Trustees | Costs

Columbia’s Gang Scholar Lives on the Edge

NEW YORK TIMES   |  November 30, 2012 by Ariel Kaminer

From his earliest days as a graduate student, Sudhir Venkatesh did things differently. He came to sociology by way of math, not by the social sciences. He was an Indian-American Deadhead from Southern California who wore a ponytail and tie-dyed shirts. He stuck out.

Today, he is a celebrity in an otherwise low-key academic field—a star on campus, an influential public intellectual, a sought-after speaker. The hardcover of his best-selling book, “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets,” released in 2008, features a full-length photo of him looking tough in jeans and a leather jacket, its collar turned up.

Through his research on gang life and prostitutes, he has succeeded against long odds in making sociology seem hip. And by writing in magazines, being featured in the book “Freakonomics,” and even appearing on late-night television, he has succeeded in bringing that research out of the academy and into the public realm.

But fame has brought controversy. Some of his peers say that in search of a broader readership he takes liberties not appropriate for a scholar: sensationalizing his experiences, exaggerating the reliability of his memory and, in one case, physically assaulting someone. Others who might not have attracted mainstream attention say he steps too eagerly into the spotlight.

And at 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.

That discretion is common among prestigious schools, but Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization that focuses on accountability in higher education, said it was hazardous. “The university should always err on the side of transparency and being open,” she said. “Without knowing all the facts here, if Columbia wants to maintain donor and public trust, it shouldn’t hide the investigation or the findings.”

Born in India and raised in an upper-middle-class suburb in California, Sudhir Venkatesh earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California at San Diego, then pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he encountered one of the great pillars in American academia: the Chicago school of sociology.

He signed on for a research project led by William Julius Wilson, a pre-eminent scholar of race and poverty, for which Professor Venkatesh says he approached strangers, questionnaire in hand, and asked, “How does it feel to be black and poor?” (Possible answers: very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.) But he quickly came to see the folly of this approach, he has said, and ditched the questionnaire in favor of just spending time with his subjects, time that rolled on into years, as he tried to learn about their lives on their terms, not his.

The story, which he has recounted in two books and numerous speaking engagements, is a good one: it allows Professor Venkatesh to laugh at himself, yet also implies that he was more authentically engaged with poor black people than his professors were. But Professor Wilson, for one, was surprised when he read it. “I asked him one day: ‘Where did you get that questionnaire? I don’t remember ever giving you any questionnaire like that!’ And he said, ‘Well, it wasn’t yours.’ ”

Professor Wilson, now at Harvard, describes his former student as brilliant, creative and “able to easily establish rapport with different people.”

“He has a very pleasant personality, and he makes people relax.”

He was also savvy in the realm of academic politics. “The other graduate students were envious that he was able to command a lot of my time,” Professor Wilson said. “I’m a very busy person.”

Professor Venkatesh later revealed how. “I found out later when he wrote the book ‘Gang Leader for a Day’ that he took up golf as a way to spend more time with me,” Professor Wilson said.

In the Robert Taylor Homes, a notorious housing project in Chicago, Professor Venkatesh was what sociologists refer to as a “participant observer.” He attended community meetings, he went to parties, and most of all, he hung out with the Black Kings, a crack-dealing gang whose power structure was the closest thing that the community—all but abandoned by politicians and the police—had to a functioning local government. The housing project was torn down in the late ’90s.

Those encounters formed the basis of his first book, “American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto,” and they pointed toward his next volume, “Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor,” both of which were published to acclaim. One encounter in particular, with the gang’s bookkeeper, who gave Professor Venkatesh several years’ worth of ledgers, led to a collaboration with the University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt on two important articles.

When Professor Levitt later teamed up with the journalist Stephen J. Dubner to write “Freakonomics,” they devoted a chapter to Professor Venkatesh’s experiences.

Professor Venkatesh’s next book, “Gang Leader for a Day,” signified a very different approach. A vivid, often visceral narrative of complex characters and dangerous encounters, it won glowing reviews, found a spot on The New York Times best-seller list and became, in the words of the Rutgers sociologist Patrick J. Carr, “one of the most widely reviewed sociology books ever.” It established its author as a crossover academic star, someone able to communicate complex ideas to mainstream readers. No longer just a rising professor, he became a true public intellectual.

Many of the colleagues who, along with friends, employees and students, made up the almost three dozen people interviewed for this article, raised concerns about the process by which Professor Venkatesh translated his research into best-seller material. For example, the book includes page after page of dialogue, rendered between quotation marks as though verbatim, despite his acknowledgment that he rarely took notes in real time. (Other sociologists say there is no clear standard for quotations in ethnographic studies.)

