Inside Higher Ed: Should His PhD Have Been Granted?

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

May 13, 2013

Debate over a new report by the Heritage Foundation – a US conservative thinktank -  that is critical of proposed changes in immigration laws has set off scrutiny and criticism of Harvard University for approving a thesis in 2009 by one of the report’s authors.

Some critics say that the thesis’ suggestion of a long-term gap in the IQs of Hispanic immigrants and their descendants and the IQs of other groups is based on discredited theories that have been used to justify many forms of discrimination over the years. And they question how Harvard could award a PhD based on such a thesis. Jason Richwine, the Harvard PhD graduate in question, resigned from Heritage on 10 May. Twenty-three student organisations at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, which awarded the PhD, issued a joint letter the same day questioning the legitimacy of the thesis that was awarded to Dr Richwine.

“Let us be clear that we believe in academic freedom as it is crucial to the functioning of a university. However, we also believe that putting forth claims of racial superiority based on inherent genetic advantage to be on par with those who have used pseudo-science throughout history to justify state-based hate,” the letter says. “Richwine continues this troubling trend by using such flawed research to influence the national debate on comprehensive immigration reform. In any healthy democracy there is always disagreement, but such plain racism cannot and must not be tolerated. Even if such claims had merit, the Kennedy School cannot ethically stand by this dissertation whose end result can only be furthering discrimination under the guise of academic discourse.”

Harvard is standing by the process under which the thesis was awarded - while leaving others to debate its findings.

“I most certainly understand that this issue, as reported, troubles many people,” said a statement released by David T. Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School. “First, the views and conclusions of any graduate of this school are theirs alone, and do not represent the views of Harvard or the Kennedy School. Second, all PhD dissertations are reviewed by a committee of scholars. In this case, the committee consisted of three highly respected and discerning faculty members who come from diverse intellectual traditions. Finally and most importantly, it is vital that an active and open debate of ideas occur in universities and beyond them. Scholars and others who disagree with particular ideas or methods or who are unhappy with conclusions can and must openly engage in reasoned discussion and criticism, after looking fully and carefully at the work. It is through ongoing vigorous give and take that good ideas will ultimately emerge and weaker ones can be displaced.”

While the Heritage Foundation report on immigration was controversial from the start, the uproar over Dr Richwine started when The Washington Post reported on his thesis.

The Post summarised the thesis by saying that it “asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it’s clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics…he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason.” Dr Richwine writes, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”

The full thesis is now available online at The Huffington Post, and critics have noted that its references include researchers whose work on race and intelligence have ignited past controversies - people such as Charles Murray and J. Philippe Rushton. The letter from the student groups at the Kennedy School cites the use of Rushton’s work in particular, saying: “To justify his assertions he cites largely discredited sources such as J. Philippe Rushton whose work enshrines the idea that there are genetically-rooted differences in cognitive ability between racial groups.”

Slate interviewed two of the three members of Dr Richwine’s thesis committee. Richard Zeckhauser, the Frank P. Ramsey professor of political economy at Harvard, said that “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.”

And George Borjas, the Richard W. Scrivner professor of economics and social policy, told Slate that he didn’t think much of IQ research. “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.”

The third member of the committee is Christopher Jencks, the Malcolm Wiener professor of social policy at Harvard. He has not commented on the thesis, and he told Inside Higher Ed via email that “at least for now, I have no comment on this brouhaha”.

Via email, Dr Richwine said that he had given an exclusive interview on the entire controversy (not focused on Harvard) to another publication and that he could not comment until that interview is published.

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Reader's comments (1)

I have no idea whether this individual's work has any merit, not having read it and lacking entirely the expertise to comment on that in any case. I will not therefore comment on that, except to observe that the PhD would presumably not have been awarded without some consideration of whether it met the required standard. I can't say that I'm keen on the implications of the conclusions referred to in this article, but that hardly has any bearing on their validity. What troubles me more is the following from the protest letter: "Even if such claims had merit, the Kennedy School cannot ethically stand by this dissertation whose end result can only be furthering discrimination under the guise of academic discourse.” I find it quite astonishing to see it suggested, in all apparent seriousness, that research should be ignored on the basis of reaching unpalatable conclusions, regardless of whether those conclusions are valid.

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