September 21, 2018

EDITORIAL: Three Pressing Questions on Prof. Wansink’s Resignation Cornell Needs to Answer

Print More

In a stunning reversal of Cornell’s own internal investigation conducted just last year, a faculty committee has found Prof. Brian Wansink guilty of “academic misconduct.” The professor, who has had 13 papers retracted over the past two years (six of them yesterday), will resign at the end of this school year.

While we are glad that Cornell has finally taking the appropriate steps to reprimand Wansink and insulate the University and its students from the growing fallout, the brief statement on matter issued by Provost Michael Kotlikoff is entirely insufficient given the gravity of the situation. There are several questions the University must answer if they are to regain the trust of Cornellians and the broader academic community.

Firstly, what is the cause of the discrepancy between yesterday’s finding, and the finding of the April 2017 internal investigation that determined Wansink had not committed “scientific misconduct”? If this result is emblematic of a flaw in Cornell’s initial review process, the University owes it to its students and faculty to address and correct such flaws. This total reversal does not inspire confidence, and must be explained more thoroughly.

Secondly, if Wansink has relinquished both teaching and researching duties, why is he still employed by (and presumably drawing a paycheck from) Cornell? The stated explanation, that he will “spend his time cooperating with the university in its ongoing review of his prior research” is unsatisfactory. If Wansink truly cares about either proving his innocence or making amends, he should cooperate regardless of his employment status at Cornell. And if Wansink’s cooperation is contingent on him collecting his salary till next May, the University should carefully consider the wisdom of continuing to employ someone whose work Cornell itself has discredited, and whose uncanny ability to repeatedly attract controversy continues to adversely affect his colleagues and students.

Thirdly, the University should release the full report of the faculty committee’s investigation. Prof. Wansink is not the only scholar to massage his data — indeed, the spectre of “p-hacking” looms increasingly large over the scientific community — and a fuller accounting of exactly what went wrong could serve as a powerful example of what not to do.

Yesterday’s announcement is just the first step. If the administration truly wants to reaffirm its commitment “to the highest standards of academic integrity” in a post-Wansink world, they have to keep moving.