Dissertation research quality

By | May 22, 2013

harvardThere’s been an interesting story going around lately about Jason Richwine and his PhD dissertation from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (here’s a pretty good summary of the case to date.) . Among other things, it apparently cost him his job with the American Enterprise Institute, which was not prepared to stand behind him when the criticism reached a serious level. The dissertation in question, dating from 2009, was a re-visitation of the old theme of genetic intellectual inferiority, in this case, the inherent inferiority of Hispanics when faced with standard IQ tests. I haven’t seen thus far a good account of just how this became a public issue – it probably wasn’t the people at the American Enterprise Institute; there’s certainly there’s no shortage of folks there who would endorse such a proposition, including Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve some years ago, which preached much the same line particularly regarding African-Americans. Murray was in fact Richwine’s sponsor and employer at AEI, but has apparently cut him  loose as the controversy has evolved. The members of his doctoral committee at Harvard are similarly afflicted with varying degrees of amnesia regarding his preparation and defense of his dissertation. They don’t particularly approve of his dissertation now that its contents are rather publicly called to their attention; but they don’t want to really disavow him either, since after all he is a Harvard graduate. Mostly, they seem to be walking rather rapidly in another direction whenever someone asks them a question regarding his study.

As a professor who has supervised almost 50 dissertations in business and organizational behavior over the years, I have a pretty good idea what happened. It’s clear that his committee largely gave him a pass for two reasons, and possibly a third. First, he undoubtedly employed a variety of complex statistical analyses which none of the committee members really understood (several sources have commented on his dazzling analyses) but weren’t about to admit that they didn’t understand. I wouldn’t let such a thing slip by, but then I’m not a godlike professor at Harvard with a reputation for godhood to maintain. Second, and more speculative, they could well have thought him adequately handled by others (even each other). Clearly, he was a Golden Boy of sorts, being whisked off to the American Enterprise Institute; they may well have thought that he was going to receive good advising there, and thus all they needed to do was sort of rubber-stamp the work. Third, and even more speculative, they may have thought him simply a second or third rate student, not worth paying much attention to or investing much of their time into as long as they could get him out the door without too much trouble.

I do confess to occasionally have let less than stellar work in a dissertation slip by, largely because I knew that no matter how much more time I invested with the student the product was not going to improve significantly, and I figured that no one was ever going to read the dissertation anyway; the student was headed for as mid-level management position and would never be required to exercise academic skills. I’d never pass through anything that had rampant flaws, but  mediocrity – well, it happens. This might explain why Christopher Jencks, a really fine scholar and member of Richwine’s committee, after offering his comments and suggestions, didn’t follow up on their implementation – he figured that the Chair would see to it, and it wasn’t worth his time to invest here. Whenever I’ve had a student whose work verged on excellent, I’ve always ridden close herd on him/her to bring out the best. work of the middle range or lower will get the time I can spare.

There are thus several reasons rooted in the dissertation process itself, particularly as practiced in top-tier institutions like Harvard where simply getting admitted is regarded as prima facie evidence of quality, that could account for this sad situation, apart from professorial incompetence and/or racism. Nonetheless, it doesn’t reflect well on the PhD process generally, and thus to some degree damages the value of the degrees that I and so  many others have worked hard and well for. As for Richwine, I hope that he winds up teaching Introduction to Government at an inner-city community college for the remainder of his academic career. However, I doubt that this case will bring any really major soul-searching.ore likely, it will be marked up to a “slip in the system”, and he’ll be quietly shipped of to a minor but well paid academic post somewhere, until he turns up as an Assistant Secretary or Deputy Assistant Secretary for something-or-other in the next Republican administration. Probably in the Department of Education. Which he’ll then regard as vindication of his superior intellectual credentials. I’ve seen it happen before. There’s no way that these guys will ever be able to admit that their adverse circumstances have anything to do with something that they did – it was all the result of someone out to persecute them for telling the truth. Sad but true.