Why was a Cal State professor allowed to teach Black and Latino students they were less smart?

With one painful exception that she still thinks about today, Marisol Schowengerdt enjoyed her classes at Cal State East Bay.

She enrolled in 2014 at age 41, older than most students, but no one gave her a hard time. The university’s Hayward campus was an inviting, diverse place, as East Bay’s marketing stresses: 86% of undergraduates are non-white, and many are the first in their families to attend college. Even at the business school, where a stock ticker flashed market prices as students arrived to class, officials emphasized social justice.

“The ‘American Dream’ is the ideal that everyone living in the U.S. should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity,” reads a recent mission statement by East Bay’s College of Business and Economics. “We make the Dream possible for an exceptionally diverse student population.”

Schowengerdt is the daughter of an immigrant cherry farmer, a man born in Mexico who came to the U.S. in the mid-’60s and raised seven children. She had spent her 20s and 30s building a successful career in California real estate and finance. But she lacked a college degree and aimed to change that.

After two years at a junior college, she transferred to East Bay — part of Cal State, the largest four-year public university system in the country — and majored in economics. She liked almost all of her professors, she said, and they seemed to believe the stuff about the dream.

Then there was Gregory Christainsen.

A white man with salt-and-pepper hair, Christainsen was 60 at the time and had taught economics at East Bay since the 1980s. Schowengerdt enrolled in his public sector economics course, a requirement for her to graduate. The syllabus promised lessons in government finance and health insurance markets.

But to Schowengerdt’s surprise, she said, Christainsen spent hours of class time talking about which racial groups were smarter than others.

In one of the first lectures, Christainsen said Black and Hispanic people get involved in politics at lower rates than whites, Schowengerdt recalled. Then he showed a photo of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign staff in Chicago. Most staffers were white or Asian American. The photo, she said Christainsen told the class, demonstrated that even a Black man needs white people to get elected.

As the semester continued, she said, the professor lectured repeatedly about race and intelligence, insisting they are linked. He taught students that white people and those of Chinese heritage are smarter on average than Black and Hispanic groups; he said this was proved by gaps in average IQ scores between races.

“I have to tell you as a seasoned researcher that many (but of course not all) ‘racist’ statements in intelligence research are true.”
        — Gregory Christainsen

Although scientists overwhelmingly attribute these gaps to societal factors like racism, poverty and cultural biases in the tests, Christainsen said the IQ disparities are inherent, rooted in genetics. He spoke with pride about his own family’s heritage: Telling students that his wife was Chinese, he called himself a “white tiger.”

For Schowengerdt, these lessons felt like bigotry, not teaching, and it was all the more upsetting, she said, whenever she swiveled her head in class: Most of the 25 or so students were non-white, and many were Black. She vented sometimes with a classmate in her study group, Alex Bly, one of the few white students in the course.

Originally from Texas, Bly, now 35, said she found the experience “surreal.” One day, she said, Christainsen gave students an article about how Jews run Hollywood. It struck her as a classic anti-Semitic trope, which “blew my mind,” she recalled. But it also seemed irrelevant: What did Jews in Hollywood have to do with public sector economics?

About halfway through the semester, around March 2014, Bly drafted a complaint about the class. She addressed it to Jed DeVaro, chair of the economics department. To protect herself from possible retaliation, Bly created an anonymous email account.

She hit send, then waited for the university to do something.

A collage combines photos of Christainsen and a white tiger, an animal he compares himself to in a quote. Alex K. Fong / The Chronicle; tiger: Getty Images; Christainsen: courtesy of Colby College

Out in the open

Last fall, Christainsen gained sudden notoriety at East Bay when some faculty members discovered his journal articles on race and IQ and read them in horror. In September, after Christainsen shared his views on a white nationalist website, several professors and students spoke up at a trustees meeting and denounced his work as racist and false, a story first reported by The Chronicle.

The event sparked a wider reckoning, as students, alumni and professors sought to “censure” the economist for his racist statements and asked East Bay’s leaders to explain why a school supposedly invested in social justice had embraced him.

In emails to The Chronicle, Christainsen denied he was a white nationalist and said his work is legitimate. “I would prefer that people provide evidence pertaining to the truth or falsity of research findings instead of recklessly using words like ‘bigoted,’” he said.

The professor acknowledged that, for at least eight years, he had taught his ideas on race and intelligence, lecturing that gaps in average IQ scores are biologically hard-wired. He remembered Schowengerdt and Bly, calling them “very bright” and confirming much of their accounts.

Yes, he said, he did joke about being the white spouse of a Shanghainese woman: “White tigers are rare, but they do exist.” The article that troubled Bly, he said, was “emphatically pro-semitic, not anti-semitic” and was meant to help students “think about the sources of information that people have.”

Yes, Christainsen said, he showed the class the photo of Obama’s campaign staff and pointed out that most of the people were white or Asian. But he did that to illustrate that “the ethnic proportions in an office don’t tell us whether racial discrimination has taken place,” he said. “I doubt that the Obama campaign office engaged in racial discrimination.”

Above all, Christainsen said, he believed that “free discussion of ideas is important for the education of all the students in the university, regardless of ethnicity.”

He was talking about academic freedom, the principle in American higher education that instructors can publish, speak and teach without punishment or censorship. Similar in spirit to the First Amendment  — though with some crucial differences — academic freedom guards democracy on campus, creating space for professors to search for the truth, even if that truth might piss people off.

Responding to revelations about Christainsen’s work, an East Bay representative told the newspaper in October that universities have a special duty to protect speech, “including when — and in fact especially when — we strongly disagree with and find repulsive the viewpoints offered.”

