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Was Guillermo Gonzalez expelled?

Guillermo Gonzalez is, in the account published in the journal Nature, “a young astronomer with dozens of articles in top journals; he has made an important discovery in the field of extrasolar planets; and he is a proponent of intelligent design.”Geoff Brumfiel. 2007. "Darwin skeptic says views cost tenure." Nature. 447:364. On the faculty at Iowa State University, Gonzalez has 68 career scientific publications, many of them highly cited in his discipline, plus a Cambridge Press textbook, plus...a popular book arguing that there is evidence for intelligence underlying the structure of the cosmos. After publication of the ID book, his “rising profile led a group of 131 faculty members to sign a petition disavowing ID,” out of concern over seeing - as an outspoken atheist colleague who helped lead the signature drive claimed - “Iowa State mentioned as a place where intelligent-design research was happening.”Geoff Brumfiel. 2007. "Darwin skeptic says views cost tenure." Nature. 447:364. Gonzalez’s belief in ID was discussed amongst colleagues, and when he came up for tenure the issue was considered as part of the process. He was denied tenure last year. This is the skeleton description as given in Nature, and similarly in the Chronicle of Higher Education.Ibid. See also Richard Monastersky, "Intelligent Design vs. Tenure." Chronicle of Higher Education, June 1, 2007.http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i39/39a00901.htm. "Intelligent Design and... It seems that few dispute these facts.

In Expelled, Ben Stein claims simply and emphatically that tenure for Gonzalez “was denied due to his connection with intelligent design.” The process involved, in a headline of the DI, “vitriol towards intelligent design, disregard for academic freedom, and... a plot to oust an outstanding scientist.”http://www.evolutionnews.org/2007/12/secret_isu_faculty_emails_expr.html

Maybe so - and even a “maybe” on something this serious deserves earnest concern. But the evidence that such a plot was the cause of Gonzalez being unfairly denied tenure due to viewpoint discrimination, is difficult to assess underneath the outraged claims on each side. What is not ambiguous is that both those who criticize and those who defend the decision have over-simplified and at times massaged the facts.

The most important factor for attaining tenure at Iowa State is scientific publication. The DI claims that “The denial of tenure is all the more incredible given the fact that Dr. Gonzalez exceeds by 350% the number of peer-reviewed journal publications required by his department to meet its standard of excellence in research.”"Intelligent Design Scientist Denied Tenure Despite Exceeding Standard Requirements" May 14, 2007. http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=4051&program=DI%20Main%20Page%20-%20News&callingPage=discoMainPage... But that is untrue. The recommended standard is 15 publications, and Gonzalez did have 68 lifetime pubs, which indeed represents a 3.5 fold excess. But tenure decisions for junior faculty are about likelihood of continued productivity in the department, not past accomplishments before joining the university, and therefore standards focus on publications of work done at the institution. No one disputes this, so it is bewildering that anyone commenting on tenure would conflate these issues. On the other hand, figures cited by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE: a leading anti-creationist organization) suggest that his record was borderline and steadily declining.http://www.expelledexposed.com/index.php/the-truth/gonzalez But to conclude this, it was necessary to throw out a number of his peer reviewed publications from consideration. This was justified by assuming - perhaps correctly but without confirmation - that these pubs would not count significantly for tenure because they appear to be reanalyses of existing data.

What’s the truth here? From his c.v., Gonzales looks to have about 26 publications after joining ISU, and more relevantly, 20 papers from the year after he came to Iowa. The Chronicle of Higher Education commented that at first glance, Gonzalez had, at the assistant professor level, “amassed a better publication record than almost any other member of the astronomy faculty.”also Richard Monastersky, "Intelligent Design vs. Tenure." Chronicle of Higher Education, June 1, 2007.http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i39/39a00901.htm.

However, tenure is not about first glance, and the interpretation of that record along with other important factors suggesting future productivity may be more of a mixed bag. How many papers were reanalyses of old data? How many new ideas or new collaborations were forged? How many highly cited studies were conducted? On the one hand, the citations of his work by peers was undeniably stellar - the second highest in the entire department.Richard Monastersky, "Intelligent Design vs. Tenure." Chronicle of Higher Education, June 1, 2007.http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i39/39a00901.htm. On the other hand, citations were declining, and emphasized earlier work done before he came to Iowa. Were his best years behind him? His record of grant funding for research was distinctly below departmental norms, being 6-7 times less the $1.3 million typical of other assistant professors. And although grantsmanship is not emphasized in the written descriptions of tenure expectations, it is common in academia, and Gonzalez was informed of this expectation at mid-tenure review, prior to the ID flap. The DI challenges the issue of grants: “91% of ISU faculty considered for tenure this year received it. Did they all receive more than a million dollars in grants in order to get tenure?”"The Truth about Research Grants, Gonzalez, and ISU" http://www.evolutionnews.org/2007/06/the_truth_about_research_grant.html But this is misleading. First off, the tenure rate that year in the university at large is not the issue, but the issue is the recent tenure ratios in the department - which involves a 1/3 denial rate over the previous decade. Second, the university-wide grant history is irrelevant, especially since disciplines outside the sciences are vastly less funded. The average funding within the department was $1.3 million, compared to Gonzalez’s $200,000 or so. The irony is, it could well be the case that Gonzalez was shafted, but these arguments in his defense do not help those of us at a distance understand, much less have confidence, in the outcry.

