Venkatesh Responds to the NYT

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Professor Venkatesh

Professor Venkatesh

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article alleging that Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University sociology professor, seriously misused school fundings.

In a statement emailed to Bwog, Professor Venkatesh called the article “upsetting.” He writes that somebody within the admininstration  leaking private documents to the media makes it hard to fully trust “the integrity of the University’s processes when things like this occur.” Conceding that he was a poor bookkeeper, Venkatesh admits that he “struggled to keep up” with his records. “At the top of my list,” he concludes, “is the need to ensure the trust of my fellow students, faculty, and staff at Columbia and Barnard.”

Read the full statement. It’s below, and after the jump.

The recent New York Times article was upsetting on several accounts. I’m deeply troubled that someone within the University’s administration selectively leaked private documents to the media. It is hard to have full confidence in the integrity of the University’s processes when things like this occur. The irony is that from 2010 onward, as Director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy(ISERP), I worked actively with the Arts & Sciences to restructure ISERP’s management of grants and research. I repeatedly pointed out lax procedures that had long been the rule there and I called for a thorough review of all procedures on several occasions, in part because I was worried about the risks the University faced. The procedures I inherited were ten years old, and I felt they needed to be changed quickly.

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.

At the top of my list is the need to ensure the trust of my fellow students, faculty, and staff at Columbia and Barnard, and related institutions. My door is always open to this community and I will do my best to ensure that this trust is maintained.

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  1. Anonymous  

    Venk's pic on the Columbia website is totes a selfie

  2. Anon  

    Ah the old I stole a fuck load of money from the university, but im the victim here switcharoo! Classic!

  3. shrinking violet  

    Venkatesh is hot.

  4. Kristine  

    OMG THIS IS THE DUDE FROM FREAKONOMICS. Let's not sully his name. We're lucky to have him here at Columbia

  5. noooooo  

    this logic gets bad quick

  6. Anon  

    as much as i'd like to believe what he's saying, this just sounds too much like a cover-up. look at his letter. he's literally reciting every excuse in the book. "when i got it, it was already like this." "yeah i may have misspent the money, but doesn't everyone these days?" not to mention, "shit, why did u turn me in? i can't trust u guys to watch my back anymore..."

  7. Anon

    so why does Columbia give a salary to a guy that owes them a quarter million?

  8. Big picture guy

    I mean, it could be worse... $200,000 isn't that much. At least he's not suing the university for millions of dollars on trumped up discrimination charges or sleeping with his daughter... amirite?

    Also we're all going to die eventually and all traces of human civilization will be destroyed, so who really cares if he's a shitty bookkeeper.

  9. Anonymous

    Why is he blaming the administration for his misconduct? i am sure everyone in his department knows. He stole a quarter million dollars from his department and rides around in limos. No wonder they are angry with him. Every other professor in the university is able to come up with receipts, why can't he after two years?

  10. Anonymous

    Unlike Bwog, the NYT seriously researches each topic before print.

  11. Thanks for the irony!  

    "It is hard to have full confidence in the integrity of the University’s processes when things like this occur." Yes. Yes it is.

  12. Anon

    and if you haven't seen the culpa reviews, they're worth a read:" rel="nofollow">

  13. Anonymous

    looks like Venkatesh is blaming Peter Bearman (" rel="nofollow">, who was his predecessor at ISERP for many years. Perhaps he will also release a statement to BWOG.

  14. Anonymous

    Looks like Venkatesh is pointing the finger at Peter Bearman, who was his predecessor at ISERP for many years, and formerly the Chair of the Sociology Department. Perhaps Professor Bearman should release a statement as well.

  15. Anonymous

    To those who knew Sudhir Venkatesh personally, it seemed only a matter of time before something like this happened.

  16. why am i not surprised?

    Desi people, never fail to impress.

  17. super  

    "Was I a good book keeper? Not by any stretch". Wow. These are extremely serious allegations which he tries to joke away without denying. Responsible faculty keep track of every expense--a 50K payment to someone would not go unaccounted for. He also seems to want to deflect blame but saying that the sociologists previously in charge of this center were worse--interesting.

  18. Anon  

    Should have someone from the math department deal with all the sociologists finances...ffs

  19. Anonymous  

    If this guy dodges a prison sentence, is it Ivy League privilege?

  20. Anon

    does anyone really believe the FBI story? Has anyone heard of something like the FBI hiring an ethnographer to teach them about gangs?

  21. slim shady

    What a pompous twit. It amazes me is that it took so long to expose this guy for the fraud that he really is. Thanks for reminding us that your "discipline is stuffy," which obviously justifies all your ridiculous posturing and preening... smile Sudhir, you're on candid camera!

  22. ta4eva

    Don't expect his advisees to start lining up to defend him.

  23. Anonymous

    Virtually everyone I know who has encountered him, graduate and undergraduate, describes him as an absolute monster and abusive person. There's a reason he hardly ever teaches in the department. Not a surprise.

