Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Chat With Author of Duke Study

Photo: Herald-Sun/Christine Nguyen

He’s not a racist. He simply didn’t know any better. That’s the impression I left with after my chat with Peter Arcidiacono, one of the authors of a controversial study that has damaged race relations at Duke University. Last week the Rev-elution shredded the study for making assertions that make one wonder about the underlying motives of the authors.

In that blog (The Ghetto Side at Duke) I questioned why the authors would use the decision to shift academic major to gauge performance. “By arguing against the merits of black academic performance by using academic major as a variable, the authors of this study have created an academic caste system that the university may have difficulty in unraveling,” I wrote.

My primary contention with the study is it being attached to a case on affirmative action before the U.S. Supreme Court. Arcidiacono reached out to me due to the public perception that he is aligned with the people arguing against affirmative action. He wanted to set the record straight that his agenda is not to dismantle affirmative action. I met with him to discuss his concerns.

I began with my issues related to the study as an unpublished work. Given it has not been published and hasn’t been reviewed by his peers, how did it land in the hands of those connected to the Supreme Court case?

Arcidiacono informed me that it was pulled from the website that presents his unpublished work. “It’s the way we do things in the field of economics,” he informed me. Given the time between completion of work, and the publication of that work, it is posted on the internet to give peers a chance to review before it is published. “People in the field of economics don’t have problems with the research.”

I discussed with him my personal concerns that his work is being discussed prior to publication which gives the impression that it is endorsed by his peers. He informed me that it has been rejected once due to what was called a lack of relevancy.

“This is the most talked about work I have ever done,” he says. Maybe the people at that journal were afraid to step into that can of worms.

Despite the local talk about the study, it has failed to receive the official endorsement as a credible study among those within his field. I informed Arcidiacono that having a conversation involving a study that hasn’t been peer reviewed assumes credibility of his research. The truth is that hasn’t happened yet.

I moved from a discussion involving the significance of the work given a lack of peer review to the matter of motivation. What is it that stirred his interest in this subject matter? He indicated that the decision is rooted in what he considered to be a lack of credible research on either side of the affirmative action issue. He felt it critical to delve into how the gap between white and black achievement is impacted after students enroll in elite universities.

It is his contention that the findings of his study expose the limits of the university in supporting students once enrolled opposed to a deficiency among the black students enrolled at Duke. Students enrolled with the intent of pursuing certain academic disciplines are set up to fail due to a failure of support from the university.

“Are you saying those students don’t deserve to be at Duke,” I asked.

“No, I’m saying the university needs to support them in achieving the interest they had when they enrolled.”

We discussed the implication within the program he teaches. There are few black students and no black professors. By failing to support black students who enroll with an interest to pursue a degree in economics, the university creates a culture that fails to offset the disparity between black and white students within that field.

Arcidiacono pressed to convince me that the findings of his study are more of a critique of the failures within the Duke system versus a question of the intelligence of the students enrolled. If they enroll with an interest to pursue certain fields of study after being accepted with academic credentials below white students; it is the responsibility of the university to establish systems of support to assure that they will achieve their goal.

“Do, you understand why the study is painful for black students to read,” I asked. Arcidiacono’s response made it clear that he was clueless. I had to help him understand.

Black students on campuses like Duke have to contend with the perception that they don’t belong. The judgment that they aren’t as smart as white kids is rooted in a history a race and racism that we have not yet overcome. The study exposes the gap between white and black achievement in a way that feeds the hunger among those who contend a white person was robbed a seat due to an unworthy black kid who took their place.

Arcidiacono, and the other authors of this study, failed to ponder how it feels to walk in the shadow of the Duke legacy while many feel you have no right to be there. They need to be there – he responded. We simply need to help them be successful.

How do you do that without drawing attention to the disparity? I had to ask that question after he informed me the university doesn’t want to deal with the conclusions of the study. How do you establish a system of support for black student without bringing attention to the need for the support? Do we want to give those searching for evidence to prove the unworthiness of black presence the ammunition to shoot them down?

What does that do to the self-esteem of those who enroll with pride related to their acceptance? Do you want to tell them they lack the intelligence? Should we establish a remedial program that brings further attention to that disparity?

We then discussed the social implications related to this type of research. The role of research is to measure and expose the validity of our assumptions. Some of that research is rendered within a context of historical anguish that both compromises and hinders the way the public engages with the study. As viable as some research may be, some things can’t be heard because it is too painful to hear.

Why is it painful? Because no matter how you state it, the conclusion asserts the limits of the subject of the study. You may argue the university needs to do more, or you can suggest that black students lack the same level of preparation. It all feels the same. Black folks don’t deserve to be here.

So, I’m willing to concede that Arcidiacono is not a racist. With that being said, the findings of the study have racial implications, and they hurt deep.

Any thoughts?


  1. i read your first blog on this subject, and was intrigued by the reasons behind the study.

    however, his reasoning seems sound. if it's true that a group of students are admitted with less academic credentials than another group of students, and then that group performs differrently, it makes sense to me that this is a valid critique of the university, rather than a critique of the student.

    though it might be painful to hear, i think that information like this can be helpful towards making a true difference.

  2. Dear Carl,
    Thanks so much for making the effort to talk personally with Peter about the study. I have been a staff member in the economics department for 12 years and for five years was the writing tutor for the department. Like you, I think he didn't know better--or more precisely, he thought his paper was clear about certain points when it was evidently not.

    When news of the study broke, I posted on my Facebook page that part of what is going on here is a collision between, on the one hand, an academic discipline and the conventions of writing in that discipline, and, on the other hand, a subject that involves history and identity--and one for which economics, as it is currently practiced, may be unsuited. Someone brought my Facebook post to Peter's attention. His response, as well as some of the statements he made in the press, led me to believe that he didn't understand the response he was getting. Here's what I told him:

    "I'm not surprised at the reaction of the students--as we all well know, blacks have had to fight tooth and nail for every right and protection of the law that they've attained, for every measure of respect they are given, and, given the fact that any statement about black Americans cannot be made outside the context of the history of racial oppression and discrimination in our country, any suggestion that they take the easy way out because they are not smart enough for the hard majors is bound to produce the kind of reaction we've seen. Now, I've read your paper, and I know you don't say that exactly; but that is what they hear; that is what they are primed to hear, given our history. I think that that is where they're coming from."

    I don't know what he thinks about that (and I'd be interested in hearing what you think about it). He's told me he's not upset with me, and we've run into each other several times in the hall and always exchange pleasant greetings. I'm glad that you reached out to Peter, and I'm glad that Peter has been willing to meet with those who are concerned about his study. As I said, I hope the process sensitizes economists to dimensions of subjects that they sometimes seem, incredible as it may be, oblivious to.

    One technical note: Everyone refers to the paper as "unpublished," but, as the permissions and copyright person at Duke University Press (whom I also work for) once informed me, posting a paper on a website constitutes publication. In any event, the paper, as you found out, is on the web, for anyone to see.

    Yours sincerely,
    Paul Dudenhefer
    Durham, NC