Neurotopia

Yesterday the Discovery Institute held a press conference at the capitol building in Des Moines, to announce Guillermo Gonzalez’s plans to sue Iowa State University over their decision to deny him tenure. Supposedly the lawsuit will be filed pending the rejection of an appeal to the Board of Regents, which is virtually guaranteed simply for the fact that the Regents typically uphold tenure decisions. Joining Casey Luskin, Rob Crowther, Gonzalez’s attorneys, and a few other DI folk was state Senator David Hartsuch (R-District 41).


The core of the DI’s assertion is that there were “secret tenure deliberations” aka a plan to oust Dr. Gonzalez because of his ID views. They claimed to have proof via emails obtained by FOIA, and provided such information in a press packet. As I have not had the opportunity to fully comb through the packet, at this time I will refrain from commenting on it (I’m never particularly impressed by the DI’s ability to take statements out of context, so I don’t think it fair to just parrot what snippets they put up on Powerpoint slides). The format of the proceedings was a presentation by the DI followed by a question-answer session where discussion was not to be encouraged in front of the press, thus cementing the press conference as another DI Dog-and-Pony Show.

I am most confused by the DI’s approach to the whole Gonzalez situation. They are treating the tenure review guidelines as if they are a set of rules, a sort of hard-and-fast minimum requirement. So if said hurdles are passed, tenure should be guaranteed. Dr. Gonzalez does meet many of the requirements, true, but then again his scholarship has fallen off since 2004, only publishing a handful of papers and not successfully mentoring any students. Plus, the majority of his citations come from papers published from his work at the University of Washington. Interestingly enough, tenure guidelines at ISU do not specifically mention funding levels to be met. This is not surprising, I guess, as setting a more hard-and-fast rule would be virtually impossible since it would have to be done yearly as the funding climate changes, and be rather arbitrary to begin with.

The DI thinks, however, that because the department guidelines do not mention funding, funding should not be considered. Obviously that is ridiculous since work simply doesn’t get done without money, and a stellar publication record on somebody else’s dime doesn’t matter one whit if Gonzalez can’t bring home the bacon. How does Gonzalez stack up on funding?

The same day Geoffroy denied Gonzalez’s tenure appeal, the Des Moines Register published a story stating Gonzalez had only attracted $22,661 in external research grants since arriving at ISU.

During an interview with The Tribune this summer, Gonzalez countered that claim, saying he has brought in more. He said shortly before he left the University of Washington to come to ISU, he received, and brought much with him, a three-year, $58,000 grant he used to write his book “The Privileged Planet” and a five-year, $64,000 NASA grant, which he used to pay a doctoral student at the University of Washington. Then, as his tenure documents were at the provost level for review, he received promise of a five-year, $50,000 grant from the Discovery Institute.

Although it is more than the Des Moines Register originally reported, it was still far below that of the average $1.3 million in research funding the newspaper found tenured faculty in the physics and astronomy department had generated during their first six years before receiving tenure.

So Gonzalez brought in about 1/10th of the funds of his other colleagues, on average, at best. A good chunk of that went back to the University of Washington to pay a grad student, not ISU. The Templeton grant to write Privileged Planet would pay a portion of his salary, not fund research and advance the mission of his department. And the DI grant (having probably the most fortuitous timing I’ve ever seen) of $50k over 5 years won’t even pay a technician for two full years. The DI claims not much money is needed to do astronomy research, simply on a computer to crunch numbers (which is laughable as typically universities provide some computers to their professors). But somebody, be it a technician, a grad student, or a postdoc, has to be paid to collect data, which that requires salary, benefits, and ‘scope time. Obviously it does require serious cash, as his peers are pulling in over ten times the money Gonzalez is. By way of comparison, I coauthored a grant that netted $198,000 over the course of one year when I was a postdoc.

And Gonzalez apparently submitted his ID work for review by the tenure committe by citing the Privileged Planet and the Templeton grant in his dossier (I could be wrong on this, but nobody has yet demonstrated otherwise, and other news sources have said as much). So why, exactly, SHOULD his intelligent design work not be scrutinized? In that area, too, he’s a scientific failure; he’s brought in a pittance of grant money ostensibly to write a book that repackages the “fine tuning” argument (books, btw, do not undergo the rigorous peer review of scientific journals, rather they are written for money and publicity). He has not received any significant grant money with which to conduct his “groundbreaking” ID research. He has not published any ID-related research in a peer-reviewed journal. I’d wager he hasn’t even submitted it for publication either.

Tenure is not a right. Tenure is not a minimum set of hurdles to clear. Indeed, a faculty member who treats it that way should be the last person to be awarded tenure. A department has the right to determine who their colleagues will be, and undoubtedly they wish to choose people who show a tendency toward self-sufficiency, something that Gonzalez clearly lacks since he says he’s been submitting two grants a year. They want people who will continue to produce, not slowly peter out as they get farther and farther away from their mentored postdoc years. The department also has the right to determine who they associate with, as Gonzalez will represent the department to the rest of the world. If they choose not to associate with someone who tries to pass off a 200 year-old debunked, repackaged theological concept as science, I would have to support them in that decision. Hell, if Gonzalez were the racist, sexist asshole James Watson, I’d still support not renewing his contract too, no matter how good his track record (that’s part of what a professorship is too, is the renewal of a contract. Not getting tenure is not the equivalent of termination of a permanent position. People seem to miss that point a little too often). Academic freedom means that the rest of the department must have the freedom to discuss the ramifications of granting tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez, indeed to say things that may sound extremely harsh, without being dragged to court over it.

I was somewhat confused by Senator Hartsuch’s role in the proceedings, but then I am usually quite disturbed whenever politicians get involved in these situations. He was ostensibly stumping for Dr. Gonzalez’s academic freedom and released statements to that effect. Ironically he refused to say he would support the academic freedom of a white supremacist (“that’s racism!”, which apparently means they don’t deserve academic freedom) or how to draw the line on that slippery slope. Incidentally I find it amusing how Republicans are so quick to drape themselves in the PC veil whenever a religious concept like Intelligent Design is involved, but that’s neither here nor there. Citing his love of free speech, I was graciously told I would not be allowed to “discuss” anything once they found out I was there on behalf of Iowa Citizens for Science (an announcement which triggered a burst of whispering between him and the DI folk, after which anytime I attempted to ask a simple question, the good senator immediately jumped forward and bullied me into shutting up by almost yelling at me that he would not “be debating” with me, but would be willing to meet my group at any invitation to do so. Quite an assumption since 1. I wasn’t trying to have a debate, I was trying to ask questions and 2. all subsequent questions after the discussion on racism and academic freedom with a reporter and I were directed at the DI folk, not him. Oh well. Gotta feed his political base).

What the DI and Senator Hartsuch seem to miss is the fact that the rest of the department has Academic Freedom as well, or should anyway, to choose their colleagues. And since ISU accepted and administered both the Templeton and DI grants (the university is free to reject them), Gonzalez can’t exactly claim that the university was being hostile to him conducting ID-related work there.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    December 4, 2007

    Thank you for the reporting. Just add tenure to the long, long list of things the DI doesn’t understand.

  2. #2 Bobby
    December 5, 2007

    The core of the DI’s assertion is that there were “secret tenure deliberations”

    *Every* tenure decision involves secret deliberations.

  3. #3 Bobby
    December 5, 2007

    I was somewhat confused by Senator Hartsuch’s role in the proceedings

    Why? ID has been a political effort since day one.

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    December 5, 2007

    And Gonzalez apparently submitted his ID work for review by the tenure committe by citing the Privileged Planet and the Templeton grant in his dossier (I could be wrong on this, but nobody has yet demonstrated otherwise, and other news sources have said as much).

    I thought Privileged Planet wasn’t in his dossier – I remember reading that when the whole brouhaha was going on.

