Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh was in the news on Friday, not for being a “rogue sociologist” as much as for potential misappropriation of funds as the head of Columbia’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. As noted in the New York Times:
And at Columbia, where he briefly led the university’s largest social science research center, he was the subject last year of a grueling investigation into a quarter-million dollars of spending that Columbia auditors said was insufficiently documented, misappropriated or outright fabricated.
According to internal documents from that investigation, which were obtained by The New York Times, the auditors said that Professor Venkatesh directed $52,328 to someone without any “documented evidence of work performed.” He listed a dinner for 25 people, relating to research on professional baseball players; auditors found that only 8 people had attended, and that the research project had not been approved.
He charged Columbia for town cars to take him around, to take his fiancée home from work one late night, to take someone — it is not specified whom — from Professor Venkatesh’s address to a building that houses a nail salon and a psychic. All told, auditors questioned expenses amounting to $241,364.83.
More interesting to me than this is a little bit of insight into Venkatesh’s own myth-making:
He signed on for a research project led by William Julius Wilson, a pre-eminent scholar of race and poverty, for which Professor Venkatesh says he approached strangers, questionnaire in hand, and asked, “How does it feel to be black and poor?” (Possible answers: very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.) But he quickly came to see the folly of this approach, he has said, and ditched the questionnaire in favor of just spending time with his subjects, time that rolled on into years, as he tried to learn about their lives on their terms, not his.
The story, which he has recounted in two books and numerous speaking engagements, is a good one: it allows Professor Venkatesh to laugh at himself, yet also implies that he was more authentically engaged with poor black people than his professors were. But Professor Wilson, for one, was surprised when he read it. “I asked him one day: ‘Where did you get that questionnaire? I don’t remember ever giving you any questionnaire like that!’ And he said, ‘Well, it wasn’t yours.’ ”
Professor Wilson, now at Harvard, describes his former student as brilliant, creative and “able to easily establish rapport with different people.”
“He has a very pleasant personality, and he makes people relax.”
He was also savvy in the realm of academic politics. “The other graduate students were envious that he was able to command a lot of my time,” Professor Wilson said. “I’m a very busy person.”
Professor Venkatesh later revealed how. “I found out later when he wrote the book ‘Gang Leader for a Day’ that he took up golf as a way to spend more time with me,” Professor Wilson said.
The story as a whole is somewhat strange, since it talks a lot about Venkatesh’s background in what could be a much shorter article about the potential misappropriation of funds, but it is always interesting to see a sociologist discussed by a major media outlet. Venkatesh has responded via Bwog, the online extension of Columbia’s monthly Blue and White magazine for undergraduates. In part, he states:
That said, I was not successful in implementing changes or, candidly, in paying careful attention to record keeping of my own. The audit document discussed in the Times article was the beginning of an inquiry, not the end. The administration asked me to address a range of issues, which I did honestly and forthrightly. 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.
The article also suggests that I work outside the boundaries of mainstream sociology. I plead guilty. My discipline is stuffy and losing relevance daily in the academic and public eye. But, I have never been anything other than scrupulous, honest and ethical in my research, and I have always safeguarded the risk of my research subjects at every moment. With pride, I can say that, as a filmmaker and scholar, I have been working in some of the most difficult research field sites, in our nation’s inner cities with marginal populations, for two decades.
It is nice to see that the scandal hasn’t stopped him from mythologizing himself at the expense of the discipline!