The controversy at East Bay came at a moment of protest on U.S. campuses, largely ignited by a Minneapolis police officer’s murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. Students and faculty across the country are challenging universities to root out bias and end racial disparities in hiring and graduation rates.

These efforts have also spawned a backlash: Some conservative lawmakers, free-speech groups and essayists say that entitled liberals are trying to get their ideological opponents fired over disagreements, creating a climate of fear that forces colleges and universities to crack down on free expression.

But the controversy at East Bay didn’t play out like most campus speech battles. The spark wasn’t an isolated incident or comment, and the setting wasn’t a place of privilege. Instead, the events unfolded at one of the most racially and economically diverse campuses in America, where in-state tuition is $7,000 a year and top officials have promised to fight “systemic racism” and build an “anti-racist community.”

The focus of anger was a type of racist pseudoscience with deep roots in higher education — so deep, apparently, that it can sprout even at a school with a mission to expand racial equity and financial mobility. And the debate that followed raised questions about the limits of academic freedom: What happens when a professor’s teachings aren’t just unpopular, but wrong?

What if it’s not knowledge that’s being transmitted, but misinformation?

Semester after semester at East Bay, Christainsen politely advanced discredited and racist ideas, unnoticed or unchallenged by colleagues and rewarded by bosses, according to interviews with two dozen East Bay faculty members, students and scientists at other universities, as well as a review of hundreds of documents and emails obtained through public records requests.

Much of this evidence was out in the open for years. But nothing happened until last spring, when two young assistant professors in East Bay’s biology department stumbled onto the trail and started to follow it.

Dr. Pascale Guiton (left) and Dr. Nazzy Pakpour, both with California State University East Bay, at J.A. Lewis Park in Hayward on January 29, 2021. Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

The Alliance

Nazzy Pakpour knew she wanted to be a scientist when she was 7, not long after her family emigrated from Iran and settled in the Bay Area. Her backyard was her first lab; she caught snakes, “dug s— up.”

She studied mosquitoes and disease transmission at UC Davis and the University of Pennsylvania, and in 2016 she joined East Bay’s faculty, teaching microbiology and researching malaria. In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and classes switched to Zoom, she set her video background to a microscope photo of a mosquito. Students chatting with Pakpour saw a cheerful 42-year-old queer woman with black hair and glasses, seemingly about to be mauled by a horror-flick insect.

Two months later, in May, a cop put his knee on George Floyd’s neck. As protests spread, Pakpour wanted to join them, but needed to care for her two small children. So, along with another young assistant professor of color, Pascale Guiton, a biologist originally from the Ivory Coast, Pakpour formed a group to push for change at East Bay. Soon, 30 or 40 faculty members were attending weekly Zoom meetings, brainstorming ideas.

Dr. Nazzy Pakpour, an assistant professor of biology at Cal State East Bay, hosts a Zoom meeting with fellow members of the Alliance for the Black Community (ABC), at her home on February 5, 2021, in Woodland, Calif. Pakpour is one of the founders of ABC, a campus group that is calling attention to the racist research of an economics professor there. Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

This gathering, which became known as the Alliance for the Black Community, analyzed the school’s diversity statistics, noting where the numbers didn’t match the image. Black students had been trying in vain to get funding for their own student center, and data showed that new Black faculty were more likely to leave the university than their white counterparts.

The group also reached out to Black faculty and staff, asking how to support them, and before long, Pakpour heard a troubling rumor. Black community members told her that a professor was publishing papers about the supposedly inferior intelligence of Black people. “We have people on campus who are eugenicists,” Pakpour said she was told.

Pakpour had read about eugenics in books on Nazi Germany. The term, which means “well born,” was coined in the 19th century by Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist who wanted to breed better humans, partly by encouraging “the more suitable races” to have more children and partly by restraining “the less suitable” and “the Unfit” from reproducing. Eugenics aligned with the goals of “scientific racism” or “race science,” a field that aimed to justify racism on biological grounds. Together, these ideas led to some of the 20th century’s bloodiest slaughters, including the Holocaust.

“I have never made a serious study of eugenics.”
        — Gregory Christainsen

But before Nazi Germany turned eugenics and race science into a system of mass murder, eugenic theories enjoyed wide support among the American elite. U.S. lawmakers used eugenics to justify immigration bans, the forced sterilization of poor women and Jim Crow segregation. And in California universities, racial eugenics found a foothold, hanging on for generations — even after World War II.

David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford, wrote at the turn of the 20th century that “the germs of pauperism and crime” were inherited and that “temperamental” races should be restricted from immigrating to the United States. Later, in the 1960s, Stanford’s William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning engineer who co-invented the transistor, became obsessed with the “Negro IQ deficit” and promoted the “voluntary sterilization” of Black people.

Meanwhile, across the bay at UC Berkeley, psychologist Arthur Jensen argued that the IQ gap is biological and that education spending on Black children may be a waste. Jensen wrote that welfare policies should be guided “by eugenic foresight”; he pushed similar ideas until his death in 2012.

“I do believe that people should face issues of eugenics and dysgenics more forthrightly than has recently been the case.”
        — Gregory Christainsen

“That sort of stuff was everywhere, and up until the 1960s, it was actually accepted as legitimate science,” said Marcus Feldman, a renowned Stanford geneticist who debated Jensen in public decades ago. Jensen and others like him “have an agenda,” Feldman said. “I would call them scientific racists.”

