Online disinformation specialist Dr. Joan Donovan appears as this week’s guest on the Whistleblower of the Week podcast hosted by Jane Turner. Donovan is the former Technology and Social Change Research Project director at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center.
After the leak of the Facebook papers in 2021 and Frances Haugen’s testimony to Congress, Donovan set out to make the documents publicly available in a database. As the project launched, she alleges that she began to lose academic freedom as restrictions on her research increased.
On January 15, Donovan submitted a whistleblower complaint to Harvard, the US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and the Massachusetts attorney general alleging improper donor influence at the Kennedy School. She claims Harvard officials took cues and acted on behalf of Meta’s interest while questioning her research methodologies, specifically regarding Facebook.
In this week’s podcast Donovan tells Turner, “I wasn’t going to just sit there and let this happen around me. I wasn’t going to say, ‘If you don’t want me to research Facebook, I’ll just turn my eye onto something else,’ and I probably could have, and the heat probably would have died down. But, because I kept the pan hot, I got thrown into it.”
She says the University began restricting her research after the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donated $500 million to fund a new university-wide center on artificial intelligence. Harvard and the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation strongly dispute Donovan’s claims.
Turner and Dr. Donovan discuss the timeline of her dismissal and restrictions, the connections between Meta and Harvard, and what her case indicates about academic freedom in higher education and elite institutions. “It’s well past time for universities to have gift givers sign a no-influence clause, which is to say, if they are giving a large donation to a university, they should not be allowed to influence decisions at that university, especially when it comes to hiring,” says Donovan. She warns, “The consequences are dire if we turn our universities into PR wings of corporations.”