Tag Archives: tenure

Wilcox plagiarism denial and ethics review

Recently I made the serious accusation that Brad Wilcox and his colleagues plagiarized me in a New York Times op-ed. After the blog post, I sent a letter to the Times and got no response. And until now Wilcox had not responded. But now thanks to an errant group email I had the chance to poke him, and he responded, in relevant part:

You missed the point of the NYT op-ed, which was to stress the intriguing J-Curve in women’s marital happiness when you look at religion and gender ideology. We also thought it interesting to note there is a rather similar J-Curve in women’s marital happiness in the GSS when it comes to political ideology, although the political ideology story was somewhat closer to a U-Curve in the GSS. Our NYT argument was not inspired by you, and our extension of the argument to a widely used dataset is not plagiarism.

Most of that comment is irrelevant to the question of whether the figure they published was ripped off from my blog; the only argument he makes is to underline the word notTo help readers judge for themselves, here is the sequence again, maybe presented more clearly than I did it last time.

Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger published this, claiming Republicans have happier marriages:

marital-quality-fig-1

I responded by showing that that when you break out the categories more you get a U-shape instead:

marital-happiness-partyid.xlsx

Subsequently, I repeated the analysis, with newer data, using political views instead of party identification (the U-shape on the right):

hapmar16c

This is the scheme, and almost exactly the results, that Wilcox and colleagues then published in the NYT, now including one more year of data:

bwnyt

The data used, the control variables, and the results, are almost identical to analysis I did in response to their work. His response is, “Our NYT argument was not inspired by you.” So that’s that.

Ethics aside

Of course, only he knows what’s in his heart. But the premise of his plagiarism denial is an appeal to trust. So, do you trust him?

Lies

There is a long history here, and it’s hard to know where to start if you’re just joining. Wilcox has been a liberal villain since he took over the National Marriage Project and then organized what became (unfortunately) known as the Regnerus study (see below), and a conservative darling since the top administration at the University of Virginia overturned the recommendation of his department and dean to grant him tenure.

So here are some highlights, setting aside questions of research quality and sticking to ethical issues.

Wilcox led the coalition that raised $785,000, from several foundations, used to generate the paper published under Mark Regnerus’s name, intended to sway the courts against marriage equality. He helped design the study, and led the development of the media plan, and arranged for the paper to be submitted to Social Science Research, and then arranged for himself to be one of the anonymous peer reviewers. To do this, he lied to the editor, by omission, about his contribution the study — saying only that he “served on the advisory board.”

And then when the scandal blew up he lied about his role at the Witherspoon Institute, which provided most of the funding, saying he “never served as an officer or a staffer at the Witherspoon Institute, and I never had the authority to make funding or programmatic decisions at the Institute,” and that he was “not acting in an official Witherspoon capacity.” He was in fact the director of the institute’s Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy, which funded the study, and the email record showed him approving budget requests and plans. To protect his reputation and cover up the lie, that position (which he described as “honorific”) has been scrubbed from his CV and the Witherspoon website. (In the emails uncovered later, the president of Witherspoon, Luis Tellez wrote, “we will include some money for you [Regnerus] and Brad on account of the time and effort you will be devoting to this,” but the amount he may have received has not been revealed — the grants aren’t on his CV.)

This is covered under the Regnerus and Wilcox tags on the blog, and told in gripping fashion in a chapter of my book, Enduring Bonds.

You might hold it against him that he organized a conspiracy to fight marriage equality, but even if you think that’s just partisan nitpickery, the fact that the research was the result of a “coalition” (their word) that included a network of right-wing activists, and that their roles were not disclosed in the publication, is facially an ethical violation. And the fact that it involved a series of public and private lies, which he has never acknowledged, goes to the issue of trust in every subsequent case.

Money

Here I can’t say what ethical rule Wilcox may have broken. Academia is a game that runs on trust, and in his financial dealings Wilcox has not been forthcoming. There is money flowing through his work, but the source and purpose that money is not disclosed when the work is published. For example, in the NYT piece Wilcox is identified only as a professor at the University of Virginia, even though the research reported there was published by the Institute for Family Studies. His faculty position, and tenure, are signals of his trustworthiness, which he uses to bolster the reputation of his partisan efforts.

The Institute for Family Studies is a non-profit organization that Wilcox created in 2009, originally called the Ridge Foundation. For the first four years the tax filings list him as the president, then director. Since 2013, when it changed its name to IFS, he has been listed as a senior fellow. Through 2017, the organization paid him more than $330,000, and he was the highest paid person. The funders are right-wing foundations.

Most academics want people to know about their grants and the support for their research. On his CV at the University of Virginia, however, Wilcox does not list the Institute for Family Studies in the “Employment” section, or include it among the grants he has received. Even though it is an organization he created and built up, so far grossing almost $3 million in total revenue. It is only mentioned in a section titled “Education Honors and Awards,” where he lists himself as a “Senior Fellow, Institute for Family Studies.” An education honor and award he gave himself, apparently.

He also doesn’t list his position on the Marco Rubio campaign’s Marriage & Family Advisory Board, where he was among those who “understand” that “Windsor and Obergefell are only the most recent example of our failure as a society to understand what marriage is and why it matters”

Wilcox uses his academic position to support and legitimize his partisan efforts, and his partisan work to produce work under his academic title (of course IFS says it’s nonpartisan but that’s meaningless). If he kept them really separate that would be one thing — we don’t need to know what church academics belong to or what campaigns they support, except as required by law — but if he’s going to blend them together I think he incurs an ethical disclosure obligation.