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, many geneticists and psychologists tried to push back. In conferences and public statements, they explained that race science rests on a rickety tower of assumptions with a crude caricature of human biology at the base.

The ideology asserts that racial differences, as we commonly see them in our everyday lives, are reflected in our genes. It’s true that skin color is genetic, like eye color. But race is more than melanin, more than dark or light skin. People often lump each other into racial categories based on religion and culture and geography, which aren’t genetic and shift all the time. “Race is our inaccurate perception of biology,” said David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard.

The reality at the genetic level is fuzzy and wildly complex. Of our 3 billion DNA base pairs, only a small percentage vary among racial groups, and only a fraction of those variants have any effect on biology or behavior, said Rasmus Nielsen, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. The genetic differences that do exist “don’t fall into neat categories,” either, Nielsen said, revealing instead a complex whir of human migration that has blurred distinctions between groups over tens of thousands of years.

So in June 2020, when Pakpour heard there was a professor on campus writing that race is genetic and it predicts intelligence, her first reaction was confusion: What?

A collage combines an image of Christainsen, an economics professor at Cal State East Bay who has taught racist ideas on intelligence, with words excerpted from his writing and a map of Asia and Africa. Collage: Alex K. Fong / The Chronicle; Map: Getty Images; Christainsen: courtesy of Colby College

The research

Pakpour wasn’t given a name. But then one day that month, during an Alliance workshop on how to write an “anti-racist syllabus,” an economist in the group, Christian Roessler, remarked about a colleague in his own department. Wasn’t it ironic, Roessler said, that they were talking about anti-racism on a campus that harbored an openly racist professor? He mentioned Gregory Christainsen and said little else.

At Pakpour’s request, Roessler pointed her to Christainsen’s papers. The work had appeared in scientific journals of varying reputation, including KYKLOS and Intelligence, which publish peer-reviewed social science, and Mankind Quarterly, a forum with ties to far-right extremists. As Pakpour and other Alliance members began to read the papers, they felt a mix of disgust and surprise.

Though each article was different, Christiansen generally tried to fuse race science with economics. He began from the premise that race and intelligence are biologically linked, drawing from a range of very old and very new genetic research to make the case. From there he added his own economic spin, arguing that a country’s racial makeup predicts its economic success — and therefore, discriminatory practices can be sensible.

Racist ideas are often conveyed in code words, which is what Pakpour expected to find in the papers. In some ways, Christainsen was cautious. He didn’t describe himself as a eugenicist or call for eugenic policies (“I have never made a serious study of eugenics,” he told The Chronicle). He didn’t use the words “superior” or “inferior” to describe the intellects of different races, and in caveats, he sometimes acknowledged that environmental factors may influence IQ.

Yet he wrote with reverence about the eugenic tradition, praising its pioneers and defending some of its central assertions.

For instance, in a 2012 KYKLOS article titled “Biology, Immigration and Public Policy,” Christainsen described the father of eugenics, Galton, as a “hereditarian,” contrasting him favorably with “nurturists” who challenged his views. The economist also cited — with approval — the work of Berkeley’s Arthur Jensen and Northern Ireland’s Richard Lynn, a psychologist who has promoted racist ideas about IQ since the 1970s; Lynn once said America’s white-majority states should secede to ensure survival of “white civilisation.”

“What they’re trying to do is justify inequality. They set up their own journals, and then they cite each other. So they give the veneer of respectability.”
        — Angela Saini

In the KYKLOS paper, Christainsen went on to argue that “low IQ immigrants” pose risks to countries that welcome them. He mentioned Black and Hispanic groups and said they have smaller brains.

“There is now a consensus that the average level of intelligence in sub-Saharan Africa is quite low,” Christainsen wrote, adding that Hispanics in the U.S. “score poorly on intelligence tests (on average), tend to have less massive brains than whites, and have a high rate of dependency.”

The idea that brain size determines intelligence was popular in the late 19th century, but it has long since been debunked, said Jennifer Raff, a geneticist and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas who co-authored “Race, Genetics and Pseudoscience: An Explainer,” a 2019 article about the misuse of genetics studies by fringe researchers.

“We don’t know what determines intelligence,” Raff said, “but it’s certainly not body size.” She said of the KYKLOS paper, “This is gross stuff, and it’s not based in science.”

Christainsen also cites cutting-edge genetic research in his papers, pointing to studies that sift through the genomes of large groups, usually in European populations. Some of the studies find variations that may influence health, physical features or behaviors. Christainsen and others who share his view say that this recent work makes their core idea plausible: Different groups are genetically distinct, and race is a meaningful biological concept that can predict a behavior like intelligence.

But the economist has no training in genetics or biology, and his framing of the science is highly misleading, according to four expert geneticists at other universities who spoke with The Chronicle. Two of these scientists — Feldman and Reich — wrote studies that Christainsen invokes. Both professors said the economist was misrepresenting their conclusions and making unjustified leaps.

There are probably some average genetic differences between groups that shape bodies and behavior, said Reich, who is at the forefront of the new research. But there’s no evidence that these variations conform to racial stereotypes, he explained. Besides, scientists already know that differences between groups are typically much smaller than the differences within groups, between individuals. And there are still many unknowns: It can be impossible to untangle the role of genes from the effect of the environment, and the data is often unclear, even when the question seems simple.

For instance, scientists disagree about which genes make some people taller than others. Finding the roots of intelligence would be harder — and “very fraught,” Reich said, because “IQ scores are affected by so many things.”

