Roland G. Fryer is a tenured professor of economics at Harvard — an anointed member of the elite by most definitions. He is also black, widely published and the recipient of numerous awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant for his work on the black “achievement gap” in grade school. Fryer was a student of Nobel laureate Gary Becker and a close associate of other economists who focus on rigorous analysis of empirical data.
That’s led him to observations that were a bit unsettling to higher education orthodoxies. For example, Fryer found that the academic achievement gap accelerates between kindergarten and eighth grade. He also found that controlling for a few variables, the initial disparity disappeared. “Black kindergartners and white kindergartners with similar socioeconomic backgrounds” achieved at similar levels. “Adjusting the data for the effects of socioeconomic status reduces the estimated racial gaps in test scores by more than 40 percent in math and more than 66 percent in reading.”
The number of books in a child’s household also made an appreciable difference. “On average, black students in the sample had thirty-nine children’s books in their home, compared with an average of ninety-three books among white students.” Adjusting for that “completely eliminates the gap in reading” as children progress through first grade. These findings contradicted the standard view that black children are already locked into academic last place before they even reach school. This is good news, in that it means the problem is not as intractable as it seemed.
Or rather, it would have been good news to anyone who wants the racial disparity to disappear through interventions that are known to work. But it was terrible news to activists who are invested in the idea that “systemic racism” explains everything. Socioeconomic standing and household reading, after all, can be improved.
I have borrowed from Fryer’s 2006 article “Falling Behind: New evidence on the black-white achievement gap” for my summary. Fryer, however, was just warming up to further provocations against racial orthodoxy. He also decided to take a look at the data about police stops and shootings. He confirmed that that blacks were more than 50 percent more likely than whites “to experience some form of force in interactions with police,” something that Fryer said was “the most surprising result of [his] career.”
But when it came to shootings, he could find “no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account.” This flat-out contradicts the Black Lives Matter assertion that has been uncritically embraced by the academy, the press, and numerous politicians who hold that police readily resort to deadly violence in dealing with blacks. Fryer’s paper on this, “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” was written in 2016 and published in final form in 2019 in the Journal of Political Economy, well before George Floyd’s death ignited riots and a frenzied affirmation in academe that police are the agents of brutal, racially motivated oppression.
From this, one might conclude that Professor Fryer had learned how successfully to kick over the traces of the liberal academic establishment. He was by no definition a conservative, but a kind of independent contrarian who was willing to go wherever the evidence took him. And for a while it appeared to have taken him to the heights of academic achievement. His work received a lot of criticism in places like the New York Times, but he also won substantial funding for his Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard.
Then the bottom fell out.
I have no shortage of bottom-falling-out stories for academics. They are sometimes caught doing atrocious things, sometimes punished for speaking up against academic policies they disagree with and sometimes disciplined because administrators seem entranced with bizarre ideas. We are in academia, after all, where egos are fragile and reputational destruction is the favorite sport. Reputational destruction, of course, comes in two popular flavors: race and sex. Since Professor Fryer is black, you might expect the line of attack will involve sex, and you’d be right.
According to the New York Times, Professor Fryer was accused in 2018 of engaging in “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature toward four women who worked in the Harvard-affiliated research lab he created.” I have no access to the details of the allegations, but Harvard did its work and came back with a report that amounted to a finding that he had flirted with a graduate student years ago, and that a woman he had fired found some of his language annoying. Naturally, these claims were stretched to their outer boundaries, but the initial faculty committee saw nothing of great moment.
In the #MeToo era, rules of double jeopardy don’t apply. Harvard decided to put the case before another tribunal — a secret one, but one that happened to include two black faculty members whose work had received some shade from Fryer’s academic writings. Sure enough, the second tribunal decided that Fryer had crossed all sorts of invisible lines. As a tenured member of the Harvard faculty, Fryer couldn’t easily be fired, though administrators pushed to fire him, which would have been a first since the Civil War. But there are lots of other ways to ruin a faculty member. They suspended Fryer for two years, during which he was barred from teaching or using university resources. And they permanently closed his off-campus lab, the Education Innovation Laboratory.
This looks like an academic death sentence for an obscure violation, yet Fryer may well stage a comeback. In a new documentary, professional filmmaker Rob Montz has assembled, for the first time in video form, a compelling twenty-five-minute presentation on what happened to Fryer at Harvard, complete with scary music. Fryer didn’t participate in the documentary, which perhaps allowed Montz to say things that Fryer himself probably wouldn’t. I’ve never met Fryer, but we have several mutual friends who alerted me to his story, and I have heard several grapevine versions of what happened that run in the same direction: a tale of a vindictive former employee and others sharpening grievances for their own ends and a total denial of due process in favor of putting the man in the hands of his campus adversaries.
It is more or less what we have come to expect from higher education. The higher the educational institution, the more low-down the tactics. Perhaps I’m all wrong about this, and Fryer is a serial sexual harasser, and his contrarian writings about race and education and race and policing had nothing to do with his cancelation. Who can say for sure? But I will place my bet on Fryer as another human offering to the gods of wokeness. They breathe in the incense of a burning reputation and smile in satisfaction.