A case study

If your parents ever admonished you not to hang around with a bad crowd, you might want to attend to the story of Columbia University’s “gang scholar,” Sudhir Venkatesh. Ariel Kaminer’s Sunday New York Times article explores Professor Venkatesh’s scholarship and publications. Professor Venkatesh’s published work seems to be headed in the general direction of Tom Wolfe, out of whose pages Venkatesh coincidentally seems to have walked:

[A]t Columbia, where he briefly led the university’s largest social science research center, he was the subject last year of a grueling investigation into a quarter-million dollars of spending that Columbia auditors said was insufficiently documented, misappropriated or outright fabricated.

According to internal documents from that investigation, which were obtained by The New York Times, the auditors said that Professor Venkatesh directed $52,328 to someone without any “documented evidence of work performed.” He listed a dinner for 25 people, relating to research on professional baseball players; auditors found that only 8 people had attended, and that the research project had not been approved.

He charged Columbia for town cars to take him around, to take his fiancée home from work one late night, to take someone — it is not specified whom — from Professor Venkatesh’s address to a building that houses a nail salon and a psychic. All told, auditors questioned expenses amounting to $241,364.83.

The documents do not indicate what judgment Columbia administrators reached about the audit, or what actions, if any, they took as a result. Professor Venkatesh said in a brief phone conversation in October that he had repaid $13,000.

He is no longer affiliated with the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, or Iserp. Still a tenured professor, he is now a member of the university’s Committee on Global Thought. This semester, he has been on parental leave with a new baby, while visiting at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University.

During that brief interview, Professor Venkatesh said he was proud of his record at Iserp: “I answered all their questions, I’m doing my research, I have a new appointment at the university that I’m very excited about. I just don’t want to get into these details.”

Columbia also declined to discuss the investigation. “We do not comment on personnel matters, but we can confirm that Professor Venkatesh is a faculty member,” a spokesman for the university said.

“We can confirm that Professor Venkatesh is a faculty member.” And that’s not all! A bit later we find this:

Professor Venkatesh’s position at the helm of Iserp, which he assumed in 2009, greatly expanded his opportunities. He oversaw the Revson Fellowship, a prestigious sabbatical year for city leaders to spend at Columbia. He made documentaries. He met an undergraduate who had played minor league baseball, and together they conceived of a project researching professional players.

All of these projects, and many more, appear in a 24-page document, dated Aug. 4, 2011, that Columbia auditors drew up after their investigation into Professor Venkatesh’s financial activities at Iserp. Some involved minor expenditures, like a $41.26 lunch. But others involved much larger sums, and confusion about the reason for the payment or even the identity of the recipient. Cash payments, of $100 each to research subjects who could not be identified, totaled $33,000. Payments totaling $52,328 to the subject of one of his documentaries were for what auditors called “fabricated business purposes.”

A freelance editor who told auditors he had worked on [Venkatesh's best-selling book] “Gang Leader for a Day” received $15,000 to teach a writing seminar — $10,000 more than had been budgeted. And $8,911 that Professor Venkatesh was supposed to pay to a colleague for a study they collaborated on somehow failed to make it into that colleague’s account. Professor Venkatesh told auditors the colleague had failed to do the work, a claim that auditors determined to be untrue. (A spokesman for the Carnegie Corporation, which financed the study, said it had not been informed of the dispute.)

All told, the auditors listed $19,405 in “inappropriate transactions” — like $1,514 in town car charges — and $221,960 in expenses with “insufficient documentation” — like payments to unnamed research subjects.

Professor Venkatesh declined to explain for this article how Columbia resolved these allegations, though in an e-mail he later stipulated that the person who had taught the writing seminar “was retained as a writer and editor.” He added, “I have never been accused of fraud or embezzlement,” and “I reimbursed the university for a sum of approximately $13,000 for funds that were misallocated during my tenure as director of Iserp.”

Neither he nor Columbia commented on the balance of the disputed expenditures.

Couldn’t they reiterate that he’s on the faculty? Anyway, an interesting article.

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