Feldman, the Stanford geneticist, said Christainsen’s KYKLOS paper on biology and immigration is groundless and “more vulgar than I was expecting” in its racism. “It’s not even subtle,” he said. “It’s out there for you to see.”

At East Bay, the Alliance members had no trouble dissecting the scientific flaws in Christainsen’s work. But this didn’t answer their original question: What was the guy doing on their campus in the first place?

Gregory Christainsen as a member of the Economics faculty, in front of a blackboard, published in the 1981 Colby Oracle (Colby College yearbook), page 124. Courtesy Colby College


Gregory Christainsen grew up in the Boston area, the son of parents originally from the Midwest. His father worked his way through college and medical school, partly by serving as a research assistant for a Wisconsin professor who studied the behavior of rats and monkeys for clues about humans. Christainsen’s mother, he said, “raised four children, played violin in an orchestra and chamber groups, and taught violin and piano.” He himself played viola.

In 1983, two years after earning his doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Christainsen started teaching at East Bay. Courteous and erudite, he became a full professor in 1988, the same year the campus’ Pi Kappa Delta debating society named him the university’s best lecturer.

Well into the 2000s, his work was decidedly mainstream. He wrote about business cycles and labor market policies, contributed to respected economics textbooks, and collaborated with the only Black faculty member in East Bay’s economics department, James Ahiakpor, who said Christainsen was always “cordial and respectful.”

Around 2010, his C.V. and papers show, Christainsen’s research shifted, fusing economics with theories about race and biology. In an email, the professor explained that he was initially inspired by the work of behavioral geneticists, who study how genes and the environment shape personalities.

“We don’t know what determines intelligence, but it’s certainly not body size. This is gross stuff, and it’s not based in science.”
        — Jennifer Raff

Experts say this kind of research can only speak to differences between individuals, not large groups. But Christainsen said he was fascinated by it — “I am just a very curious person,” he told The Chronicle — and he soon applied the biologists’ research to entire countries and continents, writing that race and IQ impact the wealth of nations.

His previous work had attracted little notice outside of the economics field. But these new papers gained the backing of a community of academics and independent researchers scattered around the world.

Two of his papers on race and IQ became among the most highly cited works of his career, earning plaudits from Richard Lynn, the Northern Ireland eugenicist; Gerhard Meisenberg, former editor of the far-right journal Mankind Quarterly, founded in 1960 with backing from American segregationists; and Emil Kirkegaard, a Danish supporter of eugenics who has said on Twitter that, without eugenic policies, “Western Civilization dies.”

“Need more IQ economists who dare speak up,” Kirkegaard tweeted once of Christainsen, praising and linking to one of his papers.

Christainsen’s new supporters argued, as he did, that race predicts intelligence and that political correctness and media bias conceal this truth. Some members of this community have called their view “race realism,” a phrase that began popping up in the 2000s, both in academic journal articles and in more erudite corners of the white-nationalist internet.

But while “race realism” sounds softer than “eugenics” or “scientific racism,” the ideas are the same, said Angela Saini, a British science journalist who has tracked the movement and wrote the 2019 book “Superior: The Return of Race Science.” The goal of “race realists,” she said, is to make old racist ideas more acceptable by dressing them in new academic clothes. And the movement has gained strength in recent years as far-right political movements surge in America and Europe.

“What they’re trying to do is justify inequality,” Saini said. “They set up their own journals, and then they cite each other. So they give the veneer of respectability.”

As Christainsen veered from mainstream economics, he grew closer to the race-realism community, attending its conferences and publishing in its favorite forums. In 2016, his work appeared for the first time in Mankind Quarterly. The piece was an enthusiastic review of a study co-authored by Kirkegaard, the Danish supporter of eugenics.

As his profile in the movement rose, Christainsen communicated directly with Lynn and other scientific racists from his university email account and inserted himself into their public battles.

“I would prefer that people provide evidence pertaining to the truth or falsity of research findings instead of recklessly using words like ‘bigoted.’”
        — Gregory Christainsen

In one instance, Lynn came under fire after students at Ulster University, where he had taught, protested his claims about race and IQ. The university decided to strip Lynn’s emeritus title in 2018; the following year, a scientific journal published an “expression of concern” about one of his articles. Christainsen rose to his defense. In July 2019, in an email obtained by The Chronicle through a California Public Records Act request, Christainsen wrote to the journal’s publishers, calling Lynn a “trailblazer” and supporting his conclusions.

“I have to tell you as a seasoned researcher that many (but of course not all) ‘racist’ statements in intelligence research are true,” Christainsen emailed from his East Bay account. Lynn did not respond to an emailed request for comment from The Chronicle.

Late last summer, Pakpour started sharing Christainsen’s papers beyond the Alliance, emailing them to department heads and faculty and asking what they thought. Some were aghast, telling Pakpour that “someone should really do something.” But another common response was one of recognition: “Oh yeah, he’s been here for years, it’s really problematic,” Pakpour recalled. She was surprised by how many tenured professors said that, particularly in the College of Business and Economics.

“That college,” Pakpour said, “was super-aware of it.”

The Valley Business and Technology Center at CSU East Bay, May 25, 2021, in Hayward. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle


Until very recently, Christainsen’s life on campus was serene.

He kept a workspace in the business college, a four-story white building with a ground-floor lounge where students hang out near the stock ticker. His office was on an upper floor, next to that of his department chair, Jed DeVaro.

On a personal level, DeVaro had treated Christainsen like a valued elder, a man who had been publishing economics papers “since I was in the second grade,” DeVaro wrote in a November email to members of East Bay’s academic senate, defending Christainsen’s expertise. It is not clear whether DeVaro helped him advance professionally, and the chair did not answer questions about it.

