Harvard Business School Dean Has Some Explaining To Do



When Harvard University President Larry Bacow named Srikant Datar the new dean of Harvard Business School in 2021, the appointment was widely viewed as little more than a “safe choice.” The then-67-year-old Datar was thought to be a good steward, if not an innovative thinker and leader, to run the school for a few years.

But the filing of a lawsuit by Francesca Gino has made clear it wasn’t a very safe choice at all. Regardless of whether Gino is guilty of manipulating some data in her research studies, the process by which she was dismissed and the harshness of the penalties imposed on her, raises serious questions about Datar’s management of the controversy that has blown up in his face.

Stripping tenure from a full professor at the Harvard Business School is an extraordinary and rare event. That it would likely occur to one of the few women to gain tenure at a school with a less-than-stellar record for promoting and cultivating women faculty makes it ever more unusual. The details involving that decision–revealed in the lawsuit–shed light on what some faculty now believe was an overly harsh if not discordant way to deal with a professor in a collegial environment, especially a professor who has published more than 140 academic articles, worked on more than 50 case studies, and brilliantly taught courses on negotiation, decision making, collaboration, conflict resolution, and diversity, equity and inclusion. Add to this the fact that Datar, without the faculty’s knowledge or participation, changed the school’s policy for dealing with misconduct, and you have something of a perfect leadership storm.

After all, HBS is a revered institution whose past leaders have largely run the place as  a tight ship, taking pride in following carefully prescribed rules and guidelines to insure fair treatment for  all. If the accusations alleged in Gino’s lawsuit are true—and the evidence of the process allegations in that litigation is substantial—Datar has some explaining to do.


Francesca Gino

At the very least, he has badly mismanaged a sad and tragic situation that has destroyed the career of a highly regarded academic, helped to tarnish the reputation of the Harvard Business School, and sowed considerable doubt among the school’s faculty in his own leadership. When the faculty return to their offices for class this fall, Dean Datar will have to reassure them that he did not violate the norms of the school for decency and fairness in dealing with one of their beloved colleagues. That will be quite a challenge for Datar who outrageously told Gino she was not even allowed to speak when he finally met with her—for the first and only time—nearly two full years after allegations about her work came to his attention.

Already, a Yale Law School professor, Stephen L. Carter, has noted that Harvard Business School may well struggle to beat Gino’s lawsuit because it likely breached her contract. He cites Gino’s legitimate claim that the business school had in place a process for evaluating claims of scholarly misconduct that was not followed by Dean Datar. In fact, he created a new process without consultation with the faculty nor its knowledge or approval, solely for the purpose of evaluating Gino’s case. Even worse, under this new process, Datar and the investigating committee he created failed to follow the rules.

As Carter points out in his recently published essay, “That’s a pretty straightforward claim. Either Harvard followed its own rules or it didn’t. Whatever might happen to Gino’s other allegations this one is surely worth taking to trial. If she turns out to be right about the process, Harvard might wind up losing the case (or, more likely, settling).”

He’s not alone in questioning Dean Datar’s behavior in this case. Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School, believes it will take a long time to resolve the dispute. “But having known Gino for almost a decade, and (though I do not represent her) having seen some of the evidence about the anomalies, I strongly urge any fair-minded soul to reserve judgment in this case,” he writes in an essay on Medium. “There is, in my mind, exactly zero chance that Gino manipulated any data at all; and from at least the one case that I’ve seen the analysis for, it is absolutely clear that the anomalous data was part of a gift card scam. (The scammer used purpose-made email addresses, submitted from IP addresses having nothing to do with Gino, on a machine unlike any Gino has ever used.) When the full evidence is revealed by her lawyers, with the benefit of third-party discovery and a serious data forensics expert, I am certain that there will be no serious doubt that Gino is innocent of the charge made against her.”


Oddly, if not incompetently, the new interim policy put in place by Dean Datar without the faculty’s knowledge actually precluded the school from disciplining Gino for three of the four studies in which misconduct was alleged. That’s because those articles were not published within a six-year window of examination based on the new policy.