    Of course, I can’t find it on PT now…

    Bob

  5. #5 Jud
    December 5, 2007

    What’s most telling to me is that Senator Hartsuch isn’t from the Iowa State district and his committee assignments don’t include Education. In other words, he has absolutely nothing to do with this situation on any basis other than his religio-political persuasions.

  6. #6 Tyrannosaurus
    December 5, 2007

    Gonz�lez is laughable if he claims a few thousand dollars in 5 years as a sign of his scholarly efforts. When I was in graduate school, I was part of a research group (a post doc, a grad student and advisor) who got a grant for three years at the tune of 100K/year to do real research, not ID hocus pocus. Real studies require lot of money to grease the gears. Gonz�lez failed in that aspect too. No wonder he was not deemed material for the department.

  7. #7 Former Grad Student
    December 5, 2007

    Do any professors actually teach anymore? I know I paid way too much per unit for graduate classes taught by assistants, and you had to go on a multiday safari to find the professor to ask a question. Don’t forget your GPS.

    So you get tenure if you can best hustle the grant money? Not sure I’d be so proud of *that*, either. Some of the research I saw was pretty junky science and makework stuff.

    Disclaimer: I have no use for Gonzales or ID.

  8. #8 W. Kevin Vicklund
    December 5, 2007

    During an interview with The Tribune this summer, Gonzalez countered that claim, saying he has brought in more.

    Get ready for standard dishonesty from a DI Fellow…

    He said shortly before he left the University of Washington to come to ISU, he received, and brought much with him, a three-year, $58,000 grant he used to write his book “The Privileged Planet”

    The Templeton Institute claims that he only received less than $43,000. According to their tax records (obtained via FOIA and which agree with the amounts stated), only about half of that ($21+k) was received via ISU. This may account for almost all of the $22,661 in ISU-approved grants.

    and a five-year, $64,000 NASA grant, which he used to pay a doctoral student at the University of Washington.

    He was one of 26 co-investigators on a 5-year NASA grant awarded to UofW for research into astrobiology (grant by the NASA Astrobiology Institute). His portion of the NAI project was terminated after three years, despite stated plans for ongoing research in the annual report, and it appears by his own admission that UofW administered the grant to its own grad student, not ISU. The grant was awarded prior to his departure from UofW. Given the $15,000 exaggeration on the previous claim, I wonder how much of that $64,000 was actually disbursed, given that it was cut two years short.

    Then, as his tenure documents were at the provost level for review, he received promise of a five-year, $50,000 grant from the Discovery Institute.

    And since ISU accepted and administered both the Templeton and DI grants (the university is free to reject them), Gonzalez can’t exactly claim that the university was being hostile to him conducting ID-related work there.

    Is there any evidence that ISU accepted the DI grant? What I’ve seen about the grant makes it seem unlikely that it would meet the criteria set forth by ISU for approval in its (publicly available) policies.

    Also, his colleagues in astronomy most recently granted tenure all brought in at least $225,000 in grants during their probationary period, not including grants awarded prior to coming to ISU.

    Not including review articles, his scholarly output since arriving at ISU that doesn’t rely on grants that were awarded when he was at UofW consists of 3 papers and co-authorship of a textbook that was supposed to be the master’s thesis of a grad student who never earned his master’s degree.

  9. #9 Wicked Lad
    December 5, 2007

    Thank you for you post on this, EM. Former Grad Student may be on to something:

    So you get tenure if you can best hustle the grant money? Not sure I’d be so proud of *that*, either.

    I’m surprised to learn how heavily funding figures into tenure decisions. I earned an MS 20 years ago and haven’t been involved in acedemia since then. I was either oblivious to the money pressure or forgot about it.
    I understand how…
       • Gonzalez’s scholarly work has dropped off
       • Tenure is in no way guaranteed even if your colleagues can check off the right boxes
       • The tenure committee will of course deliberate in secret over a tenure decision
       • Supporting ID is a big negative for a scientist’s tenure decision
       • Books don’t count as peer-reviewed articles do
    …but the money focus is a bit of a shock. I wonder if the Disco ‘tute (as Phil Plait calls it) is counting in part on smearing ISU as a bunch of money-grubbers serving mammon instead of science.

