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Harvard takes a beating

The reputation of Harvard University, especially the John F. Kennedy School of Public Policy, has been getting a severe hammering in the last month. We first had the Reinhart-Rogoff affair (see here and here) and now we have the Heritage-Richwine affair.

The more recent mess started with a report released on May 6 by the Heritage Foundation that stated that there would be a net cost to the US economy of a shocking $6.3 trillion if the current immigration reform package were implemented. Heritage had released a similarly alarming report back in 2007 that is credited with successfully torpedoing an earlier attempt at immigration reform. The report immediately generated controversy with critics challenging its methodology and the motivations of the foundation.

But then that debate went off the rails. The authors of the Heritage report were two employees Robert Rector (a long-standing member of the foundation and also an author of the 2007 report) and Jason Richwine, who got his PhD from Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2009. Someone unearthed and posted the latter’s doctoral dissertation titled IQ and Immigration Policy. Here’s the abstract.

The statistical construct known as IQ can reliably estimate general mental ability, or intelligence. The average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations. The consequences are a lack of socioeconomic assimilation among low-IQ immigrant groups, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market. Selecting high-IQ immigrants would ameliorate these problems in the U.S., while at the same time benefiting smart potential immigrants who lack educational access in their home countries.

His dissertation focused largely on Hispanics and said that unlike previous generations of immigrants, their descendants did not over time assimilate and raise their IQ’s to the level of the white native population. Instead they became an underclass, a net drain on the economy.

In addition to his thesis, reports also emerged that Richwine had written articles for nationalist groups. Heritage quickly distanced itself from the views in the dissertation and its contents, saying “It’s findings do not reflect the positions of The Heritage Foundation or the conclusions of our study on the cost of amnesty to U.S. taxpayers, as race and ethnicity are not part of Heritage immigration policy recommendations.” Then on May 10, just four days after the release of its report, Heritage announced that Richwine had ‘resigned’, though it seems clear that it must have been under pressure.

I will discuss the substance of the argument about IQ, race, and immigration in a later post but for the moment I want to look at how badly Harvard comes off in this affair. Richwine’s dissertation was signed off by three Harvard professors. The dissertation committee chair (who is usually the main advisor for the student) was George Borjas, an immigrant from Cuba who has been an advocate of reducing immigration. When questioned about the dissertation, he responded, “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc. … In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I’ve long believed this, I don’t find the IQ academic work all that interesting. Economic outcomes and IQ are only weakly related, and IQ only measures one kind of ability. I’ve been lucky to have met many high-IQ people in academia who are total losers, and many smart, but not super-smart people, who are incredibly successful because of persistence, motivation, etc. So I just think that, on the whole, the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.”

So basically Richwine’s dissertation chair says he knows next to nothing about the topic his student chose, is not even interested in it, and seems to think such studies are largely a waste of time. To make it worse, Borjas tried to pass the buck, saying that he was not even the committee chair, that it was another faculty member Richard Zeckhauser, even though Borjas had signed as the chair.

Meanwhile Zeckhauser says, “Jason’s empirical work was careful. Moreover, my view is that none of his advisors would have accepted his thesis had he thought that his empirical work was tilted or in error. However, Richwine was too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.” But since the dissertation was so heavily tilted towards policy recommendations, shouldn’t he have expressed his misgivings before?

The third committee member was Christopher Jencks, a well-known and respected scholar in the field of IQ, education, and race, perhaps the most knowledgeable among the three on the topic but so far he has said nothing. Richwine’s dissertation acknowledgments says that Jencks was a ‘late addition’ to the committee, so the thesis may have been well underway when he came on board and he may have had just a passing knowledge.

So since Richwine seems to have had not much guidance from the three members of his committee, who actually supervised his work? This is where it gets interesting. In his acknowledgments, Richwine profusely thanks Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute (who is not listed as a dissertation committee member), saying that his “detailed editing and relentless constructive criticism have made the final draft vastly superior to the first. I could not have asked for a better primary advisor” (my italics). Some of you may recall that Murray was co-author of the 1994 book The Bell Curve that created a furor because of similar claims about IQ and the underclass, in that case aimed at blacks.

