On Systemic Inequalities in Academia with Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education Paula D. McClain

Emilia Chiscop-Head, PhD, Scientific Integrity Associate, ASIST

Paula D. McClain is James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Professor of Public Policy, Dean of The Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education. Dr. McClain is the Director of the American Political Science Association’s Ralph Bunche Summer Institute hosted by Duke University, and funded by the National Science Foundation and Duke University. She is immediate past president of the American Political Science Association. A Howard University Ph.D., her primary research includes racial minority group politics and urban politics. Her book, “Can We All Get Along?" Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics, coauthored with Joseph Stewart, Jr. and Jessica D. Johnson Carew, reached the seventh edition. Her 1990 book, Race, Place and Risk: Black Homicide in Urban America, co-authored with Harold W. Rose, won the National Conference of Black Political Scientists' 1995 Best Book Award for a previously published book that has made a substantial and continuing contribution. American Government in Black and White: Diversity and Democracy, co-authored with Steven Tauber, won the American Political Science Association’s Race, Ethnicity and Politics Organized Section Best Book Award for a book published in 2010. The fifth edition of the book will be published in January 2021.  Paula McClain is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Duke University Blue Ribbon Diversity Award (2012), the Graduate School Mentoring Award (2010), the Frank J. Goodnow Award for contributions to the profession of political science (2007), a Meta Mentoring Award from the Women’s Caucus for Political Science of the American Political Science Association (2007). Since 2014, Dr. McClain is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Your most recent book, “American Government in Black and White - Diversity and Democracy,” is described as an introduction to American government from a unique perspective of racial and ethnic equality. The fifth edition of this book incorporates recent events, including the beginning of the Trump administration. Could you tell us more about the research behind this book? What are some of the key lessons of the book?

This book was literally 10 years in the making and involved a number of my Ph.D. students over the years. It is an introduction to American government, but brings in other voices that were speaking at the same time as the founders, about issues like slavery, freedom or voices of women… When I have done presentations to the sales representatives at Oxford University Press, I called this book “the Hamilton of American Government.” It took a lot of digging, and when we started digging, we realized that many people knew about these voices, but they never were revealed in any of the other American Government texts. I got an email two weeks ago from a student at a small college in California: “I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy this book that has voices of people of color, written by a woman, a book that talks about voices that were excluded at the founding.” This book was a long labor of love: ten years in the making. We are at the fifth edition now. It was something that I really wanted to do and it took me that long to do it. One of my former students, Steven C. Tauber, at the University of South Florida is a co-author. The central topic of the book is that race was so foundational to so much that happened in the U.S. that it is embedded in the fabric of American society and it is also one of those threads that can be easily pulled, causing pain to people of color and turmoil and stress on the political system and the broader society,

Does this book only include African-American voices?

The book includes various voices of those left out of the American story. For example, everybody assumed that democracy in the U.S. stemmed from the western European enlightenment. But the reality was that the Iroquois Confederation, founded in approximately the year 1 000, operated on what we would call democratic principles, in terms of how the five and then seven tribes dealt with governmental issues regarding the administering of the federation. And Benjamin Franklin actually patterned the Albany Plan of Union after the Iroquois Confederation. When you look at American Government textbooks that information does not come through.

If  you were to write a book “American Universities in Black and White,” or “American Academic Research in Black and White,” how different or similar the pictures would be from the one described in the book? Do you think that universities should and could do more to foster racial and ethnic equality?

There would be some parallels. I am a political scientist and I just finished my term as president the American Political Science Association. My presidential address talked about the racist origins of political science. How those origins have structured the way this discipline and some scholars view what is considered  “legitimate political science” or “legitimate research?” We have a lot of systemic inequalities in the Academy. For example, in citations patterns, what few research studies have shown is that white academics tend not to cite scholars of color even if they were the first ones to do the initial research; white academics would find someone else to cite who is white and male. Given that we think that citations are an objective measure of reputation or influence in the discipline, this means that we continue to perpetuate the systemic inequalities. What are we doing in graduate education to prevent perpetuating systemic inequalities? There is a whole set of issues in the Academy that continue to perpetuate inequalities. We really need to face them. I have to say that at Duke I have been very pleased with Provost Sally Kornbluth’s and Vice Provost Abbas Benmamoun’s approach to identify these pockets of inequalities for the appointment, promotion, and tenure committee:  that we have to be aware of citation patterns when looking at files. I feel that for the first time, under President Price, Duke is taking things seriously, beyond issuing a statement of words and platitudes. It is the first time when I feel that there is a seriousness about this. At least, on a small scale, at Duke, we begin to look at these things. We have a lot of work to do and time will show if this effort will result in substantial change. But the world is so big!  The bottom line would be that if I were to write a book on American Universities in Black and White, there would be many parallels with the American Government in Black and White.

Dean McClain, I see in Europe, my homeland, a perception that exaggerated political correctness in America drives everything. I hear top intellectuals in Europe saying that the conversation about class, race and gender emphasizes inequalities and makes them stronger. How would you respond? 

I do not agree with that at all. Essentially what this is saying is that if we do not talk about it, everything would be okay. Sometimes these comments come from people who are truly uncomfortable discussing those things, as opposed to acknowledging that these are real issues that the U.S. needs to deal with. They are saying: I am not willing to acknowledge and talk about those things, so I will accuse you of political correctness. However, not talking about them does not mean that they do not exist.

How do you think that the events that have happened this summer, following George Floyd’s death, have affected Academia in the longer term?

