Sunday, January 9, 2011

UConn IRB Encouraged Failed Effort at Insitutional Anonymity

Professor George R. La Noue of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who so kindly reviewed my book, also alerted me to a case of IRB interference in a significant work of sociology. [He mentions the case in George R. La Noue and Alexander Bush, "Institutional Review Board Rules: Should One Size Fit All Disciplines?" presented at Fifth Annual Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Cambridge University, August 2-6, 2010. The paper is available on request from Professor La Noue.]

In 2009, Gaye Tuchman, a University of Connecticut sociologist, published Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, which the University of Chicago Press calls an "eye-opening exposé of the modern university."

The book describes the growing power of central administrators at a public university and is based in large part on participant observation. Rather than identify the university she studied, Tuchman uses the term "Wannabe University" and creates fictitious names for everyone involved, including the presidents and provosts. In the book, Tuchman notes that "as my university's institutional review board had specified, I never taped or took pictures of anyone or anything on the campus." (17) Presumably, the prohibition on photography of even inanimate objects was designed to obscure the identity of the institution.

This was a fool's errand. As Harold Orlans put it in a manuscript first written in 1954,

"It is a popular pastime of academic cognoscenti to disclose 'anonymous' towns and authors. . . . Without undertaking any special search, we have noticed the real names of 'Middletown,' 'Southerntown,' 'Cotton,' 'Yankee City,' 'Cantonville,' 'Elmtown,' and 'San Carlos' identified in print: it is standard form for book reviewers to reveal the name of an 'anonymous' community."

[Harold Orlans, "Ethical Problems and Values in Anthropological Research," in U.S. Congress, House Committee on Government Operations, Research and Technical Programs Subcommittee, The Use of Social Research in Federal Domestic Programs: Part IV—Current Issues in the Administration of Federal Social Research (90th Cong., 1st. sess., 1967), 362.]

More recently, anthropologist Cathy Small failed miserably in her attempts to disguise herself and the site of her research—Northern Arizona University. Studies of allegedly anonymized high schools and universities contain enough information to identify them.. And Tuchman herself "knew that the reception of ethnographies had included attempts to identify their locale and even the identity of the people discussed in the book." (16)

Despite Tuchman's effort to preserve institutional anonymity, the fate of her work was no different; Inside Higher Ed quickly noted that "an abundance of evidence points to Wannabe's identity as UConn, Tuchman's employer." What a surprise.

It is not clear from the book the degree to which Tuchman resisted the IRB's request that she disguise the identity of the university. We can, however, say that the IRB encouraged her in the foolish belief that the university would remain anonymous.

Her decision to attempt anonymity had the following effects:

  • It prevented Tuchman from presenting visual evidence, like screen captures of websites or photogaphs of the UConn campus.

  • It reduced the accuracy of Tuchman's quotations by denying her the chance to record conversations.

  • It encouraged Tuchman to think that the identities of major figures in her work, e.g., university presidents and provosts, might remain hidden, rather than writing the book in the full knowledge that she was holding these public figures accountable for their public actions.

  • It prevented Tuchman from citing the published sources she used to flesh out her story. For example, she quotes stories about UConn from the Hartford Courant. (98) One can look up these quotations on Google (thus further identifying UConn as the site of Tuchman's research), but that's no substitute for proper footnotes to all published documents.

  • Finally, it may have threatened the rights and welfare of any informant who spoke candidly to Tuchman in the naive belief that UConn's identity would remain hidden. Fortunately, most of the people she spoke with--especially the social scientists--appear to have been more realistic than Tuchman herself (16-17).

Tuchman also notes that "I have not interviewed current administrators, though I did feel free to ask them informal questions when I encountered them on campus or at committee meetings." (18) Tuchman does not detail the reason behind this decision, or whether the IRB was involved. But the decision reduced the book's ability to explain the events and trends at the heart of the narrative. And it is a particularly ironic decision, in that the second paragraph of the book complains that "no one ever had the audacity to ask publicly, 'Just what do you mean, President Whitmore?'" (1)

As a member of the faculty of a large public university that is perpetually "in transformation," I found some important insights in Wannabe U. But much of the book did not reflect my experience at Mason, leading me to conclude that this is not, in fact, a book about ambitious public universities in general, but rather a book about the corporatization of the University of Connecticut in particular, under the leadership of presidents Philip E. Austin and Michael J. Hogan and provosts John D. Petersen and Peter J. Nicholls. A book that acknowledged that fact, and did not avoid interviews with its central characters, would have been more respectful to its subjects and readers alike.

In her introduction, Tuchman mourns the "accountability regime" at her university and asks "why . . . has the faculty been so compliant?" (24) It is a question one could ask of her own interactions with the IRB.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This book parallels the University of Kentucky on a lot of its content. UK is striving to be a Top 20 Research Institution ... the president chose to live off campus, etc. So, it seems to be a pretty good insight to not only what UConn has experienced (and is experiencing), but perhaps, to what other Universities are undergoing too ...