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