New evidence raises more questions about controversial parenting study
When University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus released a study this summer portraying gay parents in a negative light, he insisted that the conservative funders who backed the research had no involvement in how it was designed, implemented, or interpreted.
But recently emerging evidence shows that a scholar affiliated at the time with the Witherspoon Institute — the socially conservative think tank that supplied the bulk of Regnerus’ funding — did indeed play a role carrying out and analyzing the study.
In his peer-reviewed article, Regnerus said his research revealed different — and often unfavorable — outcomes for children of gay parents when compared to children raised by a mother and father in biologically intact families. Opponents of gay marriage immediately seized Regnerus’ initial findings from the ongoing “New Family Structures Study,” published in the July issue of Social Science Research. The study has been cited in court briefs to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and by a federal judge in a decision upholding Hawaii’s ban on same-sex marriage. Opponents of marriage equality have also used it in state-level ballot-measure campaigns.
Right away, Regnerus’ findings sparked a backlash, as critics said his study was methodologically flawed. Many have argued that Regnerus’ actual comparisons — children raised in households with two biological parents compared to children raised in families where one parent had a same-sex relationship at some point, regardless of whether the child lived with that parent — did not correspond with his conclusions.
The research has also provoked questions, especially from gay-rights advocates, about whether the Witherspoon Institute – some of whose leaders have ties to the National Organization for Marriage and other groups that advocate against gay marriage – influenced the study’s design. Both Regnerus and Witherspoon have denied this charge.
It turns out that from 2010 to 2012, one of the study’s paid consultants was William Bradford Wilcox. For much of that time, Wilcox was also the director of Witherspoon’s “Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy,” the program from which Regnerus’ study was born.
Much of the new evidence regarding Wilcox’s involvement was unearthed by New Civil Rights Movement blogger Scott Rose.
Wilcox is a conservative scholar and associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where since 2009 he has directed the National Marriage Project, whose stated mission is “to provide research and analysis on the health of marriage in America, to analyze the social and cultural forces shaping contemporary marriage, and to identify strategies to increase marital quality and stability.” Among his many affiliations, Wilcox is on the Board of Advisory Editors of Social Science Research, which published Regnerus’ study.
Up until Oct. 2, the Witherspoon Institute’s website identified Wilcox as the director of the Witherspoon’s Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy (referred to in this case as the “Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy.”) That link is now defunct. The Witherspoon’s tax form from 2010 describes the launch of the “New Family Structures Study” as one of the year’s main achievements of the Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy.
Back in June, Rose filed a complaint with the University of Texas, accusing Regnerus of scientific misconduct concerning his study. As a matter of protocol, the university conducted an initial investigation and concluded in late August that “no formal investigation is warranted.” The university used that investigation as a reason for not disclosing to The American Independent any documents related to the Regnerus’ study. Now that the investigation is over, the university is trying to prevent disclosure by arguing that the information related to the study is proprietary.
In response to a public records request from Rose for communications between Regnerus and Wilcox concerning the study, the university’s counsel asked Texas’ attorney general to allow the university to withhold those documents. Rose provided TAI with a copy of the letter, which says that “Professors Regnerus and Wilcox collaborated on the data collection and analysis that formed the basis of Dr. Regnerus’s publication” on the New Family Structures Study.
The responsive documents include email exchanges between the University’s Professor Mark Regnerus and a colleague, W. Bradford Wilcox, from the University of Virginia (TAB 6). The communications pertain to scientific research conducted by Dr. Regnerus and published in his New Family Structures Study. Professors Regnerus and Wilcox collaborated on the data collection and analysis that formed the basis of Dr. Regnerus’s publication, thus, their communications reveal substantive analytical and scientific data that is protected from disclosure under Section 51.914, Texas Education Code. To release this information would facilitate third party appropriation of Dr. Regnerus’s intellectual property.
In an employment authorization form obtained by TAI from the University of Texas, Wilcox’s role in Regnerus’ project is described this way: “Dr. Brad Wilcox will provide consulting work for Dr. Mark Regnerus on his New Family Structure Study. He will be assisting with data analysis. This is sporadic work throughout the spring semester and summer.” Rose has also reported on this form.
The form, dated April 24, 2012, indicates that Wilcox was to be paid $2,000 for his services from April through August, 2012, and notes that Wilcox has “worked with Dr. Regnerus on data analysis and structure in the past.”
‘Provided input to Professor Mark Regnerus’
From the beginning, Regnerus and the Witherspoon Institute have said Witherspoon had nothing to do with how the study was designed or implemented — other than providing roughly $700,000 for Regnerus to carry out the work.
