Lanhee Chen PhD? | Connecting the Dots

(Updated) Lanhee Chen, Mitt Romney’s former policy czar, is now to be a commentator on CNN. But is there a cloud around this rising Republican pundit? The former Romney aide holds four degrees from Harvard: a BA, MA, JD, and PhD. Chen earned this last degree in 2009 when he completed a doctoral dissertation for Harvard’s Department of Government. It is a curious document.

For one thing, it is a mere 134 pages of text in length, which is shorter than some of the senior theses written by Harvard’s undergraduates. For another thing, a Harvard doctoral dissertation in political science is typically a searching inquiry into a single subject, a work—according to departmental guidelines—“that makes a significant contribution to knowledge in the field.” Yet Chen’s dissertation, titled Essays on Elections, consists of three chapters on three barely related subjects.

The first of these essays examines 7,000 criminal cases to see what effect different methods of selecting judges have on the outcomes of appellate decisions. The second looks at the political behavior of an Asian-American community organization in a 1998 California legislative election. The third is a statistical examination of why presidential candidates visit particular counties in swing states. The fact that the doctoral dissertation consists of three essays on disparate subjects is unusual though not unheard of in Harvard’s Government Department. But in this instance, the departure from the norm may be explained by a more serious problem.

As one would expect, Harvard has strict guidelines governing doctoral dissertations. They are set out in a document entitled The Form of the Ph.D. Dissertation issued by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. One of the rules prohibits a form of academic double-dipping. It reads: “In no event may a dissertation be presented for the PhD degree that has already been submitted toward any degree, at Harvard or elsewhere, in substantially the same form and content.” The reason for the rule is obvious. It aims at barring a species of academic fraud. If one could simply recycle previously written academic papers, cranking out a doctoral dissertation would be a cinch. Yet there is evidence suggesting that such recycled material is what Chen’s dissertation is constructed from.

Consider the chapter in which Chen analyzes the outcome of 7,000 criminal cases. It has footnotes that are formatted in Blue Book legal style, i.e., for law-review papers, rather than in the format customarily employed in political science. Yet the proper format can be found in Chen’s other two chapters. Harvard’s dissertation rulebook is unequivocal: “the general byword for scholarly reference is consistency”; footnotes and endnotes in a doctoral dissertation are to be in a single and uniform style throughout. Why then does one chapter of his dissertation violate this rule?

One possible clue comes from the fact that Chen’s three years of attendance at Harvard Law School overlapped with the years he was working toward his doctoral degree in Harvard’s Department of Government. Is it possible that the chapter is a law school paper that Chen simply dropped into his dissertation without taking the trouble of making its footnotes conform to the recommended format? That is a question deserving an answer.

In Chen’s chapter about Asian Americans in the 1998 California legislative election we encounter a different kind of difficult-to-explain quirk. Chen’s doctoral dissertation was completed in 2009. Yet this chapter is based upon interviews that Chen conducted between 1999 and 2002, long before he even began his doctoral work. It is an extraordinary gap, almost a decade long. What accounts for it? How and why did Chen conduct field research for a dissertation that was not yet a glimmer in his eye? Once again there is a clue. According to the chronology Chen provides on LinkedIn.com, he began his Harvard M.A. in 2000 and completed it in 2004. One is led to wonder: were the interviews initially conducted for a paper presented for Chen’s master’s degree? And if so, was that paper recycled for use in the doctoral thesis as well?

Has Lanhee Chen committed academic fraud or is there another explanation for these anomalies? The ever curious journalists Chen is joining at CNN seem not to have asked.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, the author of A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account, among other books, holds a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University.

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