Harvard Cancels Course Amid Petition Campaign

Class was to have focused on the use of a controversial policing technique.

January 27, 2021
 
Kit Parker

Under pressure from students, Harvard University canceled a course that was to have been offered this semester on a controversial policing technique used in Springfield, Mass.

The technique is known as C3, or Counter Criminal Continuum Policing. It involves citizens working with police to bring down crime, and it has been credited with significantly reducing crime in Springfield. But its creation was in the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, and that is one reason that the technique is controversial.

For some, this history reinforces criticisms that American policing, especially in communities of color, has become overly militarized and violent. Those criticisms became particularly resonant in the wake of nationwide protests last summer after the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black citizens and the racial reckoning that followed.

Frank Doyle, dean of Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering & Applied Sciences (SEAS), wrote to students and faculty members on the course cancellation Monday.

"Over the last few days, several concerns have been expressed online about a new course -- ENG-SCI 298R: Data Fusion in Complex Systems: A Case Study," he wrote. "I am writing to let you know that this course will not be offered this semester. I want to assure members of the SEAS community that we are aware of, and take seriously, the concerns that some of you raised about the design and pedagogy of the proposed course. We also take seriously our responsibility to protect the academic freedom of all community members. The SEAS course approval process under which new courses are vetted prior to being added to the course catalog is intended to ensure that our curriculum fully aligns with the school’s mission, vision, and values. During the coming days, the SEAS leadership will undertake a review of our course approval policies and procedures to determine if there are opportunities to further strengthen that system."

He did not mention a petition, started over the weekend, by student organizations expressing "grave concerns" over the course.

The anger over the course was first reported by GBH.

"The course aims to engage unpaid student researchers to analyze the efficacy of a domestic policing technique, C3, modeled after counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," the petition says. "As Harvard graduate and undergraduate students in the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences and in other departments, we have grave concerns about the nature of this work, its academic legitimacy, and ethical implications for marginalized communities around the world."

Among the concerns cited:

  • "Does the research at the heart of this course, specifically the experimental usage of C3, meet ethical obligations to ensure research does not harm human subjects both in the near and long term?
  • "What urgent privacy concerns for the residents of Springfield are posed by the collection and usage of a gang database by Harvard University?
  • "How does the computational nature of the initiative and proposed coursework naturalize policies and practices that have had disparate impacts on Black and Brown communities?
  • "Does the framing of the course present significant, yet unacknowledged, professional risks to the students who may choose to enroll?"

The petition goes on to criticize Kit Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics, who was teaching the course.

"Professor Parker has little apparent background in the fields of data science or policing, and his email advertising the course has failed to appropriately center the ways in which policing and surveillance in the United States disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities," the petition said. "In both the course catalogue description and Professor Parker’s email, there is no analysis of structural racism, political economy, inequity in criminal justice, or residential segregation -- the purported social science aspect of the course is rooted in outdated behavioral science and culture of poverty theory that pathologizes marginalized communities. All the while, soldiers are constructed as 'buddies' and the militarization of society is normalized with no acknowledgement of last year’s largest civil rights movement against police brutality and militarized police forces in America’s history. Parker’s own statements point to explicit racial biases he holds, which make his involvement in this project all the more dubious."

According to Parker's biography (on the university website), "Kit Parker researches cardiac cell biology and tissue engineering, traumatic brain injury, and biological applications of micro- and nanotechnologies. Working in both Biomimetic Microsystems and Programmable Nanomaterials, he is involved in projects ranging from developing nanofabrics for applications in tissue regeneration to creating organs-on-chips to address pediatric diseases such as asthma, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, brain injury and congenital heart disease."

He is also a "colonel in the United States Army Reserve and has served two combat tours in Afghanistan where he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation Medal with V device, and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. He was also selected to serve on the Gray Team, a science advisory team assembled by the Joint Chiefs. As the operations officer of this team, he completed two additional missions to Afghanistan in 2011 to assess and report on issues pertaining to combat casualties and their care."

Parker responded to a request for information about the course by sending a recording of a session about his course. In the video, local leaders in Springfield -- Black and Latinx people among them -- cited the value of C3. They said that C3 "understood our neighborhood."

As for Parker, he said, "It's a tough day for those that are working to improve life in the North End of Springfield, Mass. It's harder to teach courses that matter now."

He said that the video shows "the difference between what is being said on Twitter and what is being said about C3 policing in what might be the poorest square mile in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

Parker added, "We will maintain our commitment to help this community's courageous effort reform its relationship with law enforcement … whether or not we have the support of the Harvard community or not."

The C3 technique was created by Michael Cutone, a retired Massachusetts state trooper and the founder of a private company that specializes in the approach. In a June 2020 interview with GBH News' Boston Public Radio, Cutone cited C3 policing as a potential model for police reform.

"The policing program I started has nothing to do with militarizing the police," Cutone said. "It's basically taking the best practices I learned from community engagement with my time with the Green Berets, then applying them in the civilian law enforcement sector."

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