Harvard accused of pushing out scholar to please Facebook founder

Ivy League university denies Joan Donovan’s claim that huge donation turned leaders against her

December 5, 2023
Joan Donovan

One of the US’ top media disinformation experts has set out a detailed complaint accusing Harvard University of expelling her to please Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg after he offered a $500 million (£400 million) donation to the Ivy League institution.

The researcher, Joan Donovan, now an assistant professor of communication at Boston University, issued a 123-page declaration and a 248-page evidence file arguing that Harvard sided with Mr Zuckerberg after her Technology and Social Change Research Project, or Tasc, detailed the ways in which it sees Facebook causing extensive public harm.

Professor Donovan led Tasc since its creation in 2019 at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, producing ground-breaking studies of online extremism and its effects on US democracy, and was named research director of the school’s Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy as a marker of her success.

But Harvard’s happiness with her evaporated quickly, she said, once Harvard began taking steps toward accepting the Kennedy School’s largest-ever donation, the $500 million gift in December 2021 from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organisation created by Mr Zuckerberg in 2015.

“The mood changed overnight,” Dr Donovan said in her complaint. “The work we were doing turned from a source of pride for Harvard into a source of shame.”

Dr Donovan has talked about the situation generally over the past year, giving interviews in which she described some details of Harvard forcing her from her job, and finding her new position at Boston. In now compiling an extensive written summary of her experience, she and her partners at the non-profit legal organisation Whistleblower Aid demanded that Harvard, the federal government and the state of Massachusetts all open formal investigations of the matter.

Harvard, in response, did not directly answer the question of whether it would investigate, but said in a statement from its Kennedy School that Dr Donovan’s “allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference are false”, and that her narrative “is full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations”.

The Kennedy School repeated its past explanations that it was required to close down Tasc because the project’s faculty leader left Harvard and it could not find a replacement. “By long-standing policy to uphold academic standards, all research projects at Harvard Kennedy School need to be led by faculty members,” the school said in the statement.

The US Department of Education said that it could neither confirm nor deny any investigations it might be pursuing. The office of the attorney general of Massachusetts, Andrea Joy Campbell, said: “We have received the complaint and are reviewing.”

The case has become one among many across the US raising concern that higher education leaders have been forced by declining governmental support to rely more heavily on private donors, who in turn have been using that dependency to exert control over teaching and research.

Dr Donovan had gained widespread recognition – including appearances before Congress – for her investigations into white supremacist organisations and the instigators of the January 2021 attack on Congress, and their use of social media. She told Times Higher Education she was proud of the fact that – unlike many other scientists in her field – she had been able to conduct her research without relying on the cooperation of the technology and social media companies she investigates.

The stated reason for Harvard pushing her out – the lack of a faculty sponsor – seemed difficult to understand, she said, because Kennedy School policy allowed the dean to appoint anyone to run a project. Harvard, unlike Boston, chose not to provide her with the rank of professor.

Another researcher who studies social media, Rob Eschmann, an associate professor of social work at Columbia University, said he didn’t have a detailed knowledge of the Donovan case but the outline of it seemed to raise serious concerns. “It is extremely important for research scholars to have access to data from social media companies in order to study things like misinformation,” Dr Eschmann said.


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