Costs Untold: Sheila Jasanoff and the Long Trail of Emotional Abuse and Academic Bullying

In 2015, I started writing this essay about my experiences with emotional abuse and academic bullying at the hands of Sheila Jasanoff in the Harvard Program on Science, Technology, and Society. For a variety of reasons, I never found the energy or bravery to post it.

But then, on November 4, 2022, Claudia Gertraud Schwarz-Plaschg published a post on Medium titled, “On its 20th anniversary, my testimonial on the Harvard STS Program.” It is a horrific story of sexual harassment by Schwarz-Plaschg’s peers and then emotional abuse, gaslighting, exclusion, and bullying on the part of Jasanoff. I am extremely grateful to Claudia for bravely telling her story. I am deeply in her debt, as is all of the community around Science and Technology Studies.

I am putting up an abbreviated version of my own story to corroborate many aspects of Schwarz-Plaschg’s courageous post. You should check out responses to Schwarz-Plaschg’s Tweet about the Medium post too. Several people recount either directly experiencing or hearing about phenomena like those Schwarz-Plaschg recounts. If you drill down in the STS community, you will find more stories like these, and the stories will share many elements. That’s because they are describing the same abusive reality.

By the way, if it needs saying, I do not believe Jasanoff’s is a unique story. In fact, my hunch is that stories like these are pretty common in academia, maybe especially at elite schools like Harvard. They may be even worse in STEM and medical fields. And surely they are worse for women, people of color, queer folks, and other historically marginalized populations.

Some of what I will say below may seem petty or even absurd without first setting the scene: the Harvard STS program, which often contained several young predoctoral and postdoctoral fellow and sometimes more-senior visiting scholars, was a cult of personality in which absolute loyalty and fealty to the guru was expected. Even minor questioning was not allowed, as I will spell out below. It was a hierarchical and very emotionally intense space that featured constant policing by Jasanoff and those loyal to her. Jasanoff’s forms of manipulation were varied and often subtle but included public and private shaming, humiliation, intimidation, ostracism and exclusion, and saying nasty things about fellows behind their backs to other fellows, which I’ll describe more below. Favoritism was a core element of the social dynamic: some fellows were pets that others were supposed to emulate, others were marginalized, some eventually forced out altogether, as is true in Schwarz-Plaschg’s case.

Jasanoff was a master of finding and exploiting people’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And the key thing to remember is that most of the fellows in the program were young people — junior scholars who are at a vulnerable point in their career. As one of these young people, you are in a difficult spot: you are being harmed or are at least witnessing others being harmed, and yet you are also very dependent on, even bonded to, the abuser. The future of your career is riding on the line, or at least it feels that way. It leads to a sick, traumatizing dynamic.

Before I go into details about how Jasanoff bullied me and my peers, I need to add one other layer of context: Jasanoff had created a long list of vague and conceptually-thin multisyllabic neologisms — co-production, sociotechnical imaginaries, bioconstitutionalism, civic epistemologies, the list goes on. There was intense social pressure on the fellows to use these words. As a friend who was a fellow in the program with me put it yesterday, “You were rewarded if you regurgitated her words in the way she wanted you to.” Jasanoff would often rephrase what someone had just said to demonstrate how the point could be made with her language. Because the words were vague and poorly defined, she was the arbiter of whether they were used correctly, and when one of them was spoken, the room would turn to see if she agreed it was used properly. Her judgment could be read on her face. Jasanoff used her neologisms as a form of social policing and control, another way to draw the line between acolytes and outsiders. (All of this might sound comical and absurd, and that’s because it is comical and absurd, and also sad. Very sad.)

I entered the Harvard STS Program in fall 2011 after completing a PhD in history and policy at Carnegie Mellon. Maybe I should have been tipped off to how things were going to go by how many people warned me before I even got there that Jasanoff was a “difficult” person. (There was a ton of coded language around these issues.) When I first arrived in Cambridge, a friend who was departing Harvard for another post pulled me aside and warned me in explicit terms that being around Jasanoff required special handling.

Almost immediately upon entering the program, present and former fellows began telling me and the other current fellows stories of abuse. I have vivid memories of one former student of the program regaling me and other fellows in the program about abuses she had directly witnessed or knew about in the basement of Grendel’s Den Restaurant and Bar in Cambridge, Mass. The first weeks in the program had a sense of foreboding about them.

Jasanoff began turning on me fairly early in the academic year. As Schwarz-Plaschg says in her post and others pointed out on Twitter, Jasanoff typically took aim at independent thinkers. This was especially true if the independent thinker was a woman. Women had it much harder in the Harvard STS program, something I will return to below.

