departmental leadership and organizes social events.

“It revealed that many people are experiencing incivil or hostile treatment in the department, and that there is little to no accountability for these incivil actions,” Hankel wrote in an email. “This is not surprising as there have historically been no formal and transparent avenues by which people can report incivil behavior that falls outside the purview of Title IX and expect any kind of recourse.”

In a joint statement, EPS Chair Ann Pearson and four professors who serve on her advisory committee wrote that the “EPS mission includes as a central premise that ‘all members of our community are treated with respect and are provided equal opportunities for success in our educational and work environments.’”

“In this spirit, we are committed to maintaining and improving the quality of the professional, educational, and mentoring programs in EPS,” reads the statement, signed by Pearson and professors Frank N. Keutsch, David T. Johnston, Zhiming Kuang, and Peter J. Huybers. “Our efforts support the broader emphasis across FAS to create a more supportive and inclusive learning environment.”

Many former graduate students and staff in the EPS Department pointed to one venue in particular as being exemplary of issues in the department: the Harvard ClimaTea Journal Club, a weekly meeting held at the Harvard University Center for the Environment that features guest speakers and graduate students.

At ClimaTea, eight sources said Schrag and many other faculty members would often vigorously interrogate speakers or argue with one another, with many describing the behavior as non-constructive and aggressive.

“I had never been to a supposedly informal, supposedly collegial research environment that’s so combative,” one former HUCE fellow said.

A graduate of the EPS Department described the seminars as “super uncomfortable,” because professors would often argue with each other, “almost having a show of power and intelligence” rather than “a constructive scientific discussion.”

Pearson and the professors on the advisory committee did not directly respond to a request for comment on conduct at ClimaTea.

In response to concerns raised by attendees, department leaders posted signs outlining “community discussion guidelines” in public spaces, according to Johnston, the director of graduate studies in EPS. The signs remind department members to “be mindful” of their tone and body language, to “cast objections in a constructive way,” and to “criticize ideas, not individuals.”

“When we have speakers and when students present, we want to be at the tip of the sword with respect to the scientific debate, but we also want to be good human beings and make sure that both of those are fulfilled,” Johnston said.

Following the release of the climate survey results, Hankel and Kaitlyn Loftus, who co-led the GeoClub between 2020 and 2022, helped organize a petition that collected 59 signatures calling on department leaders to develop formal procedures for handling misconduct.

During their tenure leading GeoClub, Loftus and Hankel also made a series of requests to department leaders aimed at improving conditions for graduate students, many of which they said were rejected. Namely, they said, department leaders turned down their calls to have the department collect and release data about advising experiences and commit to a procedure for reporting repeated misconduct by a faculty member to the dean.

{shortcode-2ab9282c3cc8eb999644c0ff2c32be82d68b89f3}

“Department leadership in EPS has no power to directly discipline faculty who have complaints levied against them,” Loftus wrote. “However, I don’t think this lack of explicit disciplinary power excuses leadership from a responsibility to confront faculty who have repeated complaints levied against them and to try to influence them to change their behavior.”

In their joint statement, EPS and ESE leaders pointed to an array of recently developed department policies aimed at creating positive work and educational environments, including policies that provide funding and one-on-one mentoring during graduate students’ first year as well as bridge funding when a student transfers to another research group, with the option to adjust graduation year without penalty if affected by a transfer.

Last month, University administrators introduced an inaugural anti-bullying policy that is set to take effect in September. Hankel and Loftus wrote in an email that the new protocol “marks a step in the right direction.” Faculty behavior is governed by the FAS professional conduct policy. Among other guidelines, the policy instructs professors to be respectful of their students and colleagues, provide criticisms “directed at the work, not the person,” and keep confidential student information private.

The policy will require each Harvard school to designate an individual to receive reports and complaints of bullying and harassment and set up a University office to provide support and store records of complaints. Its protocol calls for an at-minimum three-person panel of neutral Harvard faculty or staff to review the facts of each case and determine if misconduct has occurred. Then, the local school’s appropriate official will determine sanctions or remedial measures given the panel’s findings.

Still, Hankel and Loftus said they take issue with the new protocol’s reliance on individual school officials to levy sanctions against those who violate policy, saying “the findings of the procedure’s investigative report” and “the procedure’s neutral panel vote on policy violation” should directly have power over the sanctions.

The former GeoClub co-presidents also said the policy will not adequately handle persistent concerns raised through informal channels of recourse.

“In addition, the policy does not explicitly address historical patterns of bullying identified via repeated informal complaints over long periods of time, which we identified as a critical issue for graduate students,” Hankel and Loftus wrote in a statement.

Appropriate sanctions or remedial measures, the anti-bullying policy states, will take into account “the severity and impact of the conduct, the respondent’s previous disciplinary history, and the goals of this Policy.”

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment.

‘Invisible,’ ‘Pervasive,’ and ‘Toxic’

The distinction between bullying and acceptable academic feedback is often murky, according to some of Schrag’s former advisees.

Though Rinberg said some of the comments made by Schrag were “egregious,” many of them were “small, boundary-crossing” statements that often toed the line between innocuous and inappropriate.

Still, Rinberg said these comments created a “pervasive dynamic” that contributed to “a collective anxiety and stress” among Schrag’s research group.

{shortcode-c950d79f3218da6479d606889693f659558e3c69}

In its inaugural anti-bullying policy, Harvard defines bullying as “harmful interpersonal aggression by words or actions that humiliate, degrade, demean, intimidate, or threaten an individual or individuals.”

The policy enumerates several examples of power-based harassment, including sabotage or threats to sabotage an individual’s studies or career, the needless disclosure of confidential information about another person, and the use of threats, insults, or yelling to deliver performance feedback.

“Power-based harassment is of particular concern because of the ways in which it can create a broader culture of abusive behavior,” the policy reads.

Harvard’s upcoming policy also distinguishes between bullying and certain “unpleasant or unsettling” behaviors that are appropriate for “pedagogical or employment-related responsibilities,” such critical academic feedback.

“While many in the academic community are aware of cases of heinous abuse and sexual violence, we must all also acknowledge that there is a pervasive and related culture of bullying. Professors and those in positions of power are able to act with impunity, enabled by inaction and secrecy, which disproportionately harms those who are least privileged and least able to speak up,” Bergman, Rinberg, and a former advisee wrote in a statement.

Bergman said the more “controlling” aspects of Schrag’s behavior were not immediately apparent to him until he was able to share and compare his experiences with other advisees in Schrag’s lab.

“For some time you’re questioning it yourself, but then over the years, there’s a crew of people that is all very clear-eyed that this is manipulation and controlling behavior, and that the bullying has an intent to exert control in various ways,” he said.

“It’s not knock over your head, like, ‘Oh, they did this one bad thing.’ It’s invisible, and you’re just like, ‘Is this normal?’ and then it builds and builds and builds until I finally snapped,” one graduate student in the EPS Department said.

“It’s an invisible type of behavior that’s really bad,” they said. “Toxic.”

—Associate Managing Editor Meimei Xu can be reached at meimei.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.

—Associate News Editor Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ArielH_Kim.

Editor’s Note: Meimei Xu ’24 currently serves as an Associate Managing Editor of The Crimson’s 150th Guard. Ariel H. Kim ’24 currently serves as an Associate News Editor of The Crimson’s 150th Guard. While The Crimson does not typically publish news content authored by current leadership, Xu and Kim primarily reported this article during their time as staff writers.

Tags

Advertisement