… for having understood what Columbia University’s Sudhir Venkatesh was long before the New York Times got wind of it. Her post about Columbia’s adorably rogue sociologist appeared way back in April 2009, and her attack on his book about living in a Chicago housing project tells you a lot about the power of the singular, agile, independent blogger to get out ahead of issues (look how long – with a few exceptions – it took everyone else), and about the power of a true education in the methods and ethics of particular scholarly fields.

Of course TR couldn’t know, when she wrote, that Venkatesh’s financial ethics are apparently as shaky as his scholarly; she couldn’t have read these 2010 accounts of his teaching (missing many classes; making highly-selected, immense-tuition-paying Columbia students watch YouTubes when he was too busy to show up); but no one reading her devastating review of his book can miss the larger picture of this man as another in the lengthening line of Jonah Lehrers, Marc Hausers, and Johan Haris.

All of these men, when cornered, said a version of what Venkatesh has said:

I was overwhelmed, I was working both at Columbia and at the FBI, and I struggled to keep up.

In all of these cases, we’re supposed to sympathize with people making up research (Hauser) and quotations (Lehrer, Hari), misusing funds (Venkatesh), and lying to pretty much everyone — because they’re so destructively ambitious that they’ve taken on more than they can handle.

When Tenured Radical went after Sudhir Venkatesh in 2009, several of her readers, in the comment thread, accused her of envy. One of his friends, quoted in the New York Times story, accuses his detractors of envy.

Envy’s a beaut. UD‘s all-time favorite use of it has to be Greg Mankiw’s and Eric Cantor’s, as they labor away against new tax policies. People who aren’t rich envy rich people and want to hurt them — that’s what changes in taxation are about.

Envy’s a real human emotion, to be sure. A biggie. But just because everyone’s susceptible to it, and just because it’s so low, cynical argumentative opponents realize it can be a hell of a good button to push. Instantly it distracts people from the intrinsic legitimacy of your arguments; it makes it all about you, and your grubbiest motivations. It is the quintessence of ad hominem technique.

Bravo to TR, then, not merely for having seen Venkatesh before others saw him, but for standing up to the you’re envious folk.


A statistics professor at Columbia recalls:

When Sudhir was in charge of Iserp, he told us that they were out of money and would not be able to honor existing commitments. Or, to be more precise, that things that I considered commitments were not actually so because they had only been transmitted orally, and that more generally Iserp was broke and could not support research in the way that we had expected. I was pretty angry about that, but when Sudhir informed me that he was suddenly stepping down as head of Iserp to work on a project with the Justice department, I assumed that he was better suited to be a researcher than an administrator and I offered him statistical help with his DOJ project if he ever needed it. I figured he was back on the research track and that this was better for all concerned. I don’t think I’d be a very good administrator myself, so I just figured Sudhir had been over his head. I’ve only seen him once since, it was a year or so ago at a sociology seminar, but we were sitting in different areas of the room and I had to leave early, so we did not get a chance to speak.

When I later heard that hundreds of thousands of dollars were missing, that put a different spin on the story. I had heard rumors of an investigation but I’d never known that there was an official document, dated Aug 4, 2011 (nearly a year and a half ago!) detailing $240,000 of questionable expenses including $50,000 for fabricated business purposes. If, as Sudhir is quoted as saying in the news article, he’s only paid pack $13,000 of this, I assume more will happen. It’s not clear why the university would pay a salary to someone who still owes them over $200,000.

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One Response to “UD’s buddy, Tenured Radical, deserves all sorts of praise…”

  1. Tenured Radical Says:

    Thank you, my friend. Bloggy handshake across the web.

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