Even so, Christainsen seemed to thrive at East Bay under DeVaro’s leadership. Christainsen sat on two key department committees, including Retention, Tenure and Promotion, which evaluates professors. For years he earned six figures in pay, reaching $114,000 in 2014, public data shows.

And when Christainsen decided to enter early retirement in 2016, he remained active on campus, with East Bay’s support. The professor continued to teach several classes each year, earning reduced pay while collecting a $88,000 state pension. He also gained an “emeritus” title, given automatically to retiring tenured faculty “to encourage their continued association with the University,” according to school policy.

Emeritus status meant Christainsen could still teach part time and apply for grants. In addition, East Bay classified him as “Scholarly Active,” a designation that allowed him to get research support, and he kept his seat on the promotion committee. These were significant perks — and the university awarded them to Christainsen three years after he began publishing papers on race science.

At the same time, the university validated his work on a larger scale, apparently using it to maintain a crucial stamp of approval from an accrediting organization, according to emails and other records obtained by The Chronicle.

In the summer of 2018, the business college owed some paperwork to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which inspects business schools around the world. DeVaro emailed all economics faculty, asking for a list of their recent articles to prove they were active researchers. “I know paperwork is a pain, particularly during summer break, but this is extremely important,” DeVaro wrote.

Christainsen replied by attaching three pieces of research, including one of his race-realism papers and a poster he exhibited at a 2015 conference that attracts race-realism proponents. The poster attempted to estimate the “genetic” influence on IQ scores for 23 ethnic groups, comparing all of them against the British; “Afro-Barbardians” and “African-Americans” fared the worst.

“That college was super-aware of it.”
        — Nazzy Pakpour

It is unclear if these works were ultimately referenced in the college’s AACSB submission; DeVaro referred questions about the process to a university spokesperson, who did not respond.

But according to an undated Excel spreadsheet circulated within the college, two of Christainsen’s race-realism papers were classified as “basic or discovery research” for accreditation purposes. In a separate 2017 submission to the AACSB, the college said Christainsen had published two “basic or discovery” papers that counted toward the college’s “portfolio of intellectual contributions.” An AACSB spokesperson said the process is confidential.

While most faculty in the business college either didn’t know about Christainsen’s work or didn’t object to it, there was an exception: Christian Roessler, a white economist from Berlin who would later share some of his discoveries with the Alliance.

Far from a liberal activist, Roessler directed a libertarian think tank on campus and wrote papers about game theory. But by 2018, he told The Chronicle, he had become worried about gender and racial bias in the economics department. That year, the only woman on the 10-member faculty, Jung You, had accused DeVaro of unfairly trying to harm her tenure prospects — a charge DeVaro denied.

Roessler, though, stood up for her during a university investigation of her Title IX bias complaint. University records show that an investigator substantiated some of Jung You’s allegations against DeVaro but did not confirm others and concluded that he did not violate Title IX.

Not long after, Roessler discovered Christainsen’s papers on race and intelligence, which struck him as “very strange”; Roessler had never known any economists who ranked racial groups by IQ.

Then, in late 2018, Roessler’s own tenure bid was rejected by a committee that Christainsen led. Roessler suspected he was being unfairly punished for supporting his colleague. (Roessler was later granted tenure, and DeVaro and Christainsen deny that any retaliation occurred.) Whatever the case, Roessler now believed that a pattern of bias was harming his department, he said — and he worried about the impact on students.

One day, Roessler was emailing with a former student of his, Marisol Schowengerdt. She had earned her diploma in 2015 and went on to work at a technology startup. But she had not forgotten her experience in public sector economics with Christainsen. Catching up with Roessler, she told him about the lectures on white and Chinese superiority.

“Dr. Roessler said, ‘Oh wow, I knew he wrote about it, but I didn’t think he would do that in class,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’”

Schowengerdt told Roessler she had complained to the university in 2014, writing a scathing review in the post-course feedback form that the school asks all students to fill out. She said she had heard nothing back.

At Schowengerdt’s suggestion, Roessler also reached out to Alex Bly, who had graduated in 2015 and worked as a financial analyst at Stanford. Bly told Roessler about how she had complained in the anonymous email to DeVaro midway through the course — but the university hadn’t seemed to take any action, and Christainsen had continued lecturing on race and IQ.

Asked last fall about these specific complaints, DeVaro did not confirm or deny that he received them, saying only that student complaints about Christainsen were “addressed in accordance with university policy.” DeVaro didn’t elaborate or answer questions about Christainsen’s work, but added, “I personally condemn racism in all of its forms.”

Later, when a member of the public wrote to DeVaro and asked how he could justify Christainsen’s work and teaching, DeVaro stood up for the economist. In an email, he offered a classic academic-freedom defense: “Research is about pursuing the truth, as dispassionately as one can.” DeVaro said that, instead of labeling “the researcher ‘biased’ or ‘bigoted’,” it was better to “remain open to continued substantive discussions of their research findings.”

Cal State East Bay staff and faculty members stand for a portrait in Hayward on Feb. 13, 2021. Some of them have urged the university to strip Prof. Gregory Christainsen of his professor emeritus title because of his racist teachings. From left to right: Prof. Eve Higby, staff member Lisa Booker, Assoc. Prof. Stephanie Seitz, Prof. Christina Chin-Newman, Prof. Nina Haft, Ast. Prof. Nazzy Pakpour, Ast. Prof. Natalie Ingraham, Ast. Prof. Pascale Guiton, Prof. Michael Lee and Prof. Amara Miller. Noah Berger / Special to The Chronicle

Next steps

As members of the Alliance dug into Christainsen’s research in mid-2020, they debated their next step. By that point, the group had assembled an Excel spreadsheet with a detailed timeline of his papers, courses, committee roles and other perks. The pattern was unmistakable: As his work grew more extreme, the infrastructure of East Bay continued to reward him.

