Friday, April 25, 2008

All the elements you'd want in a tenure dispute 

Matt Abe has highlighted a dispute over tenure for Guillermo Gonzalez that is pretty darn juicy. A scientist supports the theory of intelligent design (ID) and comes up for tenure. Despite having academic publications in peer-reviewed journals far in excess of the tenure requirement, and without any evidence of poor teaching, tenure is denied. Using data practices act filings, Gonzalez gets copies of emails between his colleagues, showing not only a deep contempt for ID, but a campaign to get him to not apply for tenure "and solve us the potentially difficult issue."

What makes it juicy isn't that this is yet another debate over ID. It could be any of a number of issues where members of a department have a strong disagreement over the intellectual pursuits of one of its junior members. What's juicy about it is the debate over whether a department can vote against tenure of one of its junior faculty because they think someone's research is fundamentally flawed, to the point where it does not meet the professional standards of the discipline. (And I need to be a little careful here, because some departments are interdisciplinary, or non-disciplinary -- and I could even name a couple here that are antidisciplinary! -- and would need to find a substitute. Permit me to set that question aside.)

Without taking sides in the Gonzalez' case, let me argue that his department does have a responsibility to determine whether the research meets the professional standard. The department's own standards indicate that the standard isn't the number of publications but "excellence sufficient to lead to a national or international reputation." That judgment is subjective, of course. Matt notes in support of Gonzalez that:
Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Gregor Mendel, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo ALL approached science with the assumption that they were studying the works of an intelligent creator, God. Historians have observed that it was exactly this perspective that enabled the start and advancement of modern science.
But what if the profession had, after the many years since these great scientists worked, moved towards a different standard? What would the faculty at ISU uphold?

I would be interested in knowing the process by which Gonzalez was hired. There are in faculty interviews a number of things that form an implicit contract between department and junior faculty. It would involve more than the department's statement. Were there annual reviews, in which Gonzalez was told that his research in ID did not meet the professional standard in the eyes of senior faculty? The email that his supporters document seem to have an element of secrecy, even stealth, about them. (I have never seen such things written in my own department, but I don't find them very surprising.) That makes his case stronger. But a department should have some freedom to shape itself, guided by a commitment to free inquiry and the standards of its discipline. Just because it appears the two are in conflict in this case should not mean that the department is purely engaged in suppressing Gonzalez' academic freedom.

My guess is that the case will end up decided on whether due process for Gonzalez was violated. There are cases -- such as that at Virginia State (temp link) -- where administrations assert they are the holders of academic freedom rather than the faculty. But in most places an administration does not assert that it can decide whether a professor meets disciplinary standards, and I doubt it happens here either.