Finally, the tenure process involved requests for input from nine scholars external to the university. Five of these recommended tenure. Is this half empty or half full? The fact that one could even ask the question reveals it’s not an easy call either way. Other astronomers who have publicly commented on the case have been cautious.Richard Monastersky, "Intelligent Design vs. Tenure." Chronicle of Higher Education, June 1, 2007.http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i39/39a00901.htm Neither his record of accomplishment nor the professional colleagues across the nation who gave input to the review, provide evidence of such plain deficiencies as to offer support for someone outside the process - like NCSE - concluding with any confidence that Gonzalez “flunked out”http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/news/2008/ZZ/868_emexpelledem_flunks_the_t_4_15_2008.asp because of a “weak academic record” that was “enough to deny him tenure.”NCSE, Expelled Exposed. http://www.expelledexposed.com/index.php/the-truth/gonzalez On the other hand, the DI claim seems even more exaggerated, almost bizarre: “it’s clearly preposterous to claim that Dr. Gonzalez is somehow deficient as a scientist. If anything, the problem is likely that he is too good.”Intelligent Design Scientist Denied Tenure Despite Exceeding Standard Requirements. Discovery Institute. May 14, 2007. http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=4051&program=DI%20Main%20Page%20-%20News&callingPage=discoMainPage... True to the Ukrainian proverb with which this essay began, the extreme sides of this controversy refuse reasonably to concede even the possibility of ambiguity.

From the outside at least, it looks like - as with many tenure decisions - this one could have gone either way. But that doesn’t rule out the possibility of bias against him for his ID views. It is still reasonable to ask whether Gonzalez’s support for ID contributed to the review process, and if so, did it tip the decision? The answer to the first question is clearly yes; the answer to the second is that there is some evidence that argues for yes, but it is more difficult to assess. We know from records now public that ID was considered, and the extent to which it was considered was later denied. Some at the university said it wasn’t considered at all. The Chronicle of Higher Education commented that “Members of his department have said they voted against tenure based on the potential of his future scholarship, but e-mail records a year before their decision showed that they had also considered his support for intelligent design as a problem in his tenure case.”"Intelligent Design and Tenure: Not in the Stars" CHE, February 7, 2008. http://chronicle.com/news/article/3900/intelligent-design-and-tenure-not-in-the-stars Ok, it was considered. How much? In an interview with Nature, Department Chair Eli Rosenberg “concedes that Gonzalez's belief in intelligent design did come up during the tenure process. ‘I'd be a fool if I said it was not [discussed],’ he says. But, he adds, ‘intelligent design was not a major or even a big factor in this decision’.”Geoff Brumfiel. 2007. "Darwin skeptic says views cost tenure." Nature. 447:364. Ok, not much. But in private documents obtained, Rosenberg argues that support for ID demonstrates “The fact that Dr. Gonzalez does not understand what constitutes both science and a scientific theory [which] disqualifies him from serving as a science educator.”"Secret Emails Reveal How ISU Faculty Plotted to Deny Distinguished Astronomer Tenure" Discovery Institute. http://www.evolutionnews.org/2007/12/secret_isu_faculty_emails_expr.html That sounds like quite a bit.

These (and other) statements suggest that the conviction that ID is pseudoscience may have contributed in a serious way to the decision. A very interesting aspect of this particular case, is that the approach to ID taken by Gonzalez in his book involves the emphasis on intelligence being evident in the very structure of laws, not in their supernatural abridgement by deity. Unlike the other two cases above, the book is not anti-evolutionary or even necessarily “interventionist” in its view of natural processes.However, in his support of the Discovery Institute, Gonzalez is associated with these approaches. Indeed, the book was enthusiastically endorsed by several internationally recognized scholars, who are also emphatic critics of the DI and ID.E.g., Cambridge evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris; Harvard Observatory astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich. The endorsements also include ID proponents associated with the DI. http://www.privilegedplanet.com/endorsements.php... Understandably, Expelled claims, along with the DI, that “The denial of tenure to Dr. Gonzalez is blatant discrimination and violates both academic freedom and free speech.”"Intelligent Design Scientist Denied Tenure Despite Exceeding Standard Requirements" Discovery Institute, May 14, 2007. http://www.discovery.org/a/4051

But there is a leaping over an important question here. Assume for purposes of argument that a repudiation of ID entered into the tenure decision, and even that it exerted a determinative influence. [The first is undeniable and the second is certainly possible if not highly likely.The strong statements in a series of emails and secret discussions make it clear that several emphatically argued against tenure on this basis. What is not clear, is whether or not such arguments carry...] Would that be a denial of academic freedom? Academic freedom does not involve the liberty to say absolutely anything in the name of one’s discipline. Moreover, for non-tenured faculty on a probationary appointment, it doesn’t even involve the freedom to research any topic. Each of the above cases ends up butting against the second question:

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Was Guillermo Gonzalez expelled?

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Dr. Jeff Schloss
Dr. Jeff Schloss

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix