Prominent Scholar Was Banned From Rutgers Campus

In fracas over charges of fraud, the accuser was penalized for threatening behavior

Francisco Guasco, EFE, Newscom

A dispute involving Robert Trivers, a well-known evolutionary theorist at Rutgers U. at New Brunswick, escalated from claims of fraud to accusations of threatening behavior.
May 03, 2013

A long-simmering feud between the prominent evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers and a colleague at Rutgers University took a strange turn last month, when Mr. Trivers revealed that he had been banned from the New Brunswick campus for five months last year for violent and threatening behavior.

He says the accusations were trumped up, prompted by his efforts to bring an alleged academic fraud to light. Mr. Trivers says he was allowed back on the campus last fall, provided that he stay at least 20 feet from the office of a colleague he'd argued with.

In "Fraud at Rutgers," an angry post on his Web site last month, he explicitly contrasted his treatment with that of the men's basketball coach, Mike Rice, who—at first—received a mere three-game suspension when the university became aware of his beaning players with basketballs and shouting slurs at them. (Mr. Rice was subsequently fired, in April.)

"Rutgers turns a blind eye to real violence by its basketball coach but uses its antiviolence policy to harass a professor with no violent tendencies but who is acting as a whistle-blower," Mr. Trivers wrote.

Lee Cronk, the anthropology professor from whose office Mr. Trivers has been banned, says that when Mr. Trivers confronted him in March 2012, he felt genuinely disturbed. The university declined to comment on the subsequent investigation, which—according to documents provided by Mr. Trivers in which he responded to the charges—found a pattern of violent or threatening behavior by Mr. Trivers.

The professor's reference to whistle-blowing opens the door to a complex saga of academic infighting, one that involves both substantive and personal issues. Since 2008, Mr. Trivers has contended that one of his six co-authors on a 2005 paper, "Dance Reveals Symmetry Especially in Young Men," published in Nature, had doctored the data, leading to a bogus result.

That researcher, William M. Brown, a statistical specialist and onetime Rutgers postdoc who left the university in 2005, now teaches at the University of Bedfordshire, in England. Mr. Cronk was another co-author, and he and Mr. Trivers had disagreed about how the case should be pursued, with Mr. Trivers pushing for a retraction and a declaration of fraud, and Mr. Cronk apparently defending Mr. Brown and the paper. Mr. Cronk says that only on Mr. Trivers's side did what might have remained an intellectual exchange turn into a bitter feud.

Out of frustration that Nature would not retract the paper, Mr. Trivers in 2009 self-published, with two new co-authors, a short book, Anatomy of a Fraud, making the case against Mr. Brown's work. The book, however, was little noticed, and the original paper continues to be cited.

In April 2012, more than two years after the university started an investigation of the matter, a Rutgers committee largely upheld Mr. Trivers's view of the paper: "Substantial (clear and convincing) evidence exists that research fraud has occurred in several areas," it concluded, rejecting defenses mounted by Mr. Cronk and Mr. Brown.

"The university sinned in resisting revealing the fraud for as long as possible," says Mr. Trivers.

Nature has not responded. A spokeswoman for the journal says it does not comment on debates over potential or pending retractions. Rutgers reported its findings to the National Science Foundation, which had paid for the study. Both Mr. Brown and Mr. Cronk said they would not comment on the methodological debate until an NSF review was completed.

Office Flare-Up

The dispute over the Nature paper erupted at Rutgers last March in an encounter in Mr. Cronk's office, after Mr. Trivers read a draft of the committee's report. According to documents provided by Mr. Trivers, university officials established the following: "When [Mr. Cronk] asked [Mr. Trivers] to send an e-mail and leave his office, Professor Trivers refused to leave and started yelling at his colleague, at one point referring to him as a 'punk.'" Mr. Trivers "continued to yell" even as Mr. Cronk threatened to call the campus police.

Mr. Trivers says he sought out his colleague because Mr. Cronk, as acting chair of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies, had not replied to two e-mails. He also says Mr. Cronk picked up the phone to dial the police even before he'd asked Mr. Trivers to leave.

The "you punk" comment, Mr. Trivers contended, was a last-second jibe on his way out the door—it was how he capped off a pointed comment to the effect that the university had sided with him on the fraud question. Given that four graduate students were in the room at the time, Mr. Trivers wrote last fall in a response to the university, "in no way was Cronk isolated or under any threat."

"In retrospect," Mr. Trivers says in an interview, "I would have preferred to have left off the 'you punk,' but he richly deserved it."

In an interview, Mr. Cronk disputed Mr. Trivers's account, saying he mentioned calling the police only as a last resort, when Mr. Trivers, with whom he hadn't spoken in three years, refused to leave the room while shouting abuse at him.

As a condition of taking over the leadership of the evolutionary-studies center, Mr. Cronk says, he was exempted from decisions involving Mr. Trivers. Still, he says, there was only one e-mail from Mr. Trivers that he did not reply to, a routine one that didn't demand a reply—a year before the encounter. And there were two graduate students in the room, not four, both of whom backed his version when interviewed by the university, he says.

A Rutgers spokesman says the university does not comment on personnel matters.

A Force to Reckon With

Mr. Trivers is widely recognized as a difficult genius. After a mental breakdown derailed him from law school—he has acknowledged a bipolar disorder—he entered graduate school at Harvard University in biology, and within a year began to write widely influential papers on how natural selection, at the genetic level, fuels competition between parents and offspring, and on the dynamics of so-called reciprocal altruism.

In a 2004 symposium on Mr. Trivers's work, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said that "the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, Darwinian social science, and behavioral ecology are in large part attempts to test and flesh out Trivers's ideas."

Mr. Trivers failed to earn early tenure at Harvard, however, and his productivity since then has been mixed. Since arriving at Rutgers, in 1994, he has had two breakdowns, he said, the more recent in 2000.

Mr. Trivers and his friends, however, say his condition is well managed now. He has published not only the fraud book but also The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Basic, 2011).

"He's been so stable for the last two years that it just reeked of ulterior motives," says Amy Jacobson, a research associate in anthropology at Rutgers, speaking of his recent punishment. She was also a co-author on the 2005 paper, although she mostly managed the lab, she says. She adds that Mr. Trivers was not violent even during his breakdowns.

He can be abrupt and gruff at the best of times, she says—"Anyone who tells you he's a pleasure and a dream to deal with doesn't know him"—but "that's the price of genius." In interviews he quickly switches from calm to irritated and back, and he swears epically.

Mr. Trivers made the news in 2007, when his hosts at Harvard canceled a talk upon learning that he'd sent a harsh letter to Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It read, in part: "If there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly, look forward to a visit from me." Mr. Trivers told The Boston Globe that he had in mind a nonviolent confrontation.

Mr. Cronk says Mr. Trivers's past behavior contributed to his feeling of being threatened in his office.

The paper on dance and symmetry grew out of a long-term research project concerning symmetry and evolution based in Jamaica and directed by Mr. Trivers. The researchers used motion-capture technology to isolate the movements of dancers whose bodily symmetry had been measured in a number of ways.

Among other findings, more-symmetrical people were rated by observers as better dancers, and the association was stronger in men than women. Evolutionary biologists have theorized that symmetry is a signifier of physical robustness, and that people have long subconsciously used it to evaluate potential mates.

Soon, though, other researchers examining the 2005 paper starting asking skeptical questions. Mr. Trivers dug into the data with the help of others, including Brian G. Palestis, an associate professor of biological sciences at Wagner College. They found suspicious patterns.

One example: Before the dancers were rated by Jamaican participants, they were rated by one or two Rutgers undergraduates—information to which Mr. Brown had access. In putting together the "high symmetry" and "low symmetry" groups, Mr. Brown, the data showed, excluded dancers who were symmetrical but rated at Rutgers as low-ability—and excluded unsymmetrical but good dancers. That helped to create the result that was ultimately "discovered," concluded the authors of Anatomy of a Fraud.

The Rutgers committee agreed. It also found evidence that the ratings of symmetry had been systematically altered.

Mr. Cronk contested some of the allegations, although he himself was never accused of misdeeds. Indeed, Mr. Trivers thinks the split among the authors is one reason that Nature has not acted.

Citing the NSF's pending review, Mr. Brown makes only a brief comment, by e-mail: "I disagree with Professor Trivers's accusations. I feel that a full investigation needs to be conducted where the original data is re-entered by an unbiased party for reanalysis."

The other co-authors on the symmetry paper worked only on the motion-capture technology. Zoran Popovic, a computer-science professor at the University of Washington, says they were "pretty miffed that all that work will mainly be remembered for the controversy that emerged from the botched analysis of collected data."

Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard and a friend of Mr. Trivers, says he was "totally persuaded" by Anatomy of a Fraud. "It's been incredibly frustrating to Trivers to not see this come into the full light of examination," he says.

Of the allegations of violence, he says: "My sense of what's going on at Rutgers is that there have been very strong defensive reactions on the part of people who have been implicated."

'Slightly Inappropriate'

The incident in Mr. Cronk's office was not the only one cited in the investigation of Mr. Trivers's behavior, according to a document he wrote last September to defend himself before the university administration. He was accused of having carried a knife into class. He says he was just cutting open boxes. Mr. Cronk says, "He makes it well known—because he boasts about it—that he carries a large knife." Mr. Trivers denies that allegation.

Mr. Trivers was also accused of "verbally disseminat[ing] stories that emphasize his willingness to engage in physical altercations." Mr. Trivers says he merely spoke of a few dangerous encounters in Jamaica. As a high-school student, he was a boxer at the Phillips Andover Academy, and today he practices a Filipino martial art known as arnis.

Rutgers also accused him of physically accosting a female visitor from Harvard late at night in a New Brunswick restaurant, while drunk, just hours after his encounter with Mr. Cronk. In his rebuttal, Mr. Trivers quotes the following official account: "[Mr. Trivers] grabbed the hand and shoulder of a female potential postdoctoral fellow and would not let go. When a faculty colleague, who was visibly pregnant, attempted to separate them, Professor Trivers pushed the pregnant colleague away by putting his hand on her stomach and pushing her away."

But both the visitor, Rachel Carmody, now a Harvard postdoc, and the then-pregnant colleague, the assistant professor Erin Vogel, confirm to The Chronicle that they told the university that they had not felt at all threatened.

"It might have been slightly inappropriate," Ms. Vogel says. "There have been several times when I saw him with my pregnant belly and he says, 'Hey, pregnant mama!' and touches my belly." On that night, she says, "he gently pushed me out of the way and said, 'Oh, get out of here.'"

A third participant in the restaurant scene, Robert Scott, an assistant professor, declined to comment.

Mr. Trivers does admit to being intoxicated that evening, but not violent. "Surely," he said, with typical irritation, "I am allowed to get drunk on my own time."

Corrections (5/13/2013, 1:52 p.m.): This article originally misstated three points about Mr. Trivers. He had read a draft of Rutgers’s report about the Nature article, not the final report, when he visited Mr. Cronk in March 2012. Mr. Trivers began writing influential papers within a year, not a few years, of entering graduate school. And he told The Boston Globe that his threat to visit Mr. Dershowitz was not entirely metaphorical; he did intend to visit but had in mind a nonviolent confrontation. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections.