The New York Times Won’t Fix its Error in Wash. U. Article

The old New York Times building, 1924.
The old New York Times building.

I’ve been emailing back and forth with The New York Times about the paper’s article on low-income students at Washington University in St. Louis, written by David Leonhardt. I mentioned the article in the open letter of resignation that I sent to Wash. U.’s chancellor last week.

In the letter, I noted problems with Leonhardt’s article, most fundamentally a numerical error. Leonhardt wrote that Washington University “will commit to more than doubling the share of undergraduates with Pell grants, to at least 13 percent, by 2020.” (Wash. U.’s current ratio of undergraduates with Pell Grants, according to the latest federal statistics, is approximately 6%.) But Wash. U.’s press release on the subject stated that “[Chancellor Mark] Wrighton has set a goal of increasing that figure incrementally every year to 13 percent for the 2020-21 freshman class.”

I don’t know how Leonhardt got mixed up, but the error is misleading. He wrote that 13% of Wash. U. undergraduates would be Pell Grant recipients by 2020, but Wash. U.’s goal is that 13% of the freshman class will be Pell recipients that academic year. The overall percentage of undergraduates with Pell Grants that year could be notably lower.

If you really wanted to quibble, you could argue that the “goal” isn’t a “commitment.” I considered that point when writing my letter. But other statements by Wash. U. administrators essentially collapsed the distinction between a goal and a commitment without using the latter word. Also, I have very little doubt that 13% of the students in Wash. U.’s 2020-21 freshman class will be Pell recipients, mainly because it is not nearly as difficult to reach that number as Wash. U. administrators pretend.

Anyway, officials at Wash. U. must have noticed the error in Leonhardt’s article, but it doesn’t appear that they informed him of it. The mistake is certainly advantageous to Wash. U. In the short term, most everyone will think that Wash. U. is on a path to get to 13% Pell recipients in the entire student body by 2020. If that is not the case when 2020 rolls around, and some big-time media outlet calls Wash. U. on it (as if), the school’s administrators will be able to point out, rightly, that they never said the 13% figure applied to the entire undergraduate population. It’s a win-win for Washington University administrators.

The error in Leonhardt’s article is by no means the worst of the false statements of fact that have appeared in The New York Times. (Is it, Judith Miller?) But it is false and it needs to be fixed. So fix it, New York Times.

I wrote to David Leonhardt and the office of the Times’s public editor, politely asking them to do just that. I didn’t hear back from Leonhardt. But, via the public editor’s office, I ultimately reached Louis Lucero II, a staff member in the office of the Times‘s editor for standards. After reviewing Leonhardt’s article and my resignation letter, he wrote:

Dear Chris,

Thanks for your email, but I’m afraid I don’t see the discrepancy. This Washington University in St. Louis press release describes a goal of “increasing [the percentage of Pell-eligible students] incrementally every year to 13 percent for the 2020-21 freshman class.” Our article says that the university “will commit to more than doubling the share of undergraduates with Pell grants, to at least 13 percent, by 2020.” Although the press release characterizes the proposed increase as “incremental,” the reference in our article makes no mention of the rate, focusing instead on the end result — i.e., at least 13 percent of the freshman class being Pell eligible by 2020. Unless I’m misunderstanding, it seems there’s nothing to correct: Our language is simply a more conservative reflection of the university’s own claims.

Please let me know if I’ve missed something.

Thanks, Louis Lucero II

Assistant to the Senior Editor for Standards

The New York Times

I replied:

Hi, Louis.

Thanks for getting back to me. Here’s the problem. David Leonhardt writes that Washington University “will commit to more than doubling the share of undergraduates with Pell grants, to at least 13 percent, by 2020.” He refers only to “undergraduates,” not freshmen. But Washington University has only committed to reaching a 13% ratio of Pell Grant recipients in its 2020-21 freshman class. The university has not promised that 13% of its undergraduates in general will be Pell recipients that year.

Based on the latest federal statistics, approximately 6% of Wash. U. undergrads are Pell recipients. The university administration promises incremental increases in each freshman class prior to 2020 in order to get to 13% Pell recipients in the 2020-21 incoming class.

Under Wash. U.’s commitment, the ratio of Pell Grant recipients in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes in the 2020-21 school year can, and probably will, be below 13%. If that is the case, the university’s percentage of undergraduates with Pell Grants will be lower than 13%–but the university will still have met its goal.

I believe that most people who read Mr. Leonhardt’s article thought that Wash. U. administrators had promised that the percentage of Pell Grant recipients in the entire undergraduate population would be 13% by 2020. I certainly did when I read the article. But the truth is that Wash. U. may not get to that point for several years after 2020, if then.


Chris Pepus

I sent that last message yesterday, March 31,  and haven’t heard back. Maybe Times staff are busy and will get around to fixing the error. If not, I’m not sure what to make of this exchange. I can’t tell if the NYT is trying to re-invent mathematics, logic, or the English language. The latter two, I think.

Let me know what you think via email at or on Twitter @ChrisPepus.