Sunday, November 2, 2008

Follow up letter to Harvard President about Fryer's large scale experiments on inner-city youth

Dear President Faust;

Thank you for your email from Sept. 12. I was relieved to hear that though Harvard may be hosting Roland Fryer’s new institute, you do not endorse the large-scale experiments being carried out on inner-city students to pay them for good test scores and the like.

However, I was disturbed to discover from a recent Washington Post article that Harvard’s name is printed on the checks that DC students receive from participating in this experiment, which appears to be a blatant attempt to exploit the good name of Harvard, and implies a literal endorsement by your institution:

Others [students] sat quietly and studied the pale green checks with "Harvard University" in boldface across the top. Sixth-grader Kevin Sparrow-Bey, who took in $20, said he was annoyed by the assumption that he and his classmates have to be paid to take school seriously.” (Washington Post, “Delighted -- or Deflated -- by Dollars”, October 18, 2008).

Moreover, today’s Washington Post discusses the research that points to the possibility of a long-term decline in student morale and motivation resulting from such incentives – especially when the money runs out. As DePaul University Professor Ronald Chennault, is quoted as saying,

“…there are ethical issues involved, most of which are experimental and dependent on private funding and local political support. "The potential for harm is, what happens after the incentive no longer exists?" Chennault asked. "Not everything is worth trying." (Incentives Can Make Or Break Students,” November 2, 2008).

I wonder what Harvard’s attitude would be if this were instead a large-scale medical experiment on inner-city students, which earlier research had indicated posed a long term risk to their physical health – and whether you would want your institution’s name associated with it.

Finally, your letter did not respond to the question posed in my earlier email about whether it was appropriate for Professor Fryer to be in charge of evaluating the results of his own experiments – a practice contrary to accepted academic practice, which requires independent evaluation.

Please let me know if you think that 1- Harvard’s name on the checks awarded inner-city students does not imply Harvard’s endorsement of this experiment; 2- whether these experiments, if they are to occur at all, should not be small scale in nature -- rather than applied to half of all middle school students, as they in DC public schools, especially as the research points to a substantial risk of long-term harm; and 3- whether you think its appropriate that Prof. Fryer should evaluate the results of his own experiments.

Yours sincerely,

Leonie Haimson
Executive Director, Class Size Matters


Patrick Sullivan said...

Elite schools like Harvard have for some time operated more like for-profit conglomerates with real estate and investment arms than institutions of higher learning. The picture becomes much clearer when you watch what money changes hands. Fryer brings in big money and Harvard takes their cut. Those students looking at those checks are just learning a lot sooner than prior generations what schools like Harvard is all about.

skoolboy said...


A couple of thoughts.

President Faust's stance is likely to be the following: The university delegates judgments about the ethical practice of research to its Institutional Review Board (IRB), which reviews all research involving human subjects for whether the proposed research meets conventional standards for the likely benefits and risks of the research. The IRB's approval of the research protocol is the limited sense in which the university is "endorsing" the research -- it's limited to a determination that the likely benefits of the research outweigh the risks. (Along with two other key considerations: that there is voluntary, informed consent to participate in the research, and that the privacy of participants is appropriately protected.) Harvard's name on checks is just an institutional accounting mechanism -- the grants are being administered through Harvard, and therefore the checks are issued by Harvard.

My own view: IRB's are notoriously weak at making judgments about the broad and longer-term potential consequences for society of particular lines of research, even though that might be thought to be legitimately in their purview. They typically take a very narrow and short-term view, and avoid speculation about such broader issues.

If I were you, I'd request copies of the relevant IRB applications to see what they have to say about the potential risks of the proposed research.

Leonie Haimson said...

I have requested the IRB applications and approval forms from Harvard; let's see if they come through.


Patrick Sullivan said...

Fyer's effort will bring $44 million in funding from the Broad Foundation and others (according to the Harvard Crimson). For that much money they're probably happy to have their brand image tarnished a bit. No worries, it will still sell plenty of t-shirts and caps at homecoming. The IRB structure Skoolboy describes just gives them some plausible deniability.