  24. Really..

    It's untrue that he's a monster, or that he doesn't teach at the department. Other than his leave this semester, he's taught regularly. He is not a humble guy, nor is he the most attentive to his students. But let's show some integrity in this space and not just hurl insults at someone through hearsay. Also, while it is unclear what exactly went on with inserp, this whole thing happened years ago. If he robbed the amount alleged, would not have something been done by now? Lets stop being bitter and reveling in others scandals. It's unbecoming.

    • faulty logic

      "If he robbed the amount alleged, would not have something been done by now?"

      Wow, that logic is incredibly naive. Keep in mind - the audit report cited was generated *by Columbia*. And it is entirely plausible they did nothing. When you punish a tenured professor, news gets out and the University looks bad. I'm sure they were hoping this would all get swept under the rug. I'm sure Administrators are much more concerned about the New York Times coverage than they are about the missing $200k.

  25. no, really . . .

    if he's such a big advocate of ethnographic fieldwork and the 'chicago school of sociology', he certainly doesn't seem very interested in teaching those methods to graduate students or supervising their work on committees. if you flip through the dissertation cover-pages submitted to the department of sociology over the past 10 years, you'll have a much a clearer idea of how little he's involved in doctoral committee work of any sort (with research projects, ethnographic or otherwise).

    and i'm sorry, but field-trips to paris with undergraduates are simply no substitute for supervising actual ethnographic work in the field, which requires months if not years of a researcher being embedded within a particular community . . .

  26. Anonymous

    Venkatesh did his best to run Iserp into the ground. He alienated faculty members, broke funding commitments, funneled money to his friends, and bullied the staff. This news isn't surprising to anyone who has been affiliated with Iserp.

  27. Anon

    another ethical question - how can this professor, who works full time at Columbia, also have another appointment as professor and Chair at a university in Berlin?

  28. Anonymous

    I worked with him years ago. The guy is indeed a total sociopath. I'd rather see him go down for treating his students like crap than for this financial stuff. If he blew all his funds on champagne in Paris, he comes off sounding sort of dopey and likeable. He wasn't.

  29. Anon

    "There are many flaws, but perhaps the worst is not even what Venkatesh did as a graduate student in perhaps the most prestigious sociology department in the country, but his commentary on and lame excuses for his own behavior as a researcher. "

  30. gdp209

    reposting from the freakonomics comment section:

    The biggest thing I took away from reading Freakonomics (the book) was to think seriously about incentives. In this situation, it appears that Columbia University has established an extremely poor regime of incentives.

    The Times, citing an audit report, asserts that Prof. Venkatesh failed to substantiate more than $240,000 in expenses. He repaid only $13,000. That leaves well over $200k insufficiently accounted for. No one – not even Prof. Venkatesh – disputes this.

    It would be reasonable for Columbia to require one or the other – repayment or documentation. And in either case, it would be reasonable for Columbia to take disciplinary action. Columbia appears to have done none of these things.

    Which takes me back to incentives. Columbia should not be surprised if there is a repeat performance. Apparently, it provides inadequate incentives to document expenses, and inadequate disincentives to curb the failure to do so.

  31. Janet Cooke

    From re-reading the story, I think there’s much more to the audit than reported – or there’s more damning information. For example, the paragraph describing the baseball study reads:

    But Columbia’s auditors said that the baseball study, for example, was “apparently unsuccessfully submitted” for approval “after the research had been completed.”

    this would seem to indicate that Venkatesh conducted research – with an undergraduate student – without any attempt to get approval from the university IRB until *after* the research has been conducted. That is a serious violation of research ethics – regardless of any money spent on the project. If the study that is described above is the same as the basis of the report on the freakonomics blog site:

    that’s a HUGE violation of research protocol.

    So the story indicates not only financial fraud (of some degree) but also violations of research ethics.

    • Anonymous

      I don't agree that it's "unethical" to thub one's nose at the IRB. It seems like there's a long list of ethical issues with Venkatesh, but he's not the first person to see the IRB as mere red tape to be hopskotched over whenever possible, rather than as some high-priestly caste which gets to determine what constitutes or does not constitute "ethical" research.

  32. iii

    ethical treatment of research subjects is an immensely important issue, but i agree that IRB is not the be all and end all arbiter what that line between "ethical" and "unethical" research might be.

    but running around in the media saying that you consult for the FBI is flat out inexcusable under any circumstance. and it qualifies as narcissistic self-promotion of the highest degree given that it impacts the research efforts of other (current or future) ethnographers that might also need to gain trust of marginalized individuals or groups engaged in illicit activities.

    and even more problematic is why the FBI asked him to consult. as SV himself puts it:

    "I've got to say, I was pretty surprised to get a call from the FBI director and some of his senior staff. And they called because they'd heard a little bit about the work that I've done, for much of my life, on street gangs. And the way they explained it was that I was not (and never have been) a gang member, but I went into a community and learned a little bit about a group that was very different from the group that I had spent time with as a kid where I had grown up. And they said, you know, our officers; our staff, we do a lot of that. We try to go into places, we don't know a lot about it, help us kind of figure out how to do it better."

  33. Anonymous

    Don't worry, they will get that 200k back, but it will be from raising tuition rates.

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