My sin in Jasanoff’s eyes was that I raised questions about some of the ideas expressed in the group, and I did not use her jargon as I had been taught that it was best to put thoughts in ordinary language whenever possible. Jasanoff began shaming and humiliating me in both public and private. Her classrooms were of her favorite places to act out. After I made a comment in one class, which included a visiting professor, Jasanoff turned to the visitor and said something like, “You can see they have a long way to go before they become STS.” (Again, it sounds absurd but this was a big deal because, in the cult, being “STS” was the holy grail.) Putting a target on selected individuals’ backs was part of Jasanoff’s M.O. As a friend who was in the program with me recently put, “You became her whipping boy.”

As is often the case with trauma, my memories of her lashings come and go. Often enough they come roaring back when I’m simply going through my day. It always feels like a gut punch. Other times the memories feel dull and distant, hard to call back. Here is one that feels fresh at the moment: one day, I was running the weekly speaker series, which was one of my duties. The speaker that week was a famous sociologist of technology, and I saved the last question for myself. The question I asked apparently ran counter to Jasanoff’s philosophy. In front of a room full of senior scholars, some of them quite influential, and others in my area of study, my postdoctoral advisor turned to the speaker and said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to answer that. He isn’t one of us.” Comments like this were typical and common.

Another time I dared to question her in her office with other fellows present. She gave me a long cold hard stare and sat in silence for over a minute. Any resistance was to be intimidated into submission. When we walked out of the meeting, my fellow fellows hugged me and said how sorry they were. Even the shyest and nicest fellow summarized the experience like this, “She is awful.”

Here’s another memory that actually brings a kind of smile to my face: the fellows group was reading the late Bruno Latour’s essay about Frankenstein, “Love Your Monsters.” I said that one thing I liked about the piece was that Latour was right: not enough scholarly attention had been paid to maintenance and repair, caring for the things that we had made. Jasanoff envied Latour greatly and hated to hear positive things said about him. She implied to the other fellows that I didn’t know how to read because maintenance and repair were more than adequately covered; I was just too stupid to see it, she suggested. (The irony here is rich because later I would go on to co-found The Maintainers where many people would come together to fill in the gaps of understanding around these exact topics.)

While I got it the hardest the year I was there, no one was spared her rage and humiliation. I saw young people cry hard tears because of her inhumanity. This was actually the hardest part for me: watching Jasanoff manipulate and bully young people — most of them in their 20s — people I loved and cared about deeply. It was heart-breaking.

Again, it was much harder to be a woman in Jasanoff’s program. As someone else pointed out on Twitter, the kind of person most likely to be targeted and ostracized in Jasanoff’s program were strong, intellectually-independent women who might usurp Jasanoff’s prized position in the circle. As one person who went through one of Jasanoff’s Science and Democracy Network summer camps recently put it to me, “I have never experienced such toxic masculinity — not even from any man — as I have from Sheila Jasanoff.” In my year there, the fellows referred to the women in the program as the “worker bees.” To be clear, this was a gallows humor term that the women themselves came up with to refer to how they were always given the grunt work. And when former fellows would tell us the long list of stories of how relationships between Jasanoff and others had flamed out, it was the relationships with women that really stood out. Another dark joke in my cohort was that the best way to succeed in the Harvard STS program was to be a rich tall cis white guy with an elite education. It was true.

And, again, to go against Jasanoff’s dogma was to find her wrath. I could list many examples, but here is one: One time, when Jasanoff was out of town, she had the fellows read one of her essays in which she laid out one of her neologisms. During the meeting, one of the fellows raised a legitimate question about a point of logic in the essay. We tabled the topic until my postdoctoral advisor could come back and respond. Instead, in a private meeting, our advisor grew incensed that we had not defended her essay to the letter. Of the fellow who questioned her ideas, she asked, “How can anyone be so stupid?” Belittling people behind their back was a constant.

Indeed, it was Jasanoff’s habit to say negative things about fellows behind their backs to other fellows. This too was a way of policing the group. In my cohort, we created a rule that we would tell people what Sheila said about them so that they knew what they were working with. We came to assume that if we were not in a meeting we would be talked about, often as soon we walked out the door. And through our peers, we found that our assumption was a safe one.

In general, the fellows constantly disappointed Jasanoff and failed to live up to her (unrealistic) expectations. She was also deeply frustrated with the world in general, especially with her home university, which she believed did not give her adequate recognition, for instance, by letting her build a doctoral program. (Having an STS program at Harvard led by Jasanoff was supposed to be everyone’s mission in life.) She took out her exasperation on those below her. Her irritation led to outbursts and tongue-lashings. She mocked people in meetings. She sent abusive emails. She also said poisonous things about her Harvard colleagues to the fellows. Bill Clark of the Kennedy School was a frequent target as was Peter Galison and other members of Harvard’s History of Science department. (Sometimes it seemed like she was obsessed with Galison. She palpably envied him.)