In his initial article on his findings, Regnerus wrote: “The NFSS was supported in part by grants from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. While both of these are commonly known for their support of conservative causes—just as other private foundations are known for supporting more liberal causes—the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript.”
And the Witherspoon Institute, on its website promoting the study, states: “In order to insure that the NFSS was conducted with intellectual integrity, beginning from the earliest stages the Witherspoon Institute was not involved in the Study’s design, implementation, or interpretation.”
Wilcox, Regnerus, and the Witherspoon Institute have all stood by previous statements that the Witherspoon was never involved in how Regnerus’ study was designed or implemented.
Witherspoon President Luis Tellez told TAI in an email exchange this week that Wilcox was a fellow for Witherspoon from 2004 until the summer or fall of 2011 but that Wilcox was never a staff member at Witherspoon. Tellez confirmed that Wilcox served as the director of the Witherspoon’s Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy, while the New Family Structure Study was being developed, but he said Wilcox exited that position “when the NFSS was entering the period of implementation i.e. the survey was about to be fielded.”
“In his capacity of director of the program in Family, Marriage and Democracy Prof. Wilcox offered advice and assistance in various family related events or projects that the Witherspoon Institute decided to undertake,” Tellez said. “Never did Prof. Wilcox represent in any way the Witherspoon Institute when dealing with other scholars or the public. Prof. Wilcox, like any other fellow of the Institute, never was involved in the decision making of the Witherspoon Institute. More specifically, he was never involved in any decision making at the Witherspoon Institute in matters related to the New Family Structure Study.”
According to Tellez, Wilcox did not advise the Witherspoon Institute on matters relating to “the scope of the study, how it is to be conducted and how to interpret the results.”
But Wilcox was involved in the process that led to the study’s creation, Tellez said.
“His role was to help assemble an initial group of scholars, Mark Regnerus included, out of which came the idea of the NFSS,” Tellez said.
Tellez said Wilcox did not use his role at Witherspoon to pressure Regnerus to conduct his study in any specific way.
“Wilcox participation in the NFSS was of course known to Witherspoon, at no point however he used his role in the NFSS or his connection to WI to convey any sentiments or wishes as to how the NFSS was being conducted or convey desired outcomes, etc.,” Tellez said. “The only sentiments that were conveyed, and this were conveyed primarily to Mark, was to be sure the study was conducted in the most professional manner, that scholars from the ideological spectrum be included, to respect the findings whatever they were, etc. I said primarily conveyed to Regnerus, but because I knew Wilcox longer and had confidence in his professional integrity, I would inquire with him occasionally as to whether this standards were being applied. Just to be sure all was well.”
After TAI questioned Wilcox about his roles at the Witherspoon Institute and as a paid consultant on the study, Wilcox published a blog post on FamilyScholars.org Tuesday night, which he said was in response to questions asked by fellow FamilyScholars blogger Barry Deutsch. In the post, Wilcox downplayed his title as Witherspoon’s director of the Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy as “honorific.” He said that from October 2010 to April 2012, he “provided input to Professor Mark Regnerus about the design, analysis, and interpretation of the survey data associated with the NFSS,” but he emphasized that he did not make “funding or programmatic decisions at” Witherspoon. He also noted that he was among “a dozen paid academic consultants” who worked with Regnerus on the project.
“I viewed my consultation for the NFSS as collegial, that is, as providing academic advice that Regnerus was free to take or ignore (and he took some advice, and went his own way on other matters). I was not acting in an official Witherspoon capacity in relationship to him,” Wilcox wrote.
Regnerus also told TAI in a phone interview that he never viewed Wilcox as a “Witherspoon agent.”
“He never acted as a Witherspoon mouthpiece,” Regnerus said. “As a consultant he did not represent Witherspoon.”
Responding to Wilcox’s post, Deutsch wrote Wednesday that Wilcox’s dual role at the Witherspoon and as a paid consultant on the study should have been disclosed, and that the omission was deceptive.
“There is nothing unethical about Brad working with both NFSS and Witherspoon, in my opinion,” he wrote. “Brad is a known scholar with interests similar to those of Witherspoon and Professor Regnerus; it is natural that both the staff at Witherspoon and Professor Regnerus should seek his advice.”
But, he added: “In my opinion, Professor Regnerus’ carefully-crafted statement about his funding sources’ non-participation was deceptive. It omitted a relationship that was obviously relevant and should have been mentioned, and Regnerus’ choice to omit that, and the use of wording which gave the impression that there was unequivocally no relationship to report, calls his credibility into question.”
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