What it looks like is that Harvard basically farmed out its graduate student to be supervised by someone at another institution (not even a university) and then signed off on the student’s work. Such practices are unusual, but not unheard off. Sometimes a student needs expert guidance in an area that the home institution cannot provide and so outside people are asked to assist the student. But in such situations the dissertation committee, and especially the chair, is expected to provide close oversight since their signatures of approval mean that they are putting their own and their institution’s reputations on the line. Unfortunately it is a dirty little secret of academia that it is not uncommon for dissertation committee members other than the chair to have just a cursory knowledge of the work, sometimes not even reading the dissertation until the day before the defense.

The trouble with elite institutions like Harvard is that they think they are bullet-proof, that their reputations are so solid that nothing can harm them and they get careless and on occasion neglect to carry out normal due process. This is what seems to have happened here and Harvard will need to examine its practices and make sure that its faculty are carrying out the expected oversight.

Coming soon: The nature of race and IQ studies

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    Even the most prestigious universities let a clinker get through. Previously PhD awards by Harvard include YEC Kurt Wise. UC Berkeley PhD awards include the late and unlamented Duane Gish and Jonathan Wells.

    I hope that Prof. Singham’s upcoming post includes UC Berkeley Professor Arthur Jenson, who wrote a notorious article published in the Harvard Educational Review on the subject of race and IQ. Much of Jenson’s article was based on the “investigation” of identical twins by Sir Cyril Burt, which investigation is now known to be fraudulent (e.g. it appears that the twins studied by Burt were non-existent).

  2. garnetstar says

    That high-reputation institutions rest on their laurels and get complacent and sloppy is very true. In my field of chemistry, inevitably the high-rep departments stop striving to keep up, thinking that they’re already perfect. They fossilize themselves in the reseach that was cutting-edge decades ago.

    As for complacency—there’s a federal agency that determines periodically where to establish the National Magnet Lab, where the most expensive, one-of-a-kind, instruments are placed. The agency hold a competition every once and awhile, and the candidate instituions submit proposals, explaining how they would best foster cutting-edge interdisciplinary research and collaoration.

    MIT had long been the winner and so the location of the national lab. In the last competition, they didn’t bother to work hard and submit a really competitive proposal, assuming that the lab would be theirs forever. The institution that did work hard was…..Florida State. And that is where the lab is located today.

    And oh my, the outrage at MIT that the lab would put at a lower-prestige place, when obviously MIT deserved it because they are so inherently better!

  3. Mano Singham says

    Yeah, I remember that magnet episode and the shock that MIT could have been overlooked.

  4. garnetstar says

    Yes, and they wouldn’t have whined in that particular way if the lab had gone to Berkley or Cal Tech. But Florida State!

    Merit over status? What is the world coming to?

  5. eigenperson says

    Sure, committee members frequently ignore their responsibility to carefully evaluate a thesis, but after seeing an abstract that makes it clear the thesis will be diving into a controversial political area and making policy prescriptions, I think they should have read the thesis. Any conclusions in such areas should be examined carefully, because it’s very likely that the author is biased (and in this case, also the advisor).

  6. mobius says

    And of course we all know that IQ has nothing to do with cultural influences. [/sarcasm]

    And The Bell Curve? Ugh…what a piece of…

  7. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “Selecting high-IQ immigrants would ameliorate these problems in the U.S., while at the same time benefiting smart potential immigrants who lack educational access in their home countries.”

    Culling talent from countries that probably need them more than the US may not be slave trade, but it still reeks of colonialism.

  8. Vote for Pedro says

    Only if you assume immigrants can’t make decisions for themselves, which seems an even more patronizing attitude to me.

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    I mentioned the difference to slave trade, because this time emigration is voluntary.

    The social problem the receiving countries (in this case the USA) do not discuss is the brain leak. They just assume that they are entitled to recruit whomever they can, just like in colonial times they felt they were entitled to exploit any natural resources the “natives” had no immediate use for. Note the intentional mislead: the visas are not issued to talented students “who lack educational access” to offer them higher education. The immigrants are expected to resettle permanently in order to work.

