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opinion | JEFF JACOBY

Academic freedom?

Not at Harvard, where the right not to be offended fuels protest

istock photo

Jason Richwine’s views on ethnicity and IQ may be controversial, but he has done nothing to embarrass Harvard University. The same cannot be said for the more than 1,200 Harvard students and 23 campus groups smearing Richwine’s work as “racist” and petitioning Harvard to repudiate it.

Richwine, who resigned two weeks ago from the Heritage Foundation, believes that the intelligence of potential immigrants should be a factor in US immigration policy. He argues that higher-IQ immigrants are more likely to assimilate successfully, and that the persistent IQ gap between Latino and non-Latino immigrants should therefore be relevant in any discussion of immigration reform.

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The relationship between IQ and immigration was the subject of Richwine’s 2009 doctoral dissertation at Harvard, where he earned a PhD in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government. His work was supervised by three highly regarded Harvard professors — George Borjas, Christopher Jencks, and Richard Zeckhauser.

From Harvard, Richwine went on to a post-doctoral fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, and from there to Heritage. All in all, his career as a public-policy researcher was off to an impressive start.

Until the lynch mob showed up.

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Shortly after Heritage released a report blasting the proposed Senate immigration bill as a potential $6 trillion fiscal drain, Richwine’s PhD thesis was suddenly in the headlines. His research on IQ gaps between ethnic groups was being slammed as hateful and bigoted. It didn’t matter that nothing in that dissertation expressed the slightest racial animosity, or that Richwine’s data appeared unassailable, or that his former Harvard faculty advisers confirmed that he was a careful and honest researcher.

As it happens, I don’t share Richwine’s views on immigration policy. Americans have been lamenting for centuries that new waves of immigrants aren’t smart enough to assimilate successfully; as far back as 1753, Benjamin Franklin complained that the throngs of Germans migrating to Pennsylvania “are generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their own nation.” Franklin’s concerns turned out to be overblown, and I think concerns now about an IQ deficit among Latino immigrants will come to seem equally misguided.

But nothing in Richwine’s dissertation was outside the perimeter of normal academic debate or anywhere close to it. He did what scholars are supposed to do — conducted research, analyzed data, asked questions, drew conclusions — and he did it, by all accounts, with integrity. He published his work openly and made his data available for scrutiny. In public forums, he engaged in debate and discussion.

Isn’t that how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to function? Especially in academia, where the uninhibited clash of ideas and opinions is the best environment yet devised for increasing knowledge and resolving debates?

The Harvard students and alumni petitioning the university denounce Richwine’s research as “plain racism,” libel it as “pseudo-science,” and insist that it “cannot and must not be tolerated.” Allowing his dissertation to be published, they cry, “debases all of our degrees and hurts the university’s reputation.” No, what debases this mob is its own anti-intellectualism and fear of a heterodox point of view. Far from proving that Richwine’s claims are untrue, the Harvard petitioners all but admit that their truth isn’t the point.

“Even if such claims had merit,” they write, “the Kennedy School cannot ethically stand by this dissertation whose end result can only be furthering discrimination under the guise of academic discourse.” Got that? Even if such claims had merit, they must not be expressed.

Once upon a time places like Harvard aspired to live up to the principle that debate was legitimate, and no hypothesis was taboo; I might disagree with what you say, but I would defend to the last your right to say it. Today, when the right not to be offended trumps every consideration, all kinds of hypotheses are taboo. Academic freedom is fine — but only when it leads to comfortable conclusions.

“I wonder,” said Richwine pointedly last week as the furor erupted around him, “what other thoughts they will seek to ban.” You don’t have to agree with him on immigration or IQ to wonder the same thing.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter
@jeff_jacoby
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