Christina Chin-Newman, a psychologist in East Bay’s department of human development and women’s studies, said that Christainsen struck several members as “a symptom of the disease in the culture of the university”: If a race scientist wasn’t an outcome of systemic racism, what was?

In August, before taking their criticisms public, Alliance members met informally with leaders in their own science and humanities departments, trying to find an internal channel for airing concerns. Universities have quiet ways to sideline professors; courses can be reassigned, research budgets shrunk. But officials weren’t eager to touch the issue: Christainsen was in another department, and besides, he was tenured.

The Alliance realized they would have to make noise. They just weren’t sure how.

Although faculty criticize each other’s work in public all the time, it’s rare for one to say that a colleague’s ideas are so bad that he should be punished or censored. Academic freedom protects conservatives in liberal spaces and the inverse, too; the system is just as likely to shield a left-wing prison abolitionist from Fox News attacks as it is to defend a right-wing historian from Twitter mobs.

So when East Bay ethnic studies Professor Nicholas Baham III, a Black anthropologist in Oakland, first read Christainsen’s papers last fall, he hesitated to call for anything nearing censorship.

“I definitely don’t want to be the person telling somebody else, ‘You can’t publish this,’ because then I’d get somebody telling me that,” Baham said.

But as he and others reread the papers, they started to wonder if they had a scholarly duty to step in. And as they learned more about the history and limits of academic freedom and free speech on campus — a few members happened to have law degrees — they warmed to the prospect of some kind of limited intervention.

“Academics have a tendency to say, ‘Academic freedom is my right to say whatever the f— I want.’ And it just isn’t.”
        — Henry Reichman

The case for academic freedom was first laid out more than a century ago, when U.S. faculty rebelled against political interference by wealthy donors and lobbied for speech protections through a new organization, the American Association of University Professors. The First Amendment didn’t do the job, the teachers argued; private universities aren’t bound by it, and it only covers those at public schools when they speak “extramurally,” as citizens, not as researchers or teachers.

So, in 1915, the AAUP published a manifesto, likening a university to “an intellectual experiment station” where faculty must be free to teach, publish and speak their minds. The group stressed that these rights come with duties: “Only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer” can claim academic freedom, with violations to be “enforced by the public opinion of the profession” or in occasional cases “by definite disciplinary action.”

This is what makes academic freedom distinct from the First Amendment concept of free speech: Expertise matters. “Academics have a tendency to say, ‘Academic freedom is my right to say whatever the f— I want.’ And it just isn’t,” said Henry Reichman, a historian at East Bay who happens to be a national authority on the issue, chairing the AAUP’s academic-freedom committee and writing two books on the subject.

Universities have a role in upholding standards for research and teaching, he said, and in egregious cases of misconduct, a school can convene experts to investigate a professor. It doesn’t happen often; requiring “everybody’s research to be approved by some body of people” would go too far and produce a chilling effect, Reichman said.

Still, the system was never intended to grease the skids for misinformation. And the lines are brighter in the classroom. The AAUP has stressed for decades that instructors must teach relevant material — if a calculus professor ignores the blackboard and spends hours discussing Norse poetry instead, there can be consequences — and they shouldn’t teach widely contested ideas without acknowledging the controversy.

In a November blog post, Reichman wrote that if Christainsen were teaching debunked theories of biology in courses about economics, that would be “even more problematic” — and possibly unprotected.

After chewing over Christainsen’s work in their weekly Zooms, many in the Alliance felt he had crossed the line. His speech wasn’t shielded by academic freedom if it was fundamentally un-academic. “It’s not even fringe,” Pakpour said. “It’s just disproven. It’s the equivalent of flat-Earth theory.” And his speech also raised wider questions about his power — and those who had empowered him.

After all, it seemed like one thing for a university to tolerate a race scientist and quite another to put him on a promotion committee. The economist had said in print that Black people were biologically less capable, yet East Bay had given him control over the grades and careers of Black students and instructors. Could he be fair to them?

The fall semester kicked off in August. The group had not met with East Bay’s president, Leroy Morishita, but in a convocation speech, he seemed to support their broad goals. Telling students and staff that he hoped to build “an anti-racist community together,” Morishita urged everyone to “look inwards” and examine “practices where white supremacy is embedded.”

The Alliance still hadn’t decided on a strategy for going public, so six professors decided that month to “teach the controversy,” leading class discussions about flaws in Christainsen’s articles. They used their own academic freedom to point out how the economist was exploiting his. The dispute, for the moment, had reached a stalemate.

And it might have stayed that way, if not for the Q&A.

A collage composed of a photo of Christainsen, a quote from an interview published by the website American Renaissance and an illustration of a brain. Alex K. Fong / The Chronicle; brain: Getty Images; Christainsen: courtesy of Colby College

The interview

American Renaissance is a website that promotes “white racial awareness.”

Published by an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group, it has a category of posts about “The Great Replacement,” a racist conspiracy theory holding that shadowy forces (often said to be Jews) are secretly plotting to replace whites with people of color. The theory has motivated terrorist killings of Jews, Muslims and Black people. And on Sept. 25, in a post titled “Race Realism and American Economics,” Christainsen was interviewed at length.