A lot of universities started the conversation. I do not know about the seriousness of these discussions. I think that their outcome will be uneven. Some institutions will deal with it and others will not.

“We need to be infusing in our students a responsibility to do what is right, not what is easy at the time.”

What are some of the ethical issues in political science research?

The biggest case of ethical misconduct and data fabrication was the one of Michael LaCour at UCLA.  He made up experimental data and claimed that he had evidence showing that if you talk with someone for 10-15 minutes on LGBQT issues, they would agree and change their mind about supporting same sex marriage. Not only that he made up the data, but no one in his department seemed to catch on to the fact that this was all bogus; thus, he made up grants that he had received to do research. In my view, if one of my students gets a grant, it comes to the university and to me as co-PI because I am the faculty supervisor. Why did not the faculty know that this happened? It was so egregious! When I looked at the data, I could see the periodicity and that each one looked the same and I am not a methodologist. I used quantitative techniques in my work, but I am far from being a methodologist. If I was able to see the pattern, why did not others see it? So this most egregious case raises questions about shared institutional accountability and about mentoring in social science research.

We need to be on guard about experimental research; many political scientists conduct experimental research. The question of deception in social experiments is high. Even those doing qualitative research need to be concerned, go through IRB and have the same checks. We, as a discipline, need to be on top of this. And if we are training Ph.D. students we need to be on top of them and the work they are doing. It is not enough to say – “when you finish your dissertation, please send it to me.” You need to be involved in every process and every part of their dissertation, especially if they are talking to people in any form and fashion. Beyond workshops on research ethics, we need to be sure that we have ethics research as part of our graduate curriculum.

Therefore, you emphasize the role of mentorship and accountability.

Yes, and infusing in our students a responsibility to do what is right, not what is easy at the time. For example, if your data did not work out, there is value in talking about that: how did you collect the data and why did you not get the results you anticipated? There is value in that!

“I think a lot of people might be satisfied if we get to a point where people just stay out of other people’s way in terms of trying to prevent them from succeeding. I am not sure if this is reconciliation, but at least please stay out of my way, do not make it difficult for me.”

Let’s talk about your awarded book “Can We All Get Along?:  Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics,” whose 7th edition was published in 2017. Quote: “In a nation built by immigrants and be-deviled by the history and legacy of slavery and discrimination, how do we, as Americans, reconcile a commitment to equality and freedom with persistent inequality and discrimination? And what can we do about it?” Do you think that America is on the right path to reconciliation? Why or why not?

I was not one of those who said - when President Obama was elected - that we are in a post-racial age because I did not think so. At one point I thought maybe we were on a path to moving forward. And now, I think we were set back and it is going to take time to rebuild again. This current administration gave so much credence to people who talk to and treat people horribly that you wonder who raised them. What do you do with them? How do you “get the genies back in the bottle?” It is going to take hard work. There is an old saying “one step forward, two steps back.” I think we are now six steps back.

What is your most optimistic view about achieving reconciliation on a long term?

I am not sure that reconciliation is the right word, because I think that some people will never recognize how race has affected the United States, its history and systemic inequalities. Part of the Trump administration’s mission is to deny that these things even exist. I think a lot of people might be satisfied if we get to a point where people just stay out of other people’s way in terms of trying to prevent them from succeeding. I am not sure if this is reconciliation, but at least please stay out of my way, do not make it difficult for me. I do not really care if you like me, just stay out of my way. As Ruth Ginsburg said: just get your knees off my neck.

“My success is not only a function of what I did, but a function of what lots of people did for me.”

Tell us a little about the topic of your current research.

Now I am trying to complete revisions. I have one more chapter to go on “American Government in Black and White.” I co-authored a piece with my graduate students on comparative race and the effects of COVID-19 on communities and societies that structure race differently. The study uses Brazil, Great Britain and U.S. The conclusion is that even though their racial histories are different, black communities and other communities of color are at greater risk for COVID-19 and this stems from systemic inequalities. So my own research agenda at this point is driven by my Ph.D. students, given my administrative responsibilities at Duke University.

How difficult was it for you to join Academia as a black woman? What was a key factor of your success?

There is a historical context to that. I am not the first woman in my family to enter the Academy. I had a very famous older cousin, Harriette Pipes McAdoo, who was a psychologist and worked on Black Families. She was the star! When I entered the Academy, Harriette Ann (our family name for her) was the model. She talked to me a lot, she helped me. Robert L. Hampton, a sociologist, did a book on The Black Family and in the index it was McAdoo, Harriette Pipes, someone else and then McClain, Paula D. I xeroxed that and sent it to our grandmother for her to see that I was in the same volume as Harriette Ann. My mentor was also instrumental. Harold Rose, a geographer, kept me from many mistakes. He taught me how to be a scholar. There were lots of people who gave me opportunities and invested in my success. My success is not only a function of what I did, but a function of what lots of people did for me. I ran into lots of issues as a black woman in the Academy but I always had somebody to turn to. I am committed to mentoring and want to instill this idea that mentors need to open doors to others as others opened doors for me.

This interview is part of a series of interviews with renowned scholars, scientists and influential leaders invited to share their outstanding work and views on topics related to research integrity. 


Read all the articles in the Research Interviews Series:

Paula McClain

Brandon Garrett

Christian Simon

Patrick Charbonneau

Nimmi Ramanujam

Nicolas Cassar

Ada Gregory

Adrian Bejan

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong