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The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Michigan State University VP of Research Ousted Because of His Past Scientific Statements

He remains a tenured faculty member.


From the Lansing State Journal (Mark Johnson):

Michigan State University's senior vice president of research and innovation Stephen Hsu resigned his post effective July 1 following calls for his removal over controversial statements….

The announcement comes after the Graduate Employees Union called for MSU to remove Hsu after statements he made about work by other researchers on intelligence and genetics and prior comments he made which the union members consider sexist and racist. [See here for the Union's criticisms. -EV]

"I believe this is what is best for our university to continue our progress forward," [MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr.] said, in the press release. "The exchange of ideas is essential to higher education, and I fully support our faculty and their academic freedom to address the most difficult and controversial issues. But when senior administrators at MSU choose to speak out on any issue, they are viewed as speaking for the university as a whole. Their statements should not leave any room for doubt about their, or our, commitment to the success of faculty, staff and students." …

Hsu responded on his blog:

President Stanley asked me this afternoon for my resignation. I do not agree with his decision, as serious issues of Academic Freedom and Freedom of Inquiry are at stake. I fear for the reputation of Michigan State University.

However, as I serve at the pleasure of the President, I have agreed to resign. I look forward to rejoining the ranks of the faculty here.

It has been a great honor working with colleagues in the administration at MSU through some rather tumultuous times.

To my team in SVPRI, we can be proud of what we accomplished for this university in the last 8 years. It is a much better university than the one I joined in 2012.

I want to thank all the individuals who signed our petition and who submitted letters of support. The fight to defend Academic Freedom on campus is only beginning.

He had earlier put up a detailed post on his blog arguing that his past statements were neither racist nor sexist, but serious discussions of research:

The Twitter mobs want to suppress scientific work that they find objectionable. What is really at stake: academic freedom, open discussion of important ideas, scientific inquiry. All are imperiled and all must be defended….

do not endorse claims of genetic group differences. In fact I urge great caution in this area.

The tweets also criticize two podcasts I recorded with my co-host Corey Washington: a discussion with a prominent MSU Psychology professor who studies police shootings (this discussion has elicited a strong response due to the tragic death of George Floyd), and with Claude Steele, a renowned African American researcher who discovered Stereotype Threat and has been Provost at Columbia and Berkeley. The conversation with Steele is a nuanced discussion of race, discrimination, and education in America.

The blog posts under attack, dating back over a decade, are almost all discussions of published scientific papers by leading scholars in Psychology, Neuroscience, Genomics, Machine Learning, and other fields. The papers are published in journals like Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. However, a detailed reading is required to judge the research and related inferences. I maintain that all the work described is well-motivated and potentially important. Certainly worthy of a blog post. (I have written several thousand blog posts; apparently these are the most objectionable out of those thousands!) …

This paper, from 2008, discusses early capability to ascertain ancestry from gene sequence. The topic was highly controversial in 2008 (subject to political attack, because it suggested there could be a genetic basis for "race"), but the science is correct. It is now common for people to investigate their heritage using DNA samples (23andMe, Ancestry) using exactly these methods. This case provides a perfect example of science that faced suppression for political reasons, but has since been developed for many useful applications….

Regarding my work as Vice President for Research, the numbers speak for themselves. MSU went from roughly $500M in annual research expenditures to about $700M during my tenure. We have often been ranked #1 in the Big Ten for research growth. I participated in the recruitment of numerous prominent female and minority professors, in fields like Precision Medicine, Genomics, Chemistry, and many others. Until this Twitter attack there has been not even a single allegation (over 8 years) of bias or discrimination on my part in promotion and tenure or faculty recruitment. These are two activities at the heart of the modern research university, involving hundreds of individuals each year.

Academics and Scientists must not submit to mob rule.

There's a letter of support for Prof. Hsu signed by many academics (the academics' signatures are set in bold), though I think it speaks more to the general issue of free academic inquiry and not to the specific facts of this case—precisely because there are so many signers, it seems unlikely that most of them have looked closely at all the facts. On the other hand, the signature of Harvard's Prof. Steven Pinker (a leading cognitive psychologist) on the letter counts for a good deal, I think.

I should say that, while academic freedom generally protects faculty members from being fired from their faculty jobs based on their viewpoints, the rules with regard to removal from administrative positions are different. (Compare Jeffries v. Harleston (2d Cir. 1995) with Levin v. Harleston (2d Cir. 1992).) Administrators are politicians of a sort (even when their focus is on promoting faculty research), and questions about how various constituencies perceive them are more legitimately considered than for faculty; and Prof. Hsu remains a tenured faculty member, free to engage in his research and in his public commentary. This is why the facts of what he said are indeed important.

But as best I can tell, what he said was indeed serious commentary on serious academic questions, which university professors (whether or not they also have administrative roles) are right to seriously discuss. Indeed, even if you firmly believe that there are no meaningful genetic group differences as to intelligence or temperament (as Hsu says is his view), and that the scientific consensus supports your views, you can't have any confidence in that scientific consensus unless all sides of the debate are freely aired and discussed: It's precisely the fact that a scientific consensus endures in the face of disagreement that gives us reason to trust it. (For more on this, see this 2010 post.)

Whether there are race- or sex-based differences in intelligence, temperament, and the like is a scientific question, not a logical question or theological question. It can't be resolved by abstract theory, and it shouldn't be resolved as an article of faith. It needs to be seriously discussed, in light of the constantly developing research in the area (which surely is still in its infancy, given how much we are only now learning, and have yet to learn, about the human genome and about cognitive science). This MSU incident is likely to just further interfere with such serious discussions.

Thanks to Legal Insurrection (Mike LaChance) for the pointer.