Eighty Harvard students, alumni, and staff demanded Harvard administrators strengthen protections against bullying and harassment in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department and Environmental Science and Engineering program in an open letter Thursday.
The letter, circulated in response to a Crimson investigation that revealed bullying and toxicity allegations against top Harvard climate scientist Daniel P. Schrag spanning two decades, calls for transparency around disciplinary measures for affiliates who are found to violate misconduct policies and a “clear threshold” for launching misconduct investigations in response to “repeated informal complaints.”
According to the letter, the two programs “have a longstanding problem with faculty bullying and harassment that has plagued the experiences of graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff” and hindered research and education in both programs.
“Unlike the phenomena we study in our research, there is no mysterious force at work here,” the letter reads. “What we are dealing with is as straightforward as it is destructive to the community we have built together and cherish.”
In The Crimson’s investigation, published last week, more than two dozen current and former students, colleagues and staff said Schrag created an environment of hostility and fear in ESE and EPS.
Following an internal Harvard inquiry, in spring 2021, Schrag was barred from accepting new lab members for half a year, required to undergo external behavioral training, and asked to step down as Environmental Science and Engineering area chair, a position akin to department chair, The Crimson reported.
Schrag did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Previously, Schrag declined to comment on specific allegations discussed in The Crimson’s investigation, but wrote in an email that he is “deeply committed” to his role as a mentor.
“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 wrote.
The open letter was circulated and authored in part by the GeoClub, an ESE and EPS student organization that runs social events and communicates student concerns to administrators.
Andrew C. Pendergrass ’20, an ESE Ph.D. candidate and GeoClub co-president, said one of the goals of the letter was to make sure the students who have left Schrag’s lab “feel supported and that they don’t feel at risk for retaliation because they have a whole community at their backs.”
The letter asks administrators to publicize the measures taken when someone is found to violate a misconduct policy.
“There’s not a lot of publication of graduation rates within a certain group or if there were sanctions against certain advisors,” Andrea M. Salazar, an EPS Ph.D. candidate and GeoClub co-president, said. “You kind of have to depend on this whisper network of current grad students talking to incoming grad students.”
Schrag “was removed as chair, and no one knew,” added Pendergrass, a former Crimson Magazine editor. “It was not communicated.”
The letter also calls for clarification or revision of sections of the new University-wide anti-bullying policy that will take effect on Sept. 1, 2023. It calls for “a clear threshold by which repeated informal complaints about a single community member will trigger a university investigation.”
Under the new policy, each school will select two types of officials: those who act as a “designated resource” to provide resources and field complaints and “appropriate officials” who have the final say on sanctions. Any formal complaints are evaluated by a three-person panel of neutral Harvard faculty or staff, who submit a recommendation to the school’s appropriate officials.
The letter demands instead that the “Determination Panel’s decision should be the final determination of any sanctions,” rather than this power being invested in the schools’ appropriate officials.
“I think there’s no reason to have another step of someone who has total power to accept or decline” the panel’s recommendation, Pendergrass said.
The letter also criticized Harvard’s rollout of the anti-bullying policies, saying they were created “without meaningful engagement and follow-through” and calling on the school to extend the period for collecting feedback from affiliates.
According to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton, the draft anti-bullying policies were developed with several opportunities to collect feedback. The original window for affiliates to provide feedback on the draft policies lasted from April 2022 to the end of September 2022.
Newton declined to comment on other aspects of the letter.
The letter also requests “procedures by which departments can enforce their own codes of conduct.” According to Salazar, “When it comes to enforcing these anti-bullying and harassment policies, it seems like no one is totally sure who has the jurisdiction over what.”
The letter is addressed to University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, Science Dean Christopher W. Stubbs, and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Francis J. Doyle III.
“This is a broader issue, not just in EPS and ESE but across the University,” Salazar said. “We just want to protect all grad students and to form universally good workplace environments.”
In a joint statement, Doyle and Stubbs confirmed they received the letter and “are working with the EPS and ESE department and area chairs to respond.”
“We are committed to creating a supportive environment where all members of our community can thrive and do their best work,” they wrote.
EPS Chair Ann Pearson, EPS Director of Graduate Studies David T. Johnston, and ESE Area Chair Steven C. Wofsy did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the public discussion of issues within the ESE and EPS working environments, “it’s not just all negative,” Pendergrass said.
“We have a great community. We have this GeoClub. We have all these wonderful friendships and everything,” Pendergrass added. “This is more like bringing out the good in the community and removing the bad than it is a whole condemnation.”
—Staff writer Austin H. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.