Wednesday, January 2, 2019
AEA Grad Students' Letter
An open letter regarding harassment and discrimination in the economics profession
Advocates for Diversity in Economics, Dec. 27, 2018
Last week, Harvard economist Roland Fryer resigned from the executive committee of the American Economic Association (AEA), after a university investigation found he created a hostile and sexualized work environment for the research assistants in his lab.
This is a painful moment for our discipline. Abuses of power, bullying, and harassment damage peoples’ health and happiness, ruin careers, and reduce the quality of scholarship in economics. Moreover, it is well documented that these abuses of power disproportionately harm women, minorities, and queer individuals. These frustrating realities have pushed us to ask how economics can address the power imbalances that drive out talented individuals, prevent the inclusion of underrepresented groups, and collectively damage our discipline.
As current graduate students and research assistants (RAs), we offer a unique and useful perspective on the opportunities our departments and the AEA have to protect us and ensure that our discipline is as diverse and vibrant as possible. Here are our suggestions.
1. Listen to us.
We are the experts on how your colleagues treat their advisees and research assistants. We are usually the first to know, and the first to be harmed, when their behavior steps out of line. And many of us would be willing to tell you about it, if it wouldn’t mean risking a future in the field we love.
Overall, the most important thing department leadership can do is stay informed about the climate as experienced by graduate students and RAs. To do this, departments should create anonymous avenues for us to report incidents that have made us feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. For example, ensure there is someone in the department — a faculty member who is not a Title IX mandatory reporter, if possible — whose door is open to hear complaints. Such a mechanism is critical to catching issues early and addressing the pervasive low-level harassment that drives marginalized students out of the discipline.
Next, pay attention. Who is leaving your program? Who did they work for? If you notice a pattern with a particular faculty member or lab, keep digging. Follow up with alumni once they have established themselves elsewhere to see if there were issues they could not raise while in the department. Bad behavior is too often an open secret among graduate students and junior faculty.
Finally, involve graduate students in your department’s institutions. Incorporate our anonymized feedback in tenure and other promotional reviews, and reward faculty for work they have done to improve department climate. Talk to the former RAs and advisees of potential faculty members before hiring them. Involve us — substantially, not just nominally — in admissions, diversity, and hiring committees.
We shouldn’t have to rely on whisper networks to protect us from abuse and inappropriate behavior. And we don’t have the power to discipline our supervisors, or even our peers. You do. Please, listen to us.
2. Create, communicate, and enforce department-level standards of conduct.
What does your department expect of its members? In many contexts — particularly seminars and advising relationships — university-level codes of conduct simply do not go far enough in answering this question, or in addressing concerns unique to our profession. Moreover, passively adopting the policies of your parent institution does not send the signal that department leadership will monitor or enforce them.
So, departments — in conversation with RAs and graduate students — ought to make their own standards. A good place to start would be the AEA’s new Code of Professional Conduct. Other resources include the American Finance Association’s code of conduct, which explicitly addresses abuses of power and includes an obligation for bystanders to act; the Geological Society of America’s code of conduct, which prioritizes conduct towards students throughout; and the American Statistical Association’s conduct policy, which specifically targets harassment and discrimination.
Once you have standards in place, make sure everyone knows them. Have your department chair email them out with a personal note every year. Hold engaging, meaningful, tailored training sessions. Communicate, repeatedly and enthusiastically, that these are the rules by which everyone — no matter how brilliant or famous — is expected to abide. And demonstrate that those who do not abide by these standards will face specific consequences, up to and including removal from the department.
Gray areas give bad actors room to justify their behavior and obscure victims’ entitlement to a harassment-free workplace. Tailored codes of conduct go a long way towards removing gray areas and making it harder to excuse the sort of behavior that disproportionately harms marginalized economists.
3. Implement a discipline-wide reporting system to document bad behavior.
Finally, the AEA should establish a centralized platform where individuals at all levels of the profession can securely report harassment, coercion, and assault. One such platform, Callisto, allows users to submit timestamped, encrypted reports that can later be used as evidence should the user decide to file an official complaint. Users can also choose to be notified if there are other reports on the same offender. These features empower victims who may be reluctant to come forward if they think their experience was an isolated incident, or happened too long ago for them to be believed today.
Indeed, an AEA committee recommended that the association adopt Callisto or a Callisto-like option back in April. As the committee noted, such a platform would allow us to have a record of incidents at conferences and other professional settings where faculty and students from different schools commingle — where there is currently no clear reporting mechanism or accountability structure.
The usefulness of this platform depends on how willing departments and the AEA are to investigate and sanction reported offenses. The events of this past year demonstrate that, as a discipline, we don’t have a great track record on this front. We can do better, and we must.
We are asking for our departments to be entrepreneurial in solving these problems. We are tired of seeing friends and colleagues who could have been brilliant economists forced out by the terrible climate in our discipline. We are tired of leaders in the field refusing to see problems happening right under their noses. And we are tired of having these problems distract from what we came here to do: meaningful, high-quality economic research.
But we believe that things can change. We cannot do it alone.
(The letter has a large number of grad student signatures including two from UCLA and several from other UC campuses.)