Summary

Expelled claims that Iowa State University astronomy professor Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure because of his views on intelligent design. However, this shows a naïve and distorted understanding of the tenure process at a major research university. The tenure process involves intense scrutiny of a candidate’s accomplishments in order to assess his future potential; the beliefs or extra-academic opinions held by the candidate are not a factor. Gonzalez’s academic record is not as golden as Expelled would have you believe, and due process was rendered at every level of appeal. ISU was justified in rejecting his application for tenure.

The Claim

“Normally, it is not especially difficult to attain tenure at ISU. In 2007, 91 percent of tenure applications were approved.” (Klinghoffer, D. (2007) Tenure Trouble. Weekly Standard: 8 June. Linked from the Expelled website)

The Facts

Iowa State UniversityGaining tenure at a major research institution is never easy. The stakes – employment protection from dismissal without due cause – are very high, and it is appropriate that candidates should face intense scrutiny. Each department at ISU determines tenure independently, so it is inappropriate to look at average tenure rates across the entire university. Professors who receive negative evaluations, or who know that they are underperforming for other reasons, often start looking for employment elsewhere before their tenure review. This makes statistics on approval of university-wide tenure decisions less valuable than the Weekly Standard article would have you believe. Of the twelve candidates considered for tenure in Gonzales’s department (physics) in the last decade, four were denied tenure, only a 66% approval rate. (Brumfiel, G. 2007 Darwin sceptic says views cost tenure. Nature, published online: 23 May. Subscription required.)

According to ISU, Gonzalez’s tenure decision was based on “refereed publications, his level of success in attracting research funding and grants, the amount of telescope observing time he had been granted, the number of graduate students he had supervised, and most importantly, the overall evidence of future career promise in the field of astronomy.” As documented below, the university had grounds to conclude that the early promise of Gonzalez’s career was not being met.

The Claim

“According to a Smithsonian/NASA astrophysics database, Gonzalez’s scientific articles from 2001 to 2007 rank the highest among astronomers in his department according to a standard measure of how frequently they have been cited by other scientists. He has published 68 peer-reviewed articles, which beat the ISU department’s standard for tenure by 350 percent. He has also co-authored a standard astronomy textbook, published by Cambridge University Press, which his faculty colleagues use in their own classes.” (Klinghoffer, D. (2007) Tenure Trouble. Weekly Standard: 8 June. Linked from the Expelled website)

The Facts

Gonzalez’s publication output dropped steadily during his time at ISU. The work he did publish was based on re-evaluations of data he had previously collected or analyses of other people’s data.

An assessment by the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) found that:

…a closer look at Mr. Gonzalez’s case raises some questions about his recent scholarship and whether he has lived up to his early promise. …

Under normal circumstances, Mr. Gonzalez’s publication record would be stellar and would warrant his earning tenure at most universities, according to Mr. Hirsch [a scholar who analyzed the publication record]. But Mr. Gonzalez completed the best scholarship, as judged by his peers, while doing postdoctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of Washington, where he received his Ph.D. His record has trailed off since then.

“It looks like it slowed down considerably,” said Mr. Hirsch…. “It’s not clear that he started new things, or anything on his own, in the period he was an assistant professor at Iowa State.”

That pattern may have hurt his case. “Tenure review only deals with his work since he came to Iowa State,” said John McCarroll, a spokesman for the university.

When considering a tenure case, faculty committees try to anticipate what kind of work a professor will accomplish in the future. “The only reason the previous record is relevant is the extent to which it can predict future performance,” said Mr. Hirsch. “Generally, it’s a good indication, but in some cases it’s not.”

David L. Lambert, director of the McDonald Observatory at Texas, supervised Mr. Gonzalez during his postdoctoral fellowship there in the early to mid-1990s. … [H]e is not aware of any important new work by Mr. Gonzalez since he arrived at Iowa State, such as branching off into different directions of research. “I don’t know what else he has done,” Mr. Lambert said. …

Mr. Gonzalez said he does not have any grants through NASA or the National Science Foundation, the two agencies that would normally support his research…. He arrived at Iowa State in 2001, but none of his graduate students there have thus far completed their doctoral work

That even Gonzalez’s former academic advisors expressed doubts about his performance at ISU suggests that this is a serious issue. It is worth noting that the decline in his publication rate corresponds to the time when he started putting time into an intelligent design project that has produced no peer-reviewed results. This includes his work on The Privileged Planet and his collaboration with old-earth creationist Hugh Ross from the ministry Reasons to Believe (for instance: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=2612 and http://www.reasons.org/resources/fff/2002issue09/index.shtml#rare_sun).

According to another analysis of his publication record which includes a graph of his publication productivity:

Gonzalez had a very successful postdoc with a good research group, and that carried over to his first faculty appointment at University of Washington, where he continued to collaborate with his old colleagues from his Ph.D. and postdoc. However, he peaked in 1999, and the decline began even while he was still at the University of Washington. Even more pronounced than the drop in publications is the complete bottom-out in first authorships that is almost sustained throughout his entire probationary period leading up to tenure.

So ISU Physics [would be] stuck with a guy who publishes hardly any papers as primary author, whose publication list contracts once he strikes out on his own, and, perhaps most importantly, who doesn’t publish with new colleagues. New tenure-track investigators … absolutely MUST take an active role in pursuing one another’s research interests in order to stretch meager funds as far as possible.

Graph of Gonzalez's publication history.
In addition to his declining publication record and his failure to mentor graduate students to completing their programs, it is also notable that Gonzalez brought in far fewer research grants than his colleagues. The average tenured faculty in the ISU physics and astronomy department brought in $1.3 million in grants during their first six years. Gonzalez brought in, at most, $200,000 during the same amount of time, $64,000 of which was used to pay a doctoral student at a different university and $58,000 of which was for his intelligent design book The Privileged Planet. In 2007, Gonzalez told the Ames Tribune that “he was told, beginning with his three-year tenure review in 2004, that he needed to bring in more research funding. He added he heard the same message in reviews every year since, as well. He has made the effort, he said, submitting two grant applications per year, but to no avail.”

The Claim

Gonzalez’s “application [for tenure] was denied due to his connection with intelligent design.” (Ben Stein, Expelled)

The Facts

The Privileged PlanetAs shown above, Gonzalez’s weak academic record at ISU would have been enough to deny him tenure. But did his views on intelligent design play a role? And if so, would this have been unreasonable? Gonzales submitted his book The Privileged Planet as part of his tenure materials: he obviously intended that his colleagues should consider his intelligent design work part of his scholarly productivity. For Expelled’s producers to castigate ISU for thus considering it places them at odds with Gonzales. First, a caveat: personnel decisions are confidential and the reasons behind his colleagues’ voting decisions are private, so one may only speculate. However, his colleagues minimally would certainly be justified in noticing that Gonzalez’s decline in publication of peer-reviewed literature corresponded to his increased interest in intelligent design. But what of ID itself? Is it a worthy scholarly enterprise? This topic is discussed more fully elsewhere on expelledexposed.com, but let’s consider the view of Gonzales’s fellow astronomers.

According to the American Astronomical Society, the major U.S. organization for professional astronomers, intelligent design is unscientific:

In recent years, advocates of “Intelligent Design,” have proposed teaching “Intelligent Design” as a valid alternative theory for the history of life. Although scientists have vigorous discussions on interpretations for some aspects of evolution, there is widespread agreement on the power of natural selection to shape the emergence of new species. Even if there were no such agreement, “Intelligent Design” fails to meet the basic definition of a scientific idea: its proponents do not present testable hypotheses