Sudhir Venkatesh, the Columbia “rogue sociologist” and subject of a recent NYT profile which suggested that he’d been playing fast and loose with Columbia’s money, has responded to the Freakonomics blog, where he has been a contributor.
His answer continues the argument he outlined in an earlier statement to a Columbia student blog: He’s the real victim here.
It is troubling to me that old documents are being leaked now. My life and my work has [sic] been about transparency and I have absolutely nothing to hide.
That’s not quite true. Venkatesh declined to answer the Times’ questions about numerous specific issues in Columbia’s audit—about, for example, $33, 000 in $100 grants to unidentified interview subjects. He probably has his reasons for not talking to the Times, and they may be perfectly justifiable ones, but you don’t get to stonewall reporters and then tout your commitment to transparency.
Venkatesh volunteers that he repaid some $13, 000 for matters in which “my own recordkeeping did not meet these new standards.” (Poor fellow; he’s the victim of new standards.)
But if you read the Times profile—car services to a building that houses a nail salon, a $9,000 payment to a collaborator that Venkatesh appears to have simply pocketed, etc.—the issue doesn’t seem to be sloppy record-keeping, but the appropriation of funds for personal use.
Venkatesh also says—well, implies, really—that the concerns were raised because of an audit that he requested and that, if you don’t believe him, then bear this in mind:
I have subsequently worked extensively with the FBI — which, as you might imagine, conducted a comprehensive financial background check on me before my work with them began.
Venkatesh is clearly no fool, and that’s a fascinating sentence. Does the FBI really conduct a “comprehensive financial background check” on every academic whom it hires as a consultant? I have no idea. In any event, would a hushed-up university audit, which surely never involved criminal charges, be turned up by the FBI in such a background check? I don’t know that either. But the implication of the statement is clear: Imagine that there was a “comprehensive” background check. Would the FBI have hired me if I wasn’t clean as a whistle?
It’s also worth noting that this chronology flatly contradicts what Venkatesh told Columbia’s BWOG; in that statement, he said that any financial mishaps were due to the fact that he was so busy working for both Columbia and the FBI.
Was I a good bookkeeper? Not by any stretch. I was overwhelmed, I was working both at Columbia and at the FBI, and I struggled to keep up. So ethically, I felt it important to return approximately $13,000 for which there was inadequate documentation. I then took a partial leave to deepen my work at the FBI.
(Again with the bookkeeping…..)
The contradiction suggests that Venkatesh was already working for the FBI when issues about his finances arose, and so any financial background check that was conducted likely occurred before Columbia’s audit. Which, if true, would make his statement to Freakonomics not only meaningless, but dishonest.
So go back and read that original sentence as a lawyer might—because it sounds like a lawyer wrote it:
“I have subsequently worked extensively with the FBI — which, as you might imagine, conducted a comprehensive financial background check on me before my work with them began.”
Which means that before he was working “extensively” with the FBI, Venkatesh was working a little bit with the agency, and before he was working with them a little bit, they did a background check.
In other words, if you read the sentence incredibly carefully, it’s literally correct—but carefully crafted to convey the impression that that background check occurred only when Venkatesh began his “extensive” work with the FBI.
That’s not really so transparent, is it?
Some might say that this is much ado about nothing, a tempest in a teapot. After all, it’s an internal university matter. Right?
I don’t think so. First, who knows whether any of the monies involved came from public funds? Second, some of the money is almost surely partly paid by student tuition, which goes up and up and up in part to pay the inflated salaries of celebrity academics such as Venkatesh. Third, Venkatesh is a public figure, a pop phenomenon. He is, in that sense, an ambassador from the academic community to the outside world; his integrity matters. And fourth, his work is influential. If there’s anything sketchy about it, that’s important to know. Venkatesh is a powerful person writing about the powerless; it’s my faith that, under those circumstances, you have a particular responsibility to be scrupulously honest.
(Stephen Glass used to write about powerless minorities as well, you may recall.)
That’s a point that the Times article raised, but perhaps not in the depth it could have; one certainly got the impression that lots of Venkatesh’s colleagues in the field have deep misgivings about his work. (Venkatesh allies call it envy, which is, to be fair, not unheard-of in academia.)
Without explicitly mentioning it, Venkatesh does respond to one particular Times’ assertion—the idea that he may fudge or invent quotes from the pseudonymous gang members, drug dealers and prostitutes who populate his work.
The University prohibits me from using real names, so third-party validation is difficult to achieve. So, in practice, I work in teams, where many people can discuss what we all saw. I’ve collaborated with students and faculty in all of my research — with gangs, sex workers, public housing residents, etc.
A question about this, and a suggestion.
The question is this: Does Columbia really prohibit its professors—or sociologists, or just Venkatesh—from using real names in his writing?
If so, that’s pretty silly. It’s an invitation to make stuff up. (Who could prove you did it? No one. I doubt the gang leaders are going to file a complaint.) Why would sociologists be compelled not to use real names, and not historians, political scientists, economists and the like?
And here’s the suggestion: This statement doesn’t actually establish what Venkatesh wants it to—his trustworthiness.
Here’s why. While Venkatesh may well collaborate with students and faculty in his work, from all I can tell he doesn’t collaborate with them in his field work: He’s the only one out there in the projects, on the streets, hanging out with the Damon Runyon-esque characters of our era. (That’s what “rogue sociologists” do! They work alone!)
So if Venkatesh is making up quotes, or indeed whole characters, none of his “collaborators” would have any way of knowing that. When he says that he helped drag a gang lieutenant to safety in the midst of a blazing gun battle, or participated in the beating of a violent crackhead, his “collaborators” weren’t there, were they?
Which is to say, Venkatesh’s suggestion that his “collaborations” are proof of his veracity is so meaningless yet so carefully constructed, it makes one think that he is, frankly, lying.
As does Venkatesh’s overall approach to dealing with the Times story: through painstakingly crafted statements to blogs that allow for no questioning and, on close reading, seem to blur the lines of honesty and accuracy.
Sudhir Venkatesh has devoted his career to asking questions of other people and writing about their answers. He’s done very well by that. So why not let someone do the same with him?