Wilcox isn’t the only person to scrub Withserspoon from his academic record — which is funny because the Witherspoon Institute is housed at Princeton University (where Wilcox got his PhD). And the fact of removing Witherspoon from a CV was used to discredit a different anti-marriage-equality academic expert, Joseph Price at Brigham Young, in the Michigan trial that led to the Obergefell decision, because it made it seem he was trying to hide his political motivations in testifying against marriage equality. Here is the exchange:

price-lie

Court proceedings are useful for bringing out certain principles. In this case I think they help illustrate my point: If Brad Wilcox wants people to trust his motivations, he should disclose the sources of support for his work.

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Mark Regnerus to be promoted to full professor at UT Austin

regnerus-10-4-20131

Grainy hidden-camera photo by pnc.

Mark Regnerus, who has been an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin since 2007, will be promoted to full professor, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation. That decision was made at the level of the central administration, overriding negative recommendations from both the Department of Sociology faculty and the College of Liberal Arts.

In terms of research productivity, Regnerus’s record is adequate for promotion at a leading research university. His early work was well-cited. His most recent book, Cheap Sex (the only one I’ve read) is atrocious (as I have written). But the real problem is ethics, and there the protocol is less clear. I previously wrote:

To get background on the story of the Regnerus Affair, you can read the chapter in my book [Enduring Bonds], or read the entire Regnerus thread on this blog, or read this 2015 recap, which is the latest long piece, with links to everything else. For purposes of this discussion, these conclusions are salient: he used crudely biased survey methods to gin up harms attributable to same-sex parenting, to help stop same-sex marriage in the courts, as part of a conspiracy with other right-wing academics (principally Brad Wilcox) and institutions (Heritage Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Witherspoon Institute), which included manipulating the peer review process to plant supporters on the panel and submitting the article for publication before the data collection was even complete, and then repeatedly lying about all that to cover up the conspiracy (including in the published work itself, where he falsely denied the involvement of the funders, and in an ethics proceeding by his university).

So what do we do with all this now? All that didn’t get him fired, and he still does research in the academic system. That is galling, because there is at least one really good, honest researcher who doesn’t have a tenure-track job today because Regnerus does. But that’s the system. Meanwhile life is long, people can change. In our weak system, however, which relies almost entirely on good will and honesty by researchers, reputation matters. With his reputation, you simply can’t take his word in the way that we (naively) do with regular researchers. I think there are two options, then, if we are to take the research seriously. The first is he could come clean, admit to what he did, and make an honest attempt to re-enter respectable academia. The other (non-exclusive) option is for him to make his research open and transparent, to subject it to scrutiny and verification, and let people see that he is behaving honestly and ethically now.

He has not yet done either of those things.

I would vote against his promotion based on this record. Maybe the internal documents will come out and allow us to debate this more fully, but to me it’s not a hard decision.

So I think it’s bad for the UT administration to override the faculty recommendation and impose the promotion for Regnerus. With the stroke of that pen, they commit the university — barring unplanned events — to several million dollars worth of salary and benefits for him for the next several decades. And thousands of students subjected to his teaching. That’s money that could be spent on much more valuable things, including honest, ethical sociologists.


 

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When the campus sexual harassment policy doesn’t work

Which is, let’s face it, a lot.

We would all prefer a system for handling sexual harassment claims that used a fair and rigorous process of investigation and delivered proportionate consequences in a timely way. We don’t have that, for several reasons.

As I think about harassment in academic contexts, I’m struck by the problem of conferences, job changers, and cross-institution collaborations. Even if the internal process on a particular campus worked well, that would only address a subset of possible harassment cases. Academics change jobs (sometimes frequently) and they harass people who don’t work at their own institutions — but people who are nonetheless subordinates in the reputation system, or co-authors, or reviewees, or people who hope to work for the harasser or their friends and colleagues in the future. How can the campus-based system address these cases? As far as I know, it can’t. (For example, consider this good advice to graduate students about how to deal with sexual harassment, and ask how it would work if the harasser didn’t work on your campus.)

And of course even when cases fall within the jurisdiction of campus systems, these systems are often seriously flawed, inordinately focused on protecting their institutions instead of the victims (past or future) and the perpetrators are protected by tenure.

For job changers, biologist Jason Lieb, a multimillion-dollar grant recipient who quickly moved from the University of North Carolina to Princeton to Chicago, apparently trying to stay ahead of the sexual harassment and abuse cases that were trailing him, even as he continued to carry out new offenses. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but it seems that only public exposure finally dislodged him.

picture of Jason Lieb

This picture of Jason Lieb was still up on the page announcing his new job at the University of Chicago two days ago when I mentioned it on Twitter. Now the page has been taken down.

For tenure protections, consider Berkeley astronomer Geoff Macy, who got a slap on the wrist after repeated findings of responsibility for violating campus sexual harassment policies. Only after Buzzfeed blew the whistle did he lose his job. Buzzfeed also has a great story by by Tyler Kingkade about how hard it is to fire tenured professors for sexual harassment. English professor Andrew Escobedo remains on paid leave 18 months after the university concluded he sexually harassed multiple people. The story also details cases in which professors quit before they could be fired, as local investigations dragged on, which could protect them as they look for other jobs. That’s what Jasob Lieb did: “Dr. Lieb stepped down last month before any action was taken.”

Is sociology better or worse than other disciplines? We don’t know. But it looks like public exposure is necessary to apply pressure to improve this system. To that end, last week, Liana Sayer and I offered to help people bring cases in sociology to light. Read the post for more information on that.


See also: Adia Harvey Wingfield, “Are Universities Enabling Sexual Harassment and Assault?” from June, way before all this recent news. The Chronicle also had a rundown of cases the other day.

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