$241,364.83 – $13,000 = $228,364.83

A blog commenter pointed me to this news article on Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor here:

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 . . .

All told, auditors questioned expenses amounting to $241,364.83. . . .

Professor Venkatesh said in a brief phone conversation in October that he had repaid $13,000. . . . “I have never been accused of fraud or embezzlement.”

One thing that frustrates me with newspaper articles is when they don’t follow up. Venkatesh was accused of paying “$52,328 to the subject of one of his documentaries were for what auditors called ‘fabricated business purposes'” and billing a dinner for 25 people when only 8 attended. How do you get from that to “I have never been accused of fraud”?

And, indeed, this is a case that has puzzled a lot of people around campus. The news article seems a bit misfocused, in that it has a lot about Venkatesh’s controversial research methods and only a little on his alleged embezzlement. A sociologist friend of Sudhir is quoted as saying, “The criticism can be jealousy.” I don’t know how things are in the sociology department, but around campus my impression is that there has always been a lot of respect for interdisciplinary research. I personally had a good feeling for Sudhir because he had served as an advisor to a Quantitative Methods in Social Science student back in the early days of that program, and also he gave a nice plug for our Red State Blue State book on the Freakonomics blog. I had not actually read Sudhir’s research articles and was unaware of any scholarly controversy regarding his work.

Misallocation of funds is another matter. It has nothing to do with interdisciplinary research or anything like that. When Sudhir was in charge of Iserp, he told us that they were out of money and would not be able to honor existing commitments. Or, to be more precise, that things that I considered commitments were not actually so because they had only been transmitted orally, and that more generally Iserp was broke and could not support research in the way that we had expected. I was pretty angry about that, but when Sudhir informed me that he was suddenly stepping down as head of Iserp to work on a project with the Justice department, I assumed that he was better suited to be a researcher than an administrator and I offered him statistical help with his DOJ project if he ever needed it. I figured he was back on the research track and that this was better for all concerned. I don’t think I’d be a very good administrator myself, so I just figured Sudhir had been over his head. I’ve only seen him once since, it was a year or so ago at a sociology seminar, but we were sitting in different areas of the room and I had to leave early, so we did not get a chance to speak.

When I later heard that hundreds of thousands of dollars were missing, that put a different spin on the story. I had heard rumors of an investigation but I’d never known that there was an official document, dated Aug 4, 2011 (nearly a year and a half ago!) detailing $240,000 of questionable expenses including $50,000 for fabricated business purposes. If, as Sudhir is quoted as saying in the news article, he’s only paid pack $13,000 of this, I assume more will happen. It’s not clear why the university would pay a salary to someone who still owes them over $200,000.

Or maybe the report was in error and all those payments were legit. Who knows—maybe there really were 25 people at that dinner. I have no idea.

P.S. Let me emphasize that I’m not accusing Sudhir of anything. Maybe he just messed up some paperwork. Until seeing that news article today, all I’d heard were rumors.

P.P.S. Sudhir responds here, saying he was not “a good bookkeeper.” He has no particular comment regarding the dinner listed for 25 people where only 8 attended, or the mysterious $52,328, but he does say that “The irony is that from 2010 onward . . . I [Sudhir] worked actively with the Arts & Sciences to restructure ISERP’s management of grants and research. I repeatedly pointed out lax procedures that had long been the rule there and I called for a thorough review of all procedures on several occasions, in part because I was worried about the risks the University faced.” That does sound ironic.

Sudhir also writes that he is “deeply troubled that someone within the University’s administration selectively leaked private documents to the media. It is hard to have full confidence in the integrity of the University’s processes when things like this occur.” I have no idea who leaked the documents—as noted above, before seeing this in the newspaper I’d only heard rumors that there had been an investigation—but, from my perspective, $240,000 of missing funds of which only $13,000 has been returned, that’s more “deeply troubling” than a leak. It’s also a bit disturbing that a person who, at best, can’t keep track of hundreds of thousands of dollars, was in charge of an institute whose main function is to keep track of outside funding. I’m not so good at bookkeeping either; that’s why I rely on the people at Iserp to help me with such things.

P.P.P.S. More here (from Jeremy Freese) and here (from Richard Bradley).

21 thoughts on “$241,364.83 – $13,000 = $228,364.83

  1. So, we have an academic who is a celebrity for hanging out with criminals … and now funds seem to have vanished. Coincidence?

    By the way, how sure is anybody that we can fully trust his research on criminals? Did he really study gangs in person? Or maybe he just listened to a lot of rap music and translated it into academicese?

    • Steve:

      I agree that, from this perspective, there’s a logic to connecting Sudhir’s disputed research to the allocations of fraud and embezzlement. There was just something about the news article that bothered me: I doubt that people around campus were jealous of Sudhir. In sociology, maybe, but more generally . . . the rest of us aren’t in competition with him! When Brian Greene hosts a TV show, or Sudhir Venkatesh writes a bestselling book, we’re happy: they’re part of Team Columbia.

      • He repeatedly misled the media in making his mentor, William Julius Wilson, look bad to make himself look good, as the following NYT article shows.