  10. #10 W. Kevin Vicklund
    December 5, 2007

    From the departmental tenure and promotion guidelines (emphasis added) as posted on EN&V:

    The following guidelines for promotion to the various ranks with respect to evaluation of excellence in research are intended to define typical cases; they do not set absolute numerical standards, but rather illustrate what experience has shown to be the usual case. In the Department, persons appointed to the faculty rank of instructor ordinarily already possess the Ph.D. degree. For promotion from instructor to assistant professor, clear promise of excellence in research is required, as demonstrated typically by six papers of good quality, either published or accepted by refereed journals. What is stressed is the promise of the research effort, presumably foreshadowing a national reputation. For promotion to associate professor, excellence sufficient to lead to a national or international reputation is required and would ordinarily be shown by the publication of approximately fifteen papers of good quality in refereed journals. For promotion to professor, attainment of a national or international reputation for excellence in research is expected, and would usually require at least thirty published papers of good quality in refereed journals. It should be emphasized, however, that subjective judgment is involved in all of these cases; promotion with fewer papers than indicated above, or non-promotion with more, could occur based upon the Committee’s evaluation of the research involved.

    From the university policy:

    An associate professor should have a solid academic reputation and show promise of further development and productivity in his /her academic career. The candidate must demonstrate the following:

    * excellence in scholarship that establishes the individual as a significant contributor to the field or profession, with potential for national distinction
    * effectiveness in areas of position responsibilities
    * satisfactory institutional service

    Furthermore, a recommendation for promotion to associate professor and granting of tenure must be based upon an assessment that the candidate has made contributions of appropriate magnitude and quality and has a high likelihood of sustained contributions to the field or profession and to the university.

    I don’t think I need to add any more.

  11. #11 Dave Strickland
    December 5, 2007

    In reply to Wicked Lad:

    Funding should be viewed more for what it brings – namely the ability to employ and train graduate students and postdocs, and thus to actually engage in research. Research universities rely heavily on bringing in research funding, as undegraduate tuition doesn’t bring in all the money by far.

    It also helps pay for the offices, admin staff, grant specialists, janitors and so on – such “overhead” costs account for a substantial fraction of the money.

    But basically Universities don’t pay for themselves, so its up to the faculty of a department to bring in a significant fraction of the money they and their students and postdocs will need.

    Where I work a postdoc costs about $100k a year (their salary is ~40% of that), a grad student $20-30k per year.

    Postdocs and grad students do much of the research in a research University (postdocs are full time researchers, after all), so as a faculty member you would want to have several postdocs and grad students, the more the better. To pay for that you need to go out and apply for and get those grants to pay for them. That is why a tenure track assistant profs out there really needs to bring in $200k a year over the ~5 years of being on tenure track.

  12. #12 Bobby
    December 6, 2007

    The Templeton Institute claims that he only received less than $43,000.

    Regardless of whose number is correct, I suspect that that amount of money over three years is chickenfeed in a science department. Unless Templeton got a special arrangement, about a third of it would go to “Facilities and Assets” (split between the university, college, and department for operating expenses). What’s left might pay his conventional one month’s summer salary per year (which is what you usually ask for in a grant). That might be all Templeton wanted, but to run a research program a professor needs money for graduate students, conference registration and travel (for self and students), publication costs, computer upgrades every few years, misc. expenses, and whatever special requirements the field has (telescope time, etc.).

    Simply put, if you aren’t bringing in money for that kind of stuff the senior faculty is going to view you as a drain on departmental resources rather than an asset. And that’s before they start mentally comparing you to what they think someone else might do in your place.

  13. #13 Bobby
    December 6, 2007

    …but the money focus is a bit of a shock.

    I think it isn’t trumpeted much because it does indeed sound kind of crass. But the fact is, it takes a *lot* of money to run a science department that has any kind of research program. Pulling in your share of that money is no different from teaching your share of the classes and sitting in on your share of the committees.

