Sunday, May 19, 2013

Picking on Harvard

The Harvard students are revolting!  Ah, an easy joke. They are petitioning to demand an investigation into the now notorious dissertation of Jason Richwine.  Why?  Because Richwine wrote an awfully designed and executed dissertation?  No, it seems like they are protesting that the dissertation was/is just a bit racist--arguing that Latino immigrants have lower IQs and thus should be kept out.

The students' protests, I think, miss the point.  As much as I dislike Richwine's arguments, he is correct to argue that academic inquiry means that objectionable ideas can be pursued and can produce projects that lead to degrees, such as his Harvard doctorate.  After all, those who do research and find that being gay might be genetic and thus not a choice would have found much opposition decades ago.  We can figure out all kinds of work done in universities that seemed shocking to society at the time but was essentially progressive.  That Richwine's work is regressive in many ways does not mean we should create an environment where we vet ideas for whether they conform with what we think of appropriate work.

However, the students should be protesting ... that Harvard's standards might be questionable.  Dan Drezner and others have done the yeo-person's* work of reading the dissertation, so I will rely on their judgements.  Also, I will rely on the basic realities that race and IQ are both inherently problematic--both are hard to measure, both represent contested concepts, and both are far less fixed/immutable than those who tend to rely on them for their work.  So, it seems to be the case, given the nature of the project and how it has been executed (thanks, Dan, for taking that bullet and reading a dissertation you did not have to read), that the dissertation committee signed off on a crappy dissertation.**
* Obscure Oberlin reference.
** To be fair, supervising dissertations can be very hard, and often students are doing work at this at the edges of one's expertise.  The idea of having committees supervise dissertations is in part aimed at addressing this problem.  Still, I now have greater respect for the processes in Canada that have external examiners who are a key part of the process.

Thus, the real question about Harvard's reputation right now is not about the kinds of ideas being researched but the quality of the work that gets the Harvard imprimatur.  Harvard's reputation as the best university in the US (or close to it in the various rankings) depends not just on having lots of smart people hanging around Cambridge but making sure that the people who leave with the Harvard degree are well trained via the usual procedures--passing tests, writing good theses, and defending dissertations successfully.  If people can get through without adhering to the standards of the discipline (whatever it may be), then this raises questions about the value of the Harvard degree.  And students who pay huge amounts of money and/or who have worked really, really hard to get into and succeed at Harvard should care about that.  All they have done has either been to pursue excellence for its own reward or to get the stamp on their forehead that says Harvard.

The reality is that Harvard's faculty is chock full of really smart people, but really smart people are not always right and do not always do the best work.  I spent last week engaged in a series of conversations about work on ethnic tolerance and diversity because the mainstream media had picked up some Harvard studies and thought them to be good  in part because the Harvard sauce on it lent it legitimacy.  In this conversation, I took issue with a key aspect of work done by two incredibly smart and well-regarded Stanford scholars.  Just because I respect these folks a lot does not mean I buy everything they say. 

So, perhaps there is good news about this Richwine mess--that folks will not automatically assume that the research produced by those at Harvard or trained by Harvard folks is anything close to perfect or definitive.  That, however, is bad news for those students now at Harvard.  Oops.

1 comment:

LFC said...

I think it may be useful to distinguish betw the diff parts of Harvard. The Richwine diss was done at the Kennedy School, the public policy school, not at the Grad School of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which is where probably most of the pol sci (Government, in the Harvard lingo) PhDs are awarded.

I haven't read the diss. so I can't really say much about it or the issue of standards, except to say that the diss sounds somewhat dubious.