    The problem is not simple. While the absence of the expats hurts their home countries, many of them send money home, which will boost the economies.

    If I had a good solution to the problem, I would have done more than write a one sentence comment to a relatively low volume blog…

  10. bad Jim says

    Coming soon: The nature of race and IQ studies

    That could be fun. No end of nonsense!

    Let me preemptively air two peeves. Strictly speaking, IQ is the ratio of mental age to actual age, which isn’t well-defined for adults. I’m 61, so if I claim an IQ of 150 I’m saying I have the mentality of someone over 90? Not so good.

    It’s useful to equate IQ to standard tests like the Stanford-Binet or the SAT so we have some idea of what we’re talking about. If it’s a matter of vocabulary and simple math, these are widely administered and fairly well understood achievement tests. If we’re talking about intelligence, we probably don’t know what we’re talking about, and we’ll certainly never agree, and the same is true about race.

    I was also annoyed when someone wrote that “Hispanic” described “an ethnic group” rather than a race. If there is any way to rehabilitate the term “race” in a biological sense, which there doesn’t seem to be, it’s especially useless in the Americas where immigration and intermarriage is the norm. “Ethnic group” is typically used as a euphemism for race, even though, as an anthropological term, it might merely describe a community sharing cultural practices, such as speaking Spanish and eating frijoles.

    “Hispanic”, though is strictly a linguistic category, including Europeans from Spain, Caribbeans of mainly African ancestry, and Latinos who might be predominantly Indio or not at all. Brazil and Mexico do, at least, promote a consensus that everyone is a blend, but it’s hard to escape the impression that it’s still considered desirable to be white (like sugar and flour, pure but not nutritious), European.

  11. Vote for Pedro says

    What I’m saying is I figure the potential immigrants themselves ought to make the decision for themselves. I think comparing them to natural resources is a non-starter because they are people who can make those decisions.

    I’m not sure why every country would not be free to recruit whomever they can. What’s the alternative? Force people to stay in the country they were born in for the good of the country? Sounds like the very presumptuous colonial attitude you want to prevent.

    Sure, countries could take a more or less active role in recruitment, but sure they’ll all try and recruit as best they can. With falling birth rates, the competition is only going to get more intense.

  12. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “Force people to stay in the country they were born in for the good of the country?”

    Recent news from Hungary:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/world/europe/18iht-educlede18.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Many developing countries are using their limited resources to subsidize education for the next generation. It is expected to pay off in a few decades. But if the kids emigrate, the country will remain forever in the developing category. In effect the developed world is stealing taxpayers’ money from the developing world.

    The Wall Street of course sees no problem in this.

  13. Vote for Pedro says

    So you do think they should be obligated to stay, then. The details are illuminating, but doesn’t change the point.

    If the countries in question expect the students to stay, perhaps that should be a condition of their loans? Otherwise, no matter what other countries do, some of them will leave.

    Perhaps you’ll say few students would take them up on it. Probably true – but then that shows assuming they would stay without inducement is not a good assumption. There are similar programs which seem to have some impact though (one example being the program which helps new doctors with their loans in the US by requiring them to work in high-need areas, usually rural or inner-city locations).

    I’m not saying I’m entirely comfortable with the situation, but I don’t agree with your characterization either.

  14. says

    The reputation of Harvard University, especially the John F. Kennedy School of Public Policy, has been getting a severe hammering in the last month. We first had the Reinhart-Rogoff affair (see here and here) and now we have the Heritage-Richwine affair.

    I wish this would be included.

    Someone unearthed and posted the latter’s doctoral dissertation titled IQ and Immigration Policy.

    I’m glad someone posted it. When I first read about this, I wondered who his committee was. The first signature is George Borjas, who’s…Cuban-American.

  15. hypocee says

    The trouble with elite institutions like Harvard is that they think they are bullet-proof, that their reputations are so solid that nothing can harm them and they get careless and on occasion neglect to carry out normal due process. This is what seems to have happened here and Harvard will need to examine its practices and make sure that its faculty are carrying out the expected oversight.

    This is true only if one assumes elite schools’ “reputation” is for educating anyone in anything, rather than affixing the appropriate tribal marker to valuable kids.

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