    If you don’t do your share during the first six years, the senior faculty won’t have any reason to suppose that you suddenly will after you get tenure, so they’ll try to find someone else who will. Simple as that.

  14. #14 Wicked Lad
    December 6, 2007

    Dave Strickland and Bobby:

    Thank you. What you write makes sense. We don’t want to raise tuition so high as to be an even greater barrier to higher education for the masses. Having researchers pursue funding for their research at least means society (through government and charitable foundations?) gets a vote on what science we consider most worthy of support.

    That’s why I get satisfaction out of the fact that the Templeton Foundation’s invitation for proposals for ID research apparently was never answered.

    I still think the ID crowd may be planning to use the funding aspect of the Gonzales case as a “wedge issue.”

  15. #15 famulus
    December 6, 2007

    I’ll begin with the disclaimers: Although I work at a large, public, R1 (“Research Extensive”) university, I have nothing to do with the tenure process. I’m not on the faculty, I’m in the tier of professional administrative staff (the sort most professors detest until they realize that because I do what I do, they don’t have to do it). And I’m not a scientist – my PhD is in a Humanities discipline where a $50K grant is still big money, and all of my subsequent work has been in what might be termed Educational Administration.

    Nonetheless, I have absolutely no difficulty understanding why Prof. Gonzalez was denied tenure. The guidelines W. Kevin Vicklund kindly provided are clear and available; they’re perfectly consistent with what I’d expect to see at a peer institution; the process (though mysterious to outsiders, I suppose) is well known within such institutions (though fearsome to folks going through it); and yes, people don’t make it because departments work hard to develop a cadre of effective and energetic and productive colleagues who can work together to support the department’s mission. And at the best institutions, that idea of “fit” in a department has little to do with dissenting ideas, but has everything to do with the quality of the research. If the research is excellent, reasonable people will disagree; excellence doesn’t thrive if everyone is required to march in lockstep.

    From what I’ve seen in the press, Professor Gonzalez didn’t measure up, he didn’t fit, and he’s been given an opportunity to seek an institution that provides a better fit for his research interests. That happens all the time; however, most faculty who fail to earn tenure don’t have advocates with deep pockets who are happy to play the martyr card.

    Oh, and if there’s one failing that might get the department scolded, it would be if no one said to him along the way that his research wasn’t likely to pass muster. The administrator in me hopes that his tenure committee and mentor (I assume they have them at Iowa State) documented those warnings; if he ignored them, that was his choice; if he couldn’t produce, well, that’s just the cruelty of the tenure process – one might call it survival of the fittest.

  16. #16 Bobby
    December 6, 2007

    Oh, and if there’s one failing that might get the department scolded, it would be if no one said to him along the way that his research wasn’t likely to pass muster. The administrator in me hopes that his tenure committee and mentor (I assume they have them at Iowa State) documented those warnings

    We have annual reviews, and a special third-year review which is a sort of practice run for the tenure application process. I would be very suprised if ISU didn’t have something similar. (The annual reviews continue even for tenured faculty; they’re the basis of pay raises.)

    However, it seems certain that privacy laws would not allow ISU to publish the results of those reviews on their own initiative; they would have to come out in court. (Another way for the DI to get dovered if they’re foolish enough to encourage GG to actually go to court with this. Far better to cry persecution and keep the public in the dark about how getting tenure actually works.)

  17. #17 famulus
    December 6, 2007

    I’d be surprised, too, Bobby, if ISU didn’t have those procedures in place. If his annual reviews didn’t occur or weren’t documented properly, scolding would ensue. Not for the personnel decision, but for the failure to follow procedure. Wouldn’t that detail have come out in the appeal process? If such a thing were found at my U, I suspect *that* could (and would) be revealed without revealing protected personnel information.

    Reading between the lines, and knowing this sort of bureaucracy very well, I deduce that DI and GG haven’t got a leg to stand on. Am I surprised by that? Nope.

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