Harvard students, outraged over a doctoral dissertation arguing that Hispanic immigrants lack “raw cognitive ability or intelligence,” this week urged the university to investigate how the thesis came to be approved and to ban future research on racial superiority.
The students presented 1,200 signatures to president Drew Faust and the dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, David Ellwood.
“Academic freedom and a reasoned debate are essential to our academic community,’’ the petition said. “However, the Harvard Kennedy School cannot ethically stand behind academic work advocating a national policy of exclusion and advancing an agenda of discrimination.”
The thesis — “IQ and Immigration Policy,’’ by Jason Richwine, a former doctoral candidate at the Kennedy School — compared IQ scores of US residents, including immigrants from a variety of countries, and concluded that the scores of Hispanic immigrants were substantially lower than those of native whites. The paper argued that the United States should allow only immigrants with high IQs.
“Today’s immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives,’’ Richwine wrote in the thesis. “The IQ difference between the two groups is large enough to have substantial negative effects on the economy and on American society.”
The thesis was accepted by Harvard in 2009, but it surfaced in recent weeks after the conservative Heritage Foundation published a new study coauthored by Richwine arguing that amnesty under proposed immigration reform legislation would cost the country $6.3 trillion. Criticism and backlash quickly followed, and amid the firestorm, The Washington Post reported Richwine’s Harvard dissertation. Richwine has since resigned from the Heritage Foundation.
In a Globe interview Friday, Richwine lashed back at students pushing the petition, calling their demands to ban such research “worrisome and shameful.”
“I wonder what thoughts they would seek to ban in the future,’’ said Richwine, who said he stands by everything in his thesis. “This is a really worrisome idea here, that the students want to dictate what scholarship will be allowed at Harvard University.”
Ellwood, the Kennedy School dean, said in a statement that any views and conclusions by its graduates do not reflect the views of Harvard. He urged scholars and critics to engage in reasoned discussion and criticism after fully reviewing the work.
“All PhD dissertations are reviewed by a committee of scholars,’’ Ellwood said in the statement. “In this case, the committee consisted of three highly respected and discerning faculty members who come from diverse intellectual traditions.”
George Borjas, chairman of the Kennedy School’s Standing Committee on Public Policy, which accepted Richwine’s work, also defended the paper.
“Jason’s research was sound,’’ wrote Borjas, in an e-mail to the Kennedy School student newspaper, The Citizen. “None of the members of the committee would have signed off on it if they thought that it was shoddy empirical work.”
Harvard said Richwine received his doctorate in public policy in 2009, and his dissertation was signed by Borjas and two other prominent scholars on the committee, Christopher Jencks and Richard Zeckhauser.
The Heritage Foundation, which had anticipated controversy over its study, sought to distance itself from Richwine’s dissertation.
“The Harvard paper is not a work product of the Heritage Foundation,’’ according to a statement on the foundation’s blog, The Foundry. “Its findings do not reflect the positions of the Heritage Foundation or the conclusions of our study on the cost of amnesty to US taxpayers, as race and ethnicity are not part of Heritage immigration policy recommendations.”
Richwine, who said he is currently unemployed, said he was surprised by the media maelstrom over his dissertation, calling criticism unfair and saying it has been used to attack the Heritage Foundation.
“I stand behind everything in the thesis,’’ he said. “It’s a very good, very solid work of scholarship. I think if people actually read it, they will see that it is firmly grounded in the mainstream, psychological research.”
“One of the many mischaracterizations of my dissertation is that I support an ethnicity-based immigration policy,” he said. “I do not. I endorse treating everyone as individuals. That’s clear throughout the text.”
Richwine wrote in his thesis that low immigrant IQ scores could be the result of factors including poverty, poor nutrition, and education and “genetic differences.”
He said the result among immigrants is lack of socioeconomic assimilation, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market.
“Selecting high IQ immigrants would ameliorate these problems in the US, while at the same time benefiting smart potential immigrants who lack educational access in their home countries.”
Critics have seized on elements of the research, including the assertions of inherent differences between races.
“Trying to force a genetic explanation onto the issue is not in accord with the evidence, although it offers the convenient property of making it easier to claim that if people are disadvantaged it’s their own fault,’’ said Frank Bean, immigration scholar at the University of California at Irvine. He said he had not read Richwine’s thesis.
The protesting Harvard students also condemned the paper’s suggestions about race.
“I was very surprised that this was approved by Harvard,’’ said Fernando Berdion, a Kennedy School masters candidate in public policy and spokesman for the students. “I’m very surprised that a PhD candidate here would devote his dissertation to try to demonstrate that one race is inherently superior than another.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Fernando Berdion as a doctoral candidate. Berdion is a masters candidate.