James Damore, the former Google engineer who was fired Monday after posting a missive criticizing the company’s diversity programs, offended fellow Harvard graduate students with an off-color skit during a 2012 retreat, prompting two professors to send an email apologizing for the performance.
At the time, Damore was a doctoral student in systems biology. Along with a few dozen other students and faculty, he attended a two-day retreat at a hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that included discussions about science as well as a dinner followed by students performing in skits that typically poke fun at professors.
According to accounts of the event from three people who attended and one person familiar with the skit, Damore performed as professor Timothy Mitchison, who discovered a concept initially called “Microtubule Jerking.” Damore, portraying Mitchison, used suggestive phrases to thank women who had helped with the “jerking” discovery.
“The delivery was just awful,” the student tells WIRED. “It’s a room full of scientists so there’s a lot of awkwardness, but this was especially awkward. Maybe told in a different way it would have been received as a joke.” A second person who attended the event does not remember the specifics involving Mitchison. But the second student recalls that Damore’s performance “crossed the line. It seemed inappropriate and I remembered a portion of the community asking him to apologize.” The third classmate, a female, tells WIRED that jokes in the skits usually roast colleagues, but typically the focus is on professors, not students. “He was a kind person whose misguided attempt to be funny failed,” she says. “I think that he wanted the skit to be a chance for him to be funny and cool, but overdid it.”
After the event, which was first reported by Gizmodo, Mitchison and Andrew Murray, the codirectors of the program, emailed the department to apologize. “Even in the context of a deliberately humorous event, targeting any group within the program that can be defined by gender, by ethnicity, by sexual orientation, or by religious affiliation, is never acceptable,” the professors wrote, according to a copy of the email reviewed by WIRED.
Dear Members of the Systems Biology Program,
At our recent retreat, a student skit presented material that offended many members of our
community. Skits are an important form of self-expression and we
believe that students should feel free, and even encouraged, to make
fun of the faculty, the academic leadership of the program, and the
trials and tribulations of being a young scientist. But even in the
context of a deliberately humorous event, targeting any group within
the program that can be defined by gender, by ethnicity, by sexual
orientation, or by religious affiliation, is never acceptable. As the
directors of the program, we are responsible for creating a culture in
which this important principle is self-evident. The responsibility for
any offense thus lies with us and we would like to offer our sincere
apology for uneasiness, embarrassment, or offense that any of you
suffered at the retreat.
Andrew Murray and Tim Mitchison
Damore left Harvard with a master’s degree in systems biology in 2013, and did not complete his PhD, the university says. Damore’s classmates say they do not believe the incident at the retreat prompted his departure. Damore did not respond to a request for comment about the Harvard incident, nor did Mitchison and Murray.
Until Tuesday, Damore’s LinkedIn profile included “PhD, Systems Biology.” Damore appears to have changed the profile after WIRED reported that he had not completed the degree. According to the LinkedIn profile, Damore had been a software engineer at Google since December 2013. Last week, he posted a 10-page memo on an internal discussion board criticizing Google’s efforts to diversify its workforce, particularly for women. The post sparked widespread criticism inside and outside Google (and some support for his views), and Google CEO Sundar Pichai told employees on Monday that Damore’s memo violated Google’s Code of Conduct “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” Damore told WIRED on Monday night that he had been fired.
Prior to Harvard, Damore conducted research in a lab at MIT. According to a curriculum vitae posted on MIT’s site, Damore grew up in Illinois and earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology, physics, and chemistry from the University of Illinois in 2010. The CV lists numerous academic and intellectual honors, including awards in chess and Rise of Nations, a computer-strategy game.
Damore’s fellow students at Harvard remember him as very smart but awkward around people. “He was clearly socially maladjusted,” says the student who recalled Damore’s performance as Mitchison. This classmate says he did not view Damore as “some sort of raving sexist or bigot.” But, this classmate adds, “When you’re really smart you’re prone to thinking that you can solve these big issues if you just think real hard on them, and if you don’t have the social skills to navigate a dicey issue, it can go wildly awry,” the classmate says.