The book also shows him stepping off the sidelines to shape events directly, even engaging in legally dubious acts like helping to steer the gang’s activities for a day or kicking a Black King member’s assailant in the stomach.

Beyond the content of the book, its basic style raised eyebrows. “Gang Leader” includes the kind of satisfying narrative arcs and dramatic characters (like the street hustler who reveals that he not only went to college, but also studied sociology) that have more in common with Hollywood films than with most dry academic discourse.

“It’s very vivid; he’s a great writer,” said Alisse Waterston, an anthropologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But to satisfy readers, she added, “there is, of course, the temptation to highlight the lurid.” His previous books resisted that temptation, she said. But then, those books did not find a mainstream audience.

At the 2009 convention of the Eastern Sociological Society, Professor Waterston criticized the book on a panel with Terry Williams, a professor at the New School, and others, including Professor Venkatesh. The tough questions began, Professor Williams said, with the title of the book, which exaggerates the role that Professor Venkatesh was actually allowed to play.

“Ethnography has a fictional element,” Professor Williams said. “We all know that. You have to, for example, change names of people you don’t want to be harmed if the authorities got ahold of your manuscript. There were some concerns that he was somewhat disingenuous about a great deal of his research in that regard.” In particular, Professor Williams was dubious about Professor Venkatesh’s tendency to explain his errors of judgment as mere naïveté.

Camille Z. Charles, a sociologist who runs the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said she was even more disturbed by the “thrill” he described at being around drug dealers—like his fantasy that one meeting he attended would involve “half-naked women sitting poolside and rubbing the bosses with sunscreen.” In an essay in the journal Sociological Forum, Professor Venkatesh responded to such criticism by saying he “hoped that my readership would understand urban poverty as they followed my own self-discovery of these conditions—specifically, as I discovered my own stereotypes to be faulty. In a memoir, one has to admit one’s own failings.”

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 “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.

The Columbia financial investigation may be settled, but sociologists continue to debate Professor Venkatesh’s work, and in particular its impact on the people he writes about. Universities have elaborate safeguards in place to oversee research involving human subjects. But Columbia’s auditors said that the baseball study, for example, was “apparently unsuccessfully submitted” for approval “after the research had been completed.”

Professor Venkatesh more recently served as a Federal Bureau of Investigation consultant, which Harvey Molotch, a sociologist at New York University, said he and others found “troubling,” since it gave research subjects reason to ask if the sociologist who solicits their trust may later turn them in.

Finally, Professor Venkatesh published an information graphic in Wired magazine last year, based on his conversations with sex workers, that announced without much context how often they were beaten or how much more they charged for unprotected sex. Some readers expressed concern that people could read those statistics as a license, or even a menu, for abuse.

Professor Venkatesh’s friends, however, describe him as charismatic in a quiet, confident way; smart without being overbearing; physically graceful: natural gifts that helped him earn the trust of his subjects and the interest of fellow intellectuals.

Alexandra K. Murphy, who did research for him while she was an undergraduate, said that he carefully encouraged her professional development and showed similar kindness to the people he wrote about. “He has a very close relationship with these people, and they have a lot of respect for him,” she said. “Sudhir has contributed to their life, and the way he talks about what they’ve done for him in terms of friendship is really remarkable. That’s very rare.”

During the phone conversation in October, Professor Venkatesh said: “Look, I’m a scholar. I’m a sociologist. I have a particular way I do my work.” He added: “I’m really proud of it. I’d like to have that be the basis on which I’m known.”

Part of the way he does his work is by engaging with the general public, in highly visible arenas. He has written pointedly about public policy debates for Slate, The New Republic and The Times’s Op-Ed page. He went on “The Colbert Report” in 2008, where he came across as relaxed and charming, and the story about the questionnaire got a good laugh.

Success on the public stage is a complicated proposition for professors. It often opens them up to derision, not all of it motivated by scholarly concerns.

“The criticism can be jealousy,” says Shamus Khan, a friend and a fellow Columbia sociologist who writes about status hierarchies. It can also reflect a feeling among more traditional scholars that for someone like Professor Venkatesh, academia is just “a steppingstone on the pathway to real success. It devalues what they do.” And the greater the success that person achieves, the greater the resentment he may attract.

Justin Humphries, the former baseball player who studied with Professor Venkatesh, recalled a time his professor gave a seminar at George Washington University’s STAR Executive M.B.A. program, which specializes in athletes, artists and musicians. Professor Venkatesh “was sitting on a bench with three or four professional athletes,” he remembered, “and one of the students came up and said, ‘Oh my God, can I get a picture with you?’ And the athletes thought they were talking to them, but it was—no, it was Professor Venkatesh.”


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