No less troubling, Gino’s lawsuit makes a strong case that she was not given the benefit of the doubt from the very beginning. From the moment in July of 2021 that Dean Datar heard about the accusations against Gino by the blog, Data Colada, she had been kept in the dark for more than three months. Harvard Business School’s existing process for dealing with allegations of misconduct would mandate that a faculty member be notified of charges against her within a week of the school’s receipt of the accusations. Instead, Gino was told on Oct. 27th that the school had received allegations about the integrity of her work from an “anonymous” source.

That very day, Gino was told to turn in her “HBS-issued devices” by 5 p.m., and Dean Datar then called in the Harvard University police to oversee the collection of her computer and any other devices given to her by the school. In retrospect, that action seems overly harsh before any investigation or conclusion of guilt.

According to the lawsuit, Datar also told Gino’s advisor, Gary Pisano, that Gino would be given all the time she needed to respond to the investigation committee’s requests for information. But that committee scheduled only one meeting with her—on Nov. 14th of 2022—and Gino claims it gave her “insufficient time to review the 180-plus pages of dense reports. Even though the committee had months to digest the reports with an outside forensic firm, Gino was given only a few weeks to prep for her meeting with them while she was also teaching intensively for a month and a half in September and October of 2022.

And when the committee handed over the reports to her, the lawsuit claims, it did not provide Gino the underlying documents on which the reports were based, “making it difficult for her to make sense of the reports” on studies that have been done seven, eight, and 10 years earlier.


Senior Associate Dean Gary Pisano went to bat for Gino

In the lawsuit, one colleague stands out in his defense of Gino. It is Gary Pisano. He was not merely a colleague or an advisor to Gino; he is also the senior associate dean for faculty development, a trusted member of the faculty for the past 35 years.

Pisano, who has no history of rebel-rousing, really went to bat for his colleague, to no avail. He asked Datar to give her more time to respond to the damning draft report by the committee, particularly because the panel reversed the new policy’s standard of proof that it shouldered the burden of proof for a finding of research misconduct instead of requiring Gino to disprove the allegations.

“When Dean Pisano spoke with Dean Datar, he emphasized that, throughout the proceeding, Professor Gino had continued to perform her regular duties as a Professor at HBS and had put “Harvard’s interests first,” including co-creating and teaching a course on Inclusion, (with 1,011 MBA students enrolled), and that, as a matter of basic fairness, she should have time to focus on her rebuttal, and to digest and respond to the 180-plus pages of MCG (Maidstone Consulting Group) forensic reports,” according to the lawsuit. “Dean Datar was dismissive, telling him to speak with Dean (Jean) Cunningham. Dean Cunningham was also dismissive, telling Dean Pisano, ‘Oh, she’s getting all the time she needs.’”

In a letter dated April 3, 2023, Pisano tried to explain to Datar that the investigation committee had failed to prove by a preponderance of evidence that Gino had engaged in intentional, knowing, or reckless falsification of data, which the new disciplinary policy required. Pisano argued that the committee had misapplied the standard of proof when it simply concluded that Gino was guilty on the basis that she had not disproved the allegations. 

The following week, on April 14th, Pisano met with Datar and told him the “process was broken,” making clear that the committee failed to carry its burden of proof in the case.

Finally, according to the lawsuit, Pisano urged Datar to speak with Gino if he had any specific questions about evidence. “But Dean Datar showed no interest in hearing from Professor Gino,” the lawsuit states. “Dean Datar told Dean Pisano that he was meeting with him only out of ‘respect’ for him.”


When Datar finally sat face-to-face with Gino for the first and only time at 5:30 p.m. on June 13th of this year, it was a full two years after the allegations were first brought to his attention. Here’s how it went down, according to the lawsuit.

“Dean Datar told Professor Gino that she would not have the opportunity to say anything and that he simply wanted the process to be ‘humane’ so had decided to meet with her in person to deliver the news of his decision.”

If that wasn’t appalling enough, then Datar turned robotic, reading word for word, his decision letter, informing her that she would be placed on unpaid administrative leave for a period of two years, that she would receive no salary or benefits, including health care for herself and her family of four children, after July 31; that her named professorship would be revoked, and that he was starting a process to take away her tenured appointment at Harvard.