The interview was conducted in Q&A format by a Paris man, Grégoire Canlorbe, who has described himself as “a French intellectual entrepreneur.” He introduced Christainsen as “a professor of economics at the California State University, East Bay.”

In the Q&A, Christainsen explained his beliefs in plain language, entertaining eugenic thought experiments while using the word “eugenics” or “eugenic” 11 times.

The interviewer asked him, “Do economic crises have a eugenic utility, in the sense of reinforcing harsh living standards for the poor, low IQ members of society?” Christainsen replied, “Well, it is a testable hypothesis,” adding, “I do believe that people should face issues of eugenics and dysgenics” — a term used by eugenicists to discuss deterioration of the gene pool — “more forthrightly than has recently been the case.”

Describing his admiration for a Singaporean statesman who believed in eugenics, Christainsen said the man “likened human races to dog breeds: On average, some — perhaps collies and French poodles — are more intelligent than others.”

Christainsen also said that employers who discriminate against workers based on their race are making rational decisions. Arguing that African American women have been overpaid “relative to their cognitive ability,” he defended the practice of “statistical discrimination.” For example, he said, an employer looking for a candidate skilled in math “may prefer to hire an ethnic Chinese” instead of an African American without knowing further details.

The interview was discovered by a Chronicle reporter during a Google search for Christainsen’s name. When the newspaper asked him about it, in mid-October, the Q&A had been online for three weeks.

Initially, Christainsen defended his decision to give the interview. He said he didn’t expect it to appear on American Renaissance (Canlorbe and the site editors did not respond to requests for comment). Still, Christainsen said, the Q&A was an honest reflection of his views. “I would have said the same things in an interview with The Nation, Mother Jones, or The Huffington Post,” he emailed The Chronicle on Oct. 19. “I certainly am not a ‘white nationalist,’” he wrote, calling himself “a classical liberal in the spirit of John Locke.”

The next day, after The Chronicle sent follow-up questions about hate content on American Renaissance, Christainsen appeared to change his mind.

“In light of your remarks,” he emailed, “I am indeed requesting that my interview be removed from its website.” Soon after that, the page was scrubbed and the link was redirected to a post that praises a 2002 book co-authored by Richard Lynn.

But before the Q&A with Christainsen disappeared, The Chronicle asked East Bay officials about it, as well as Alliance members. Some quickly preserved copies of the text.

Pakpour said the interview “really activated everyone,” including a growing number of students. This wasn’t just about journal articles anymore. His ideas were spreading on a hate site in the thick of a U.S. election, with President Donald Trump stoking anti-immigrant fervor at rallies. And Christainsen seemed to be using his East Bay title — and the school’s name — to promote his views.

For some on campus, his appearance on the white nationalist forum was frightening. A handful of students sent confidential messages to student-government leaders, saying the professor was still lecturing about race and IQ in his 2020 courses. “I am really curious to see what we can do to hold him accountable,” said Euridice Pamela Sanchez, the Mexico-born student body president and a recipient of DACA, the Obama-era immigration reform that protected people who entered the U.S. as children.

In the era of social distancing, rebellions begin on Zoom, if the app cooperates, and this is how it went on the morning of Oct. 29, as the Cal State Board of Trustees launched the video stream of its scheduled meeting.

The event opened with an announcement: President Morishita was retiring, and the Trustees had chosen his successor: Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, who would take the helm in January.

In many ways, Sandeen embodies the American dream ethos of the university; a first-generation college graduate who grew up near the Hayward campus, in San Leandro, she recently told East Bay Today that the school’s “economic mobility and emphasis on social justice … goes to the heart of why I’m in public education.”

After this announcement, the “public comment” session began. That’s when Christainsen’s name burst into the spotlight for the first time. One by one, four East Bay professors — including Chin-Newman, Roessler and Guiton — asked the incoming president to dismantle anti-Black racism and singled out Christainsen as a problem, calling his work biased and damaging. “It is appalling and scary to know that he and others like him get to teach and evaluate Black students and Black faculty,” Guiton said.

“Our intelligence and right to exist on this campus is being targeted.”
        — Mirna Maamou

Three students followed the faculty, saying they wanted East Bay to strip Christainsen’s emeritus title. And in the days after the Zoom meeting, more would raise their voices: Thousands of students and East Bay alumni would sign a pair of online petitions asking for the professor’s removal.

Christainsen said he didn’t watch the trustees meeting. But a few hours later, having heard about it, he emailed Guiton and suggested she didn’t understand his methods.

“I do indeed teach course material that includes average IQ scores for various population groups,” he wrote to the biologist from the Ivory Coast — a part of Africa where, according to one of his papers, average intelligence is “quite low.” He invited her to discuss the topic “at greater length if you have some specific questions.”

Five days later, action shifted to the academic senate, where faculty members introduced an eight-page resolution to “censure” Christainsen.

Quoting from his papers and the website Q&A, the resolution questioned the professor’s competence, saying his “universally discredited” theories inflicted harm on faculty and students and thwarted East Bay’s mission, rendering his speech “unprotected.” The text also requested that Christainsen stop publishing or speaking about race realism “in his official capacity” with the school; as a private citizen, he was free to say what he wanted.

The senate has no power to discipline anyone, so the text amounted to a kind of public shunning. But it also applied pressure to the administration officials, raising questions about their own responsibilities: Why didn’t the department chair do something about Christainsen’s writing and teaching? Why didn’t the dean of the college? Were the race-realism papers rewarded with perks? Should the economist have been given emeritus status? What was to stop any professor in the future from erroneously teaching students that they are stuck at the bottom of a natural racial hierarchy?