As the university campus headed into summer, the tension between me and Jasanoff finally came to a breaking point. Reading Schwarz-Plaschg’s account of her last in-person meeting with Jasanoff was eerie for me and brought back visceral bad memories. Jasanoff called a meeting because I had disappointed her over something or other. I walked into her office, and she began to lecture me, but this time I fought back. I raged at her. I listed the times she had humiliated me and others in public and some of her other vicious acts. “Perhaps that’s how people do things here,” I said, waving my hand at the university around us, “but it’s not what I’m used to.” She protested, “No, it’s not this place!” But then she trailed off into silence, withdrew into herself, and stared blankly at the tchotchkes on her coffee table. She could not tell me what it was, what it was within that made her so cruel to young people many, many years her junior. The meeting was over.

Jasanoff was not a person to be confronted. Instead of trying to improve the situation or make amends, she handed me off to her administrative assistant and refused to have anything to do with me. She would not speak to me anymore during my time at Harvard. For a while, I tried to heal things myself. Even a few years later, when I was at the university for other business, I stopped by a meeting she was holding and tried to set things right. But I realized it was hopeless and also sick.

I am not saying that I am perfect or that I did not contribute to tension between me and Jasanoff. I can be hard-headed and stubborn and proud. For psychodynamic reasons, I do not react well to being abused by authority figures. As the situation got worse, I became passive aggressive. But of the two people in the relationship, I was not the senior scholar, who was over twice my age, and I did not hold the power.

There are also ways to humanize Jasanoff’s behavior. She often told us stories of how terrible her father had been to her — she had disappointed him — and there was clearly a lot of family trauma in her background. That trauma combined with other factors and became an overweening ambition and hankering for recognition, cravings, like a hungry ghost’s, that could never be sated no matter how many plaudits and awards she won, and she won many. People were never going to fully recognize her genius and how she had — almost single-handedly in her tellings — founded the discipline (it always had to be a “discipline”) of STS. It was this sucking vacuum where her heart should be that so required worshipfulness from the impressionable people around her. Being Sheila Jasanoff was clearly a kind of living hell. But none of this excuses her monstrous behavior and how she took her disappointments and bitterness out on young people in her charge.

Jasanoff had many enablers, including many members of her Science and Democracy Network. This is what most bothers me still today: it seems like there’s a good chance Jasanoff will fall from grace in STS circles, but my hunch is that many of the enablers will get off scot-free (which let’s face it, is the way things usually work). Jasanoff’s toadies were typically weak-willed and uncreative people whose best professional hope was to stick close to Jasanoff and benefit from her power and influence. Clark Miller and Ben Hurlbut, both now professors at Arizona State University, stand out as good examples of this trend. Miller collaborated with Jasanoff and took part in many of her events and saw plenty of dark behavior that should have set off red flags galore. Hurlbut even allowed himself to become a foot soldier for Jasanoff in a case that involved badgering and being nasty to a junior female scholar in a precarious position and arguably plagiarizing her work. Ulrike Felt of the University of Vienna stands out as another senior scholar who saw plenty of nasty and abusive behavior — I know because I was there with her — yet said nothing. Sadly, one lesson I drew from being around Jasanoff’s community was that spinelessness and moral cowardice is the norm with many people.

I call on the members of Jasanoff’s Science and Democracy Network to come forward with what they saw and heard over the years. But I think many of them will react like that famous GIF of Homer Simpson. If they do not come forward, their rightful shame will be private. It is a sick irony that a community supposedly dedicated to “democracy” — though always the thinnest, most anemic forms of this important idea — was actually based around a toxic cult of personality. (For those of you who would rush to point out that STS is not the only field with these kinds of problems, I have a favor to ask: please go look in the mirror.)

A point I could go on about forever but will just state briefly for now: Many of the people in Jasanoff’s network who ignored or enabled her behavior were desperate to be connected to Harvard. They wanted so badly to be able to say they were linked to the place. To dig into the heart of this story is to think about the sick role that elite institutions play in our culture.

Someday maybe I will publish the longer version of this essay, which is as much about healing from experiences like these and how it became an important to found a community, The Maintainers, that had values that ran counter to what I experienced under Jasanoff. (For now, I would just like to point everyone to my friend and Virginia Tech colleague Bryan Hanson’s program on academic bullying.)

But today . . . today, I just wanted to publish these memories to add my voice of support to Claudia Schwarz-Plaschg’s claims. Claudia, I was not sexually harassed by other fellows, and in that way, your experience was much worse. But in what you describe with Sheila Jasanoff, I hear you and see you. You are not alone. We are not alone.

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Lee Vinsel

Lee Vinsel

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I do technology studies, co-organize @The_Maintainers, and profess Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.