He then told Gino that effective immediately she was not permitted to conduct research, to teach, to mentor or advise; that she would receive no administrative or research support, that she was barred from campus and prohibited from publishing or disseminating research on HBS platforms.

When Gino began to weep, Datar told her, “You are a capable, smart woman. I am sure you’ll find other opportunities.” He then told Gino that he was being ‘nice’ to her by waiting until the end of July to place her on unpaid leave, rather than doing so immediately.


Professor Frances Frei

Instead of handling the controversy in a confidential manner, Datar placed a banner on her faculty page saying she was on administrative leave. Many of Gino’s fellow colleagues on the faculty were shocked, if not horrified, when they received an email from Datar on June 22 informing them that, “as reflected on Professor Gino’s public Faculty & Research page, she is now on an administrative leave.” The email, according to her lawsuit, connected the public notice to the outcome of her research misconduct proceeding.

Despite the considerable academic mobbing that Gino has endured in social media circles over the fraud claims, the investigation committee’s report leaves enough doubt to question the harsh treatment Gino received. The report, for example, notes “statements by all witnesses that they never doubted the integrity of the data in the study or studies in question. One witness who knew Professor Gino well said they never doubted her integrity in any way. In addition, several exhibits appended by Professor Gino to her Response (Exhibit 29) contained messages to her from co-authors, colleagues, and former doctoral students expressing their admiration for her research rigor and integrity. The witnesses we interviewed also said that they had no evidence that Professor Gino had ever pressured colleagues, doctoral students, post-docs, or research associates, including themselves, to produce particular results in a study, or that Professor Gino had created a negative atmosphere in her lab. Moreover, some witnesses spontaneously said that they had worked on multiple studies with Professor Gino that were never published because the studies didn’t work out.”

Even the Data Colada authors alleging misconduct included a statement in their reports that makes it less than certain that Gino bears responsibility for the inaccuracies found in the supporting data of her studies: “Although the evidence can, in most of these cases, rule out malfeasance by co-authors, it cannot definitively rule in malfeasance by Professor Gino,” they wrote. “It may be that some research assistant or otherwise unnamed person/people was/were responsible for producing these anomalies.”


If anything, what is becoming clear is that Dean Datar caved to public pressure, from Data Colada which apparently agreed to delay the publication of its accusations pending the Harvard investigation. As Harvard Law School’s Lessig adds, “There is one fact so far that is already absolutely clear — and just wrong: It is that the business school, under pressure, changed its ordinary procedures for investigating charges of academic fraud, essentially crippling Gino’s ability to mount a serious defense. Yielding to the Internet is an increasingly common practice everywhere — and, it seems, also at the business school,” notes Lessing. “The school has many procedures meant to protect faculty, students, and staff. But when publicly pressed, the administration seems increasingly quick to deviate from procedures to the detriment of that community.”

He believes that “Data Colada apparently threatened Harvard that they would release data immediately unless Harvard took steps against Gino. Harvard caved to those demands, changing their procedures for investigating allegations of data manipulation, by limiting Gino’s ability to get support from forensic experts and outside counsel. Those changes made it impossible for Gino to defend herself adequately, even if they made it easier for Harvard to comply with the demands of Data Colada.”

Some 11 days after Gino filed her lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston, Datar sent an email to the HBS faculty that did little to  mollify the concerns that some faculty have. In fact, he seemed to put the onus for his actions on the three-person investigation committee he appointed.

Frances Frei, who was one of the first women to gain tenure at Harvard Business School where she has taught and held leadership positions over the past 25 years, expressed what many other faculty are feeling at the moment. “After reading this complaint, I have great pause. And many, many questions,” wrote Frei. “From my first-hand observation, Francesca Gino overflows with integrity. I hope justice is served here.” Frei knows Gino well because the pair had developed and taught a new course together for MBA students executive education participants on inclusion.

With no significant achievements under his belt as dean in the two and one-half years he has held the job, Datar risks being remembered as the placeholder dean who mismanaged a disciplinary proceeding that should have stayed out of the public view.


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