A debate emerged over the next two weeks. Although none of Christainsen’s colleagues defended his ideas on the merits, several argued that his critics were going too far, risking the academic freedom they all enjoyed.

A professor of management called it a “witch hunt” in an email to a dean; Ahiakpor, the economist, told the senate that if a professor writes a wrong paper, the proper academic response is to “publish a contradiction.” Alliance members shot back that if it were so simple to defeat race science, it would have died a century ago.

“You can’t publish something against this,” Baham said, “because now you’re asking me to use scientific reasoning, logic and deduction — fact — to counter something that is just, frankly, deeply emotionally rooted racist belief.”

A biology major and student of color, Mirna Maamou, read a statement to the senate, saying she and others felt humiliated, their diverse faces plastered “all over campus” to serve the brand of a school that welcomed a professor who taught racist pseudoscience.

“Our intelligence and right to exist on this campus is being targeted,” Maamou said. “The fact that you are choosing to act now is a start, but it does not begin to address the harm that has been done to students, this community, to the value of our degrees.”

The Acosta Gallery inside the Valley Business and Technology Center at CSU East Bay, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in Hayward, Calif. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

An opportunity ‘passed’

Ultimately, administrators didn’t see the harm. That’s what they said, at least.

The censure resolution passed in a vote of 32 to 1, with one abstention. Senators agreed that school officials needed to ask some hard questions and survey the damage. It was their turn to “look inwards,” as the president had said on convocation day.

But now, challenged to live up to their broad “anti-racist” promises, East Bay leaders defined their role narrowly. In meetings and emails throughout November and December, they patiently listened to students and faculty, sympathized with their disgust, and said they could do nothing.

In a mass email to students, faculty and staff, Morishita said the economist’s ideas “are antithetical to the core values” of the school, then asserted that East Bay can only punish a professor if he violates the law or Cal State’s antidiscrimination policies — and no such complaints had been filed. (A few hours after the president sent the campus-wide message, Christainsen emailed him directly, thanking Morishita for backing free speech while raising the specter of a lawsuit: “I would prefer that you not libel me without ever having talked to me,” Christainsen wrote.)

Morishita also wrote a letter to a concerned donor who wanted East Bay to revoke Christainsen’s emeritus title. The president said he was unable to do so, citing “external and internal constraints, legal and contractual.”

Sandeen, the new president, said in a November interview with East Bay’s student newspaper that she would review the controversy and the university’s actions; she has not weighed in publicly since. An East Bay spokesperson declined to make the president available for an interview, and she did not respond to emails seeking comment.

“I have spoken and written about one of the most controversial issues of our time. It is absolutely remarkable how little negative feedback I have received.”
        — Gregory Christainsen

In the end, the administration said little. An East Bay spokesperson provided only a brief statement to this newspaper in mid-March, saying the school “has conducted a review of the circumstances related to Professor Christainsen’s publications and has not found that he violated any of the University’s anti-discrimination policies based on the content of his publications or lectures.” The spokesperson did not respond to detailed questions about Christainsen’s work or the university’s long embrace of it.

“Here was an opportunity to make meaningful, lasting change,” Pakpour said. “And it passed by, I feel.”

DeVaro remains on faculty as a professor in the management department, though he is not the chair of economics anymore. Earlier this year, a business college official informed him that he is no longer a “regular member” of that department. In an email to The Chronicle, DeVaro described these changes as “repercussions I have faced for speaking on the issue of academic freedom” at East Bay.

A free-speech organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has taken up DeVaro’s cause, writing in a May 14 letter to President Sandeen that his removal “violates CSU East Bay’s obligations under the First Amendment.” An East Bay spokesperson declined to comment on DeVaro’s change in status or FIRE’s allegations.

As for Christainsen, he is off campus completely. Before the controversy blew up, he said, his part-time role was scheduled to end in December. He is not teaching this year. But he has held onto his emeritus status. At 67, he is still an East Bay professor.

Corresponding with The Chronicle, he repeatedly expressed surprise about the anger over his work, taking particular offense to the idea that he had harmed students. He said only one student had ever approached him to complain about a discussion of race and IQ, eight years ago.

The student “said that he wished I had given more credence to the view that the black-white IQ difference is completely environmental,” Christainsen recalled. “He was a good student and well-intentioned, and he certainly was within his rights to send me the e-mail.”

Over his career, Christainsen said, he has taught more than 10,000 students, including “thousands” who are Black and Hispanic.

“I have spoken and written about one of the most controversial issues of our time,” he said. “It is absolutely remarkable how little negative feedback I have received.”

Marisol Schowengerdt said she wasn’t harmed by her experience in Christainsen’s course. “I was 40 years old,” she said, “and had nothing to lose, career-wise.”

But she has no way to know about her classmates. How many left economics after taking his class? How many companies that might have been started were never born? How do you quantify the harm of persistent racist messaging to a vulnerable population?

When she looks back, it’s the young students who stick in her mind. Many were working jobs to pay tuition, and some “could barely afford their books,” she said. “They’re already making a real effort to be in the classroom.” And here was a professor saying they may never get any further, no matter how hard they tried, because of their race.

In those moments, as Schowengerdt looked around the room, she saw their heads sagging. “They wouldn’t argue with him,” she said. Too much to lose.

So, she said, they absorbed the lesson in silence.

The office of Gregory Christainsen inside the Valley Business and Technology Center at CSU East Bay, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in Hayward, Calif. Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

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