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Monday, May 14, 2007

Update! : More background on gifted ID friendly astronomer denied tenure - does it all turn on money or bigotry?

If you are a Christian or theist or anyone who thinks that the universe shows evidence of meaning, purpose, or design, listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: You need to think carefully about wasting time, energy, and money in the Western academic system IF, by chance, whatever you are doing undermines materialism.
For links on the original Smithsonian "Privileged Planet" controversy that contributed to making astronomer and astronomy textbook author Gonzalez a identified target of materialist atheists, go here, here, here, and here.

Now, materialism is shot to pieces anyway, and has been ever since quantum mechanics began to be understood. But hordes of tenured mediocrities still compel tax money from the public to defend their dissolving empire, and persecute anyone who threatens it.

Consider the case of Guillermo Gonzalez. He is a young astronomer who was denied tenure at Iowa State University a few weeks ago, in a case that seems to me a classic in determining whether the current Western university system is simply biased against anyone who thinks that the universe is top down instead of bottom up, or otherwise thinks there is meaning in the universe:
"I didn't expect this level of vitriol," he says after hanging up. "This level of intense hostility, just knee-jerk emotional response from people.

Gonzalez, an astronomer who is a Christian, wrote a book and made a film, both called Privileged Planet, arguing the case that Earth is not only unusually favourable to life but unusually favourable to exploration of the universe.

Gonzalez argued his case only on the evidence from astronomy and did not require anyone to believe in a religion:
People have strong convictions that you can't bring God into science. But I don't bring God into science. I've looked out at nature and discovered this pattern, based on empirical evidence. . . . It obviously calls for a different explanation."

Now, in general, he should have been well accepted by the astronomy community, and generally he was.

Here is what I have been able to determine:

- He was published in leading journals. His work is mentioned in a vast array at NASA, Google, and Google Scholar. Also, this targeted search.

- Gonzalez won't (and daren't) comment on why he was denied tenure but believes he has met the requirements, under which scholars are evaluated: "primarily on evidence of scholarship in the faculty member's teaching, research/creative activities, and/or extension/professional practice."
In addition to that criteria, Gonzalez's department of astronomy and physics sets a benchmark for tenure candidates to author at least 15 peer-reviewed journal articles of quality. Gonzalez said he submitted 68, of which 25 have been written since he arrived at ISU in 2001.
Yet he was one of only three of 66 faculty who were denied tenure.

- Informal sources tell me that he has been considered a "good" or "excellent" teacher and research adviser.

- It is well known that Hector Avalos, a religion prof who professes himself a secular humanist, and is faculty adviser to students who profess the same, has tried to stir up the faculty and community against Gonzalez via a petition signed by 120 faculty members (not one whom was in Gonzalez's department) - on account of Gonzalez's personal interest in an intelligent design hypothesis as an explanation for his findings. It is widely assumed that the university president Geoffroy's denial of tenure is based on pressure from this group, but it could actually be due as much to money issues. Read on.

Even people who are not sympathetic to the intelligent design guys have been expressing incredulity at the failure of Gonzalez's tenure case, not that Gonzalez is by any means the first or the only person this sort of thing has happened to. All non-materialists who might actually make a difference are at risk in the current environment.

The denial of tenure is being contested, of course, and science or engineering profs can sign a letter protesting it, if they wish.

But what about the, ah, money issue?

Ah yes, the money issue. Sure enough, I received a note from someone from another university in a different discipline who hoped to explain the situation to me:
Ms. O'Leary:

There is really only one relevant question about Gonzalez's tenure. Does he have a major research grant? If he does, then it is truly unusual for him to be denied tenure. If he does not, then it it would be unusual for him to be awarded it. If he has, say, a single investigator NSF grant, then he has a real grievance. If not, well...

As a professor in the physical sciences, I've occasionally protested the extent to which our tenure decisions are dictated by funding, but there is a strong argument for the current system: you get tenure for excellence in research, and research costs money. You can't sustain a research program without major funding. Universities can't afford to keep faculty who can't pay their way.

See, for example, this post by a pro-evolution astronomer who posts

Gerard S. Harbison
Professor of Chemistry
University of Nebraska at Lincoln

Thanks much for your frankness, Dr. Harbison! Amazingly, I am not the teenage ingenue that I appear in my photo and bio. I have heard informally that external grants are worth ten times a peer-reviewed paper and one hundred times a high rating by students.

Remember that, all you students who pay rising tuition costs! Yes! You pay all that to be one one-hundredth as important as a mere fatter whack of cash.

And all you alumni who are annually shaken down for the great quests of intellectual attainment (in an assumed climate of intellectual freedom). Ask yourself: If the university is indeed such a business enterprise as Dr. Harbison suggests, so that talented young academics are dumped for fundamentally the same reasons as an investment firm would dump an underperforming stock broker, why on earth does the university fundraise on the charity market at all? Why aren't profs required to take courses in public relations, sales, and marketing, and write the Securities exams? Then they can raise their own darn money and do what they please with it!

Gonzalez has apparently brought in only a bit of research money, not a huge whack. (Unless you count the fact that The Privileged Planet was written under a Templeton grant, administered by the university. If the U did not skim some of it for their admin cost, it is their own tough luck and no discredit to Gonzalez. The rest of us can't do all their thinking for them, can we?)

Not too surprising that Gonzalez did not attract wads of cash, I should think, since he argues that there is NOT a whole string of planets we can move into after we wreck this one. My guess is, if Gonzalez was arguing for a string of winner planets, he would have at least some potential investors. Goodness knows, some people even pay to have a star named after them.

Come to think of it, here's a business op for Gonzalez's U: Just think what your official astronomers could charge for naming a planet after some airhead! The last time applications were being taken for getting any planet at all named - habitable or otherwise - applications were restricted to gods/goddesses with lots of eager worshippers (Venus, Mars, etc.). But with so many new, uninhabitable exoplanets available, the vulgar, moneyed mob can at last be given its (sigh!) chance (Planet Shirley, Planet Babs, Planet Ethel, etc., here we COME!!! ... )

Oh, ... you don't like that? You have ... standards?

So let's see, ... not bringing in a whack of cash need not be a slam dunk against an astronomer? Goodness knows, astronomy is thousands of years old, and I never ever heard of anyone going into it for the money. Gonzalez himself has noted,
"People who are into astronomy get into it very early," he says. "It's such a beautiful science. A lot of people have a deep sense of the infinite and the grandness of the universe."

In fact, Dr. Harbison's benchmark is not a formal requirement, I am told, or even a major one - only one of many possible inducements to grant tenure. Indeed, some would argue that writing many successful papers without bringing in a lot of money might better argue for the seriousness of an academic vocation than writing a ton of stuff that attracts funding (stock prospectuses, for example). I've asked to see the guidelines, having been informed that they stress peer-reviewed publications, of which Gonzalez has quite a few.

Of course, ... but what about those infamous "informal" "actual" requirements that people talk about?

As I explained recently to a friend, here is a way to understand actual vs. official requirements in many private workplaces:
OFFICIAL CRITERIA: knows business, gets stuff done on time, honest, loyal, preferred by clients

ACTUAL CRITERIA: our sort of person, willing to lie for boss [re deadlines], would lie on witness stand, destroys evidence when asked, willing to sleep with key clients …

Actual criteria that cannot be stated as official criteria are typically unworthy and almost always legally untenable.

A lawyer friend suggests looking at Dr. Harbison's criterion like this:
The criterion this person raises is one directed to the financial health of the institution. I agree that an institution may be wise to be concerned about funding, but the real question is: do those people who make the tenure decision have that concern as part of their portfolio? Do they sit around thinking, How can we strengthen the financial health of our institution today? Not everyone in an institution is charged with thinking about all the issues necessary and important to the institution's survival. Sometimes they are specifically supposed NOT to - for example, newspaper editors are not supposed to think about specific advertisers when deciding which stories to run. If Staples is a major advertiser, the editor is not supposed to squelch a story about misconduct by Staples (I pick Staples because there was a scandal involving the Staples Center in LA and the LA Times a few years ago).

I've spent all my life in media, and would definitely say that editorial independence from advertisers* is critical to healthy functioning of media - we are only supposed to rent the space, not our souls. I should think the same applies to a university.

Anyway, aren't universities required to abide by normal standards of fair dealing? They get public funds, don't they? Can they really enforce "actual criteria" (= too embarrassing to state in writing, or no way of avoiding legal blowback), as a convenient way of getting rid of someone, over against "official criteria" in writing?

I first met Gonzalez in Washington on June 24, 2005, the morning after the Smithsonian showing of the film, Privileged Planet, based on his book with philosopher Jay Richards, of the same name. I was swilling coffee in a hotel cafe when he introduced me to his charming wife of only thirty days ... What a brave woman she was, I thought, marrying a man who is to be a target of materialists everywhere! But, as a woman of character would do exactly that, he has at least the happiness of knowing that his wife is a woman of character.

(*Note: On that very subject, please know I have nothing to do with the ads that appear on the Post-Darwinist. Google chooses them by some divination known to its wizards. I sometimes get a cent or two if people click on them. They are not the reason for this space and could never influence anything that appears here because I have no idea what the wizards are going to try to sell you next. Feel free to tell me if you find a given ad offensive, but understand that I didn't solicit it and it will disappear within minutes, probably.)

If you want to understand why the intelligent design controversy cannot go away and is still blowing up, read By Design or by Chance?.

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