This story was updated at 4:10 p.m. with new information.
Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is canceling a new course focused on evaluating the efficacy of military-style counterinsurgency techniques used to fight crime in Springfield, Massachusetts, after critics raised concerns about the ethical implications of that approach.
The decision was announced Monday afternoon in an email from Harvard SEAS Dean Frank J. Doyle.
"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," Doyle wrote.
"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," Doyle added. "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."
The course in question was titled Data Fusion in Complex Systems: A Case Study. If it had been offered this semester, it would have focused on evaluating the use of a policing technique known as Counter-Criminal Continuum policing, or C3, to disrupt gang and drug activity Springfield.
A letter dated Jan. 24 and signed by a number of Harvard students and organizations raised numerous concerns about the course, including whether its research activities would have obligations not to harm human subjects, whether Springfield residents' privacy would be sufficiently protected, and whether "the computational nature of the initiative ... naturalize[s] policies and practices that have had disparate impacts on Black and Brown communities."
Kit Parker, the professor who had planned to offer the course, served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, and has been researching the efficacy of counterinsurgency techniques used in Afghanistan and Iraq as applied in Springfield for nearly a decade.
"C3 policing is designed to build legitimacy of law enforcement, [through] partnering relationships with the local citizens, to achieve the goals of a safer community," Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics, said in an email.
The C3 technique was pioneered by Michael Cutone, a retired Massachusetts State Trooper and the founder of a private company, Trinity Project C3, that specializes in the approach.
In a June 2020 interview with GBH News' Boston Public Radio, Cutone, who also served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, 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."
In that interview, Cutone also said that in the C3 framework, members of law enforcement take their cues from local residents.
“The folks that came up with the best ideas to help their community were the citizens, and the cops were able to help them implement it,” he said. “What a novel idea.”
Neither the use of C3 techniques in Springfield nor Parker's interest in the method are new. The Harvard SEAS website includes multiple articles on those topics, including 2012 stories from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Harvard Gazette, and Nature.
The Jan. 24 letter from the students said the planned course represents “the disturbing historical trend of universities like Harvard … supporting violence against marginalized communities,” and accused Harvard of “continu[ing] to be at the cutting edge of providing the next generation tools of oppression.”
It also noted that policing is not Parker’s area of expertise, and suggested he might personally profit from research that students would have conducted.
In a statement provided to GBH News, Parker said that is not the case.
“I get nothing from this project financially, only the personal satisfaction of trying to contribute to an understanding of an impoverished community who has made some very courageous decisions about taking control of their fate from violent criminal gangs,” he wrote.
Parker also said the course — and his ongoing research into policing in Springfield — represent much-needed engagement between academia and the wider world.
“[I]f we are good stewards of our opportunities at Harvard, we need to endeavor to get in the trenches on social reforms and do some work … drag hard problems back to Harvard and work with students to solve them,” Parker wrote.
“I expect Harvard to display the moral courage to support its faculty who endeavor to lead such projects … and their academic freedom,” he added.
Springfield City Councilor Victor Davila, who represents the city’s sixth ward, tells GBH News the C3 approach has boosted community engagement and helped identify local trouble spots, including illegal chop shops and locations with dangerous traffic.
“C3 isn’t a fix all, but it’s a darn good way of combatting quality of life issues and combatting crime,” Davila said.
The approach “helps to foster a good relationship with the police department and to open up trust — a trust which, by the way, is sorely needed in Springfield,” Davila added. “We have had issues in Springfield for a long time. There’s a lot of work to do. But I think that some gains have been made.”
In an email, Paul Karoff, a spokesperson for Harvard SEAS, said the cancellation was Parker’s choice, writing: “please understand that the decision not to offer the course this spring was [Professor] Parker’s.”
Parker disputes that characterization, however, saying that after his co-instructor dropped out last week, he still hoped to teach the course as scheduled.
When he was unable to find a replacement, and university administration suggested rescheduling the course for this fall, Parker agreed — but also suggested, in an email provided to GBH News, that Harvard make a statement supporting his course, as well as others that address controversial issues and might elicit a similar backlash.
Ultimately, Parker said of Harvard, “their passive action effectively shut us down.”