Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Academic dishonesty

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published an article about a master's/J.D. thesis that the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, wrote in 1989. The thesis, titled "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade," concludes with a 15-point plan to support family values. Among the points are:
(2) Make adherence to constitutional interpretivism, a covenant view of marriage and family, and a deep respect for parental authority, the first areas of scrutiny in the selection of federal and state judges. (emphasis added)

(8) Fight any attempts to redefine family by allowing special rights for homosexuals or single-parent unwed mothers.

(9) Fight the use of federal funds for state sex-education programs or school-based health clinics giving abortion referrals, contraceptives, and family planning.
Elsewhere in the thesis, McDonnell recommends that "every level of government" should discriminate against "cohabitors, homosexuals, or fornicators," adding that "the cost of sin should fall on the sinner not the taxpayer."

He criticizes Supreme Court decisions that extended privacy to married couples who wanted to obtain contraception and eventually to the sexual behavior of unmarried people. He also criticizes working mothers, seeming to link their work to "materialism" and "feminism" rather than the needs of families.

His conclusion also warns that "A people who reject the importance of the family in its God-ordained covenantal form must assuredly reap the consequences."

McDonnell now counters that he should not be judged "on a decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student during the Reagan era and haven't thought about in years." However, he does want to acknowledge the law degree that resulted from that thesis and recently brought up the thesis as an example of his thinking on welfare policy.

The "just a student" excuse is also misleading. McDonnell was 34 when he wrote the thesis and was in the process of pursuing his second graduate degree. Moreover, as a thesis, the "academic paper" had to be presented to a committee. It also most likely was repeatedly revised and eventually defended. The thesis was supposed to be a serious piece of scholarship.

In addition, McDonnell began his legislative career just three years after completing his degree. And many of the points from his thesis were elements of his campaign and legislative career.

The story has some personal interest because at the same time that McDonnell was completing his thesis, I was working on my dissertation on family work-life issues. Two of the chapters from the dissertation were eventually published, and the resulting articles continue to be cited. With nearly 20 additional years of research and policy experience, I can see flaws in those analyses and would certainly make improvements if I were starting over. However, I wouldn't dismiss the articles as "academic exercises."

McDonnell can't have it both ways. If he continues to hold the same strong, religiously-oriented views on family policy, he should say so. If those views have changed, he should explain which ones have changed and why. This, of course, supposes that he engaged in serious scholarship and policy advocacy in the first place.