        This guy just sounds like bad news.

          • It’s not his taking up golf, it’s his constantly repeating his story that implied that William Julius Wilson had assigned him an obviously stupid survey to carry out. When Wilson, who is not a stupid man, called him out on that, he said it was somebody else’s survey.

            In general, this guy across as somebody who could have made a lot of money as a salesman, but really doesn’t belong in the social sciences.

  2. He sounds like a charismatic con man. At minimum, he exaggerated his research in his bestseller, and I wouldn’t be astonished if it eventually turns out that he made some of it up. From the NYT article:

    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.

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  6. I’m not sure you’re interpreting the numbers correctly. Just because an auditor identifies $240,000 in transactions to investigate does not mean that all of those transactions are improper. The audit should start with a larger number of items, evaluate them, and issue a report identifying which ones they could not find adequate documentation for. If $13,000 — about 5 percent of the initial sum — was not adequately documented, that’s a much more modest event than you’re imagining.
    Nor is that evidence, contrary to one poster, of a “con man.” If a dinner is scheduled and not everyone shows up, the restaurant, caterer, or university dining services may still charge for it. Auditors may not like it, but it’s still not evidence of a failing more serious than poor party planning.
    The article is unclear, of course, but there’s no evidence there of any actual maliciousness. Turning against someone on the basis of such a vague and hyped-up article about a pretty mundane audit report (a $40 lunch?) seems to be a mistaken rush to condemnation. A careful reading of the Times article suggests that the auditors’ fine-tooth comb didn’t find much in the way of nits.

    • Gregory:

      $52,328 sounds like a pretty big “nit” to me. But I agree that I don’t know the full story. We were not told about any of this at the time, we were only told that suddenly Iserp was out of money. Then after Sudhir left, things returned to normal again. I also don’t know what happened at that famous dinner. Perhaps this could be cleared up by the release of some documents stating what was claimed about the attendance at the dinner, etc.

    • wasn’t he the chair of your doctoral committee in the columbia sociology department? are these your opinions or his talking points?

    • I’m replying to Gregory Smithsimon, who apparently knows very little about the audit process. Or is deliberately misleading those who read his comment.

      The auditors would have conducted a comprehensive review of ISERP’s books (finances). During the audit, they would have identified dozens, if not hundreds, of transactions that they decided to dig deeper into because something was off – maybe a backup document was missing, or a signature overlooked, or a date didn’t match up, or no description/explanation was provided for the expense. These kinds of omissions happen all the time in the day-to-day running of a place like ISERP.

      So the auditors would have given a list of questions to the folks at ISERP. And they would have given Venkatesh, in particular, opportunity to respond to these omissions and errors. Venkatesh would have had the chance to correct the errors. For example, if a receipt or description is missing and you can provide it, the auditors will take it at that time, and all will be fine.

      According to the article, the $240,000 is spending Venkatesh failed to document AFTER having been given opportunity by the auditors to do so. Either he was unable to substantiate those transactions, or refused to do so. But he had opportunity to correct his mistakes – that’s the way audits like this work. The $13k is what Venkatesh was willing to pay back voluntarily, but he’s still on the hook for the remaining $227,000. Or he would be if Columbia had any courage at all.

  7. Con man? Actually, he sounds like a a professor with some major organization difficulties. Given that he is a deadhead, could he be suffering from ganga-induced organizational deficiencies?
    He says the FBI vetted his financial management skills
    ( http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/12/03/sudhir-venkatesh-responds-to-the-freakonomics-community/)
    Not so fast, he admits has was an incompetent program administrator and transparency reformer:
    Further, his defence of his research methods is only going to fuel speculation about wrong doing. Perhaps the moral of the story here is that if you are a sloppy researcher working in a “fuzzy” field, don’t agree to head a major research unit, screw up the accounting, and then claim to be a transparency reformer.

  8. He sounds like he’d make a heckuva Beemer salesman, although probably a lot of his customers would get repod when they’d find out that the monthly payment is higher than they’d been led to believe.

  9. From re-reading the story, I think there’s much more to the audit than reported – or there’s more damning information. For example, the paragraph describing the baseball study reads:

    But Columbia’s auditors said that the baseball study, for example, was “apparently unsuccessfully submitted” for approval “after the research had been completed.”

    this would seem to indicate that Venkatesh conducted research – with an undergraduate student – without any attempt to get approval from the university IRB until *after* the research has been conducted. That is a serious violation of research ethics – regardless of any money spent on the project. If the study that is described above is the same as the basis of the report on the freakonomics blog site:

    that’s a HUGE violation of research protocol.

    So the story indicates not only financial fraud (of some degree) but also violations of research ethics.

    • I noticed the same thing and am surprised no one has mentioned it. This wasn’t Venkatesh’s normal kind of research, but in the past he’s consistently worked with extremely marginalized and at-risk populations. In other words, he does the kind of research where IRB approval is most important. Venkatesh seems to have really high status, so perhaps this will bounce right off; if he were a graduate student, he would probably never be allowed to do research involving human subjects at Columbia again.

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  11. the editor of worth magazine, richard bradley, does some very illuminating rhetorical analysis of Venkatesh’s press statements on the BWOG and Freakonomics blogs. one worthwhile, extended passage of note here:

    “Venkatesh is clearly no fool, and that’s a fascinating sentence. Does the FBI really conduct a “comprehensive financial background check” on every academic whom it hires as a consultant? I have no idea. In any event, would a hushed-up university audit, which surely never involved criminal charges, be turned up by the FBI in such a background check? I don’t know that either. But the implication of the statement is clear: Imagine that there was a “comprehensive” background check. Would the FBI have hired me if I wasn’t clean as a whistle?

    It’s also worth noting that this chronology flatly contradicts what Venkatesh told Columbia’s BWOG; in that statement, he said that any financial mishaps were due to the fact that he was so busy working for both Columbia and the FBI.

    Was I a good bookkeeper? Not by any stretch. I was overwhelmed, I was working both at Columbia and at the FBI, and I struggled to keep up. So ethically, I felt it important to return approximately $13,000 for which there was inadequate documentation. I then took a partial leave to deepen my work at the FBI.

    (Again with the bookkeeping…..)

    The contradiction suggests that Venkatesh was already working for the FBI when issues about his finances arose, and so any financial background check that was conducted likely occurred before Columbia’s audit. Which, if true, would make his statement to Freakonomics not only meaningless, but dishonest.

    So go back and read that original sentence as a lawyer might—because it sounds like a lawyer wrote it:

    “I have subsequently worked extensively with the FBI — which, as you might imagine, conducted a comprehensive financial background check on me before my work with them began.”

    Which means that before he was working “extensively” with the FBI, Venkatesh was working a little bit with the agency, and before he was working with them a little bit, they did a background check.

    In other words, if you read the sentence incredibly carefully, it’s literally correct—but carefully crafted to convey the impression that that background check occurred only when Venkatesh began his “extensive” work with the FBI.

    That’s not really so transparent, is it?””


  12. I think I speak on behalf of more than one former student of Professor Venkatesh when I say that I’d much rather see the guy go down for treating students like crap than for blowing his grant money on limo rides. The latter makes him sound like a poor steward of resources, but also sort of happy-go-lucky and likeable as a character (i.e. “the kind of guy you’d want to get a beer with”–since he’d pay the tab on the University’s dime).

    At any rate, I strongly doubt that he did blow this money on limos and champagne. From the sound of it, big chunks of money went into doing stuff like paying economically stressed interview subjects for their time, establishing friendships and/or payoff networks in the field, etc. At times, he may have wandered out of “scholarly research” territory and into “throwing a party for everyone and writing about it” territory. But I doubt that’s what accounts for the full 240K; nor do I think this sort of thing constitutes an “academic crime” (whereas, claiming credit for students’ work certainly is).

  13. Between the salary from his endowed professorship, the five digit speaking fees he snags from Harry Walker, and the more than $2 million of grant money he’s secured over the past 15 years, is it really sensible for us to conclude that Mr. Venkatesh is some sort of starving academic scholar, who was forced to utilize ISERP administered funds in the greasing of whatever palms in the field he needed to curry favor with – so as to secure hard to access, interview subjects from the underground economy? The dude lives in a Central Park condominium and has a second home in the Hamptons, and yet he’s still not liquid enough to ferry his fiancee around the city on his own dime?

    Man got caught in a expenditure cascade, pure and simple. If his boys Levitt and Dubner were making serious bank from Freakonomics, and his buddies Guthrie and Slocum were charging mad exorbitant fees for bullshit executive MBA programs, then why shouldn’t he be getting in on some of the same action too? I’m not knocking the guy for making some extra cash. Regaling the C-Level suite with Chicagoland tales of sociopathic behavior from the likes of J.T. is a whole lot more lucrative than doing basic research, or managing a long-term, research project alongside a team of junior ethnographers out in the field. Just skip ahead on the following clip to around 5:00 min mark, for a better idea of what Mr. Venkatesh’s time value of money actually consists):


    Hey, I’m not saying that everyone’s pursuit of the ‘good’ is going to be, or should be the same. But the guy needs to spend less time worrying about the diminishing relevance of sociology in the eyes of the public at large, and more time worrying about his own diminishing relevance in the eyes of his fellow social scientists. There’s only so many books you can write about your days in the Chicago projects, two decades ago in the midst the crack epidemic, before people start to wonder whether you’ve blown your only load. And if fellas like Krugman and Levitt can both work and write on the behalf of two audiences, why can’t Venkatesh? Which is to say that there’s only so much time of a colleague’s or student’s that you can waste before they drop you for someone who actually gives a damn about something more than just their own brand:


    Garbage like this is the farthest thing from the lost relevance of public intellectuals – a la Daniel Bell or C. Wright Mills – that Mr. Venkatesh supposedly mourns for. And why Columbia sees it fit to subsidize his descent into the vacuous “thought leadership” of babbling DavosSpeak is beyond demoralizing.

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