The Inside Story of a Harvard Dissertation Too Racist for the Heritage Foundation
The idea that some racial groups are, on average, smarter than others is without a doubt among the most discussed (and debunked) “taboos” in American intellectual history. It is an argument that has been advanced since the days of slavery, one that helped push through the draconian Immigration Act of 1924, and one that set off a scientific firestorm in the late 60s that’s hardly flagged since.
Yet every time the race and IQ hypothesis reclaims the public spotlight, we are caught slackjaw, always returning to the same basic debates on the same basic concepts.
The recent fracas sparked by Dr. Jason Richwine’s doctoral dissertation is a case in point. The paper is a dry thing, written for an academic audience, yet its core claim, that Latino immigrants to the United States are and will likely remain less intelligent than “native whites,” has proved proper tinder for a public firestorm. The Heritage Foundation’s Senior Policy Analyst in Empirical Studies is now a former Senior Policy Analyst — Heritage could not risk further tainting an immigration report it hoped would be influential by outright defending its scholar’s meditations on the possibly genetic intellectual inferiority of immigrants from Latin America.
It might seem like the book is closed on l’affaire Richwine: he’s left his job, Heritage is left with a black eye, and not a single mind has been changed about the value of research into race and IQ. But there’s still one major unanswered question.
If the dissertation was bad enough to get him fired from the Heritage Foundation, how did it earn him a degree from Harvard?
A popular answer among Richwine’s defenders is that, quite simply, it was exemplary work. Richwine’s dissertation committee was made up, by all accounts, of three eminent scholars, each widely respected in their respective fields. And it is Harvard.
But dozens of interviews with subject matter experts, Harvard graduates in Richwine’s program who overlapped with him, and members of the committee itself paint a somewhat more textured picture. Richwine’s dissertation was sloppy scholarship, relying on statistical sophistication to hide some serious conceptual errors. Yet internal accounts of Richwine’s time at Harvard suggests the august university, for the most part, let serious problems in Richwine’s research fall through the cracks.
Richwine Goes To Harvard
By his own account, Jason Richwine came to the Harvard Kennedy School deeply fascinated with the link between race and IQ. Richwine told The Washington Examiner’s Byron York that, as an undergraduate at American University, he fell in love with Charles Murray’s work on the topic. Murray, who will became an important player in Richwine’s story later on, is one of the authors of the infamous The Bell Curve, the 1994 book whose claims about the genetic roots of the black/white IQ gap set off the most famous public food fight over race and IQ. Richwine describes Murray as “ my childhood hero.”
People that knew Richwine at Harvard describe him as an introverted, but kind, man. “He was a quiet and thoughtful person,” said Anh Ngoc Tran, a contemporary of Richwine’s at Harvard who now teaches at Indiana University. “[Richwine] was friendlier to international students,” Tran said. Another contemporary of Richwine’s echoed Tran, saying Richwine was “not really all that outgoing. Always a really nice guy.”
Tran took pain to distance Richwine from accusations of racism. “I don’t think he is racist,” Tran told me. “His wife is an immigrant.”
After the first two years of coursework, PhD candidates in Public Policy at the Kennedy School move away from group classes toward individual research. That means taking comprehensive exams (“comps,” in grad student lingo) to show you’ve mastered the course material. After comps, you start work on a dissertation, a piece of original scholarship that’s supposed to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to produce research at the level expected of an expert in the field. Dissertation topics are determined in conjunction with a primary advisor, who goes on to become the “chair” of a three-person committee that determines the candidate’s fate. The topic is finalized in a formal “prospectus” outlining the research agenda.