GU picks census director as next provost

April 10, 2012

Robert M. Groves , who steered the 2010 Census to a successful count amid formidable management and political concerns, announced Tuesday that he will leave the Census Bureau to become provost of Georgetown University.

His resignation, just three years after he left academia to oversee a census that many predicted was headed for failure, becomes effective in August.

“I’m an academic at heart,” Groves said in a telephone interview. “This was the kind of position that’s kind of hard to pass up.”

When Groves arrived at the Census Bureau in 2009, on the brink of a count expected to cost a record-setting $15 billion, the agency was beset by an array of pressures and problems.

Tests of new hand-held computers had been disastrous, and in the Internet age the agency decided to continue using paper census forms. Congress and advocacy groups were urging a more accurate tally of undercounted minorities, even as the number of Americans willing to answer surveys of any kind was tumbling. There were privacy concerns from tea party activists, an immigration wave that presented language challenges and a recession that uprooted millions of people.

And with redistricting and the allocation of federal funds depending on an accurate count, some Republicans expressed concern that Groves planned to adjust the results to make up for the undercount of urban minorities who tend to vote Democratic.

But those anxieties turned out to be unfounded. The 2010 Census was praised for being on time, accurate and $1.9 billion under budget.

On Tuesday, praise for Groves came from all corners.

Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the census had been plagued by “botched planning and a political crisis” before Groves took the reins.

“His tenure is proof that appointing good people makes a big difference, and I urge the president to look for another servant of Robert’s caliber when naming his replacement,” Issa said in a statement.

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who as then-ranking member of the subcommittee on information policy, census and National Archives cautioned that President Obama’s choice of Groves ensured “the political manipulation of census data for partisan gain,” on Tuesday said that Groves leaves a “successful legacy.”

“I learned a great deal from him,” he said in a statement. “He was reasonable, accountable and always open to oversight from Congress.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the census subcommittee in the House and now an independent consultant to the Census Project, a coalition of people interested in the census, called Groves an outstanding director.

“He has been straightforward and transparent, and I think he earned the respect of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “He also has taken bold steps to help the agency face difficult challenges in a time of severe fiscal constraints, rapidly evolving communications avenues and increasing public skepticism about the role of government and the privacy of their personal information.”

Groves said Tuesday that the Census Bureau will have to change how it monitors economic and social trends in the country to meet a growing demand for statistics in a time of limited funding.

In his director’s blog, he paid tribute to the agency’s 10,000 employees, who he noted are often falsely caricatured as being unmotivated and unproductive.

“This is hard work,” he wrote. “It takes complete commitment to ongoing innovation. It’s not flashy. Indeed, public service is rarely sexy. It is, however, noble. I’ve learned that in a deep way since July 2009 from the behavior of my colleagues at the Census Bureau.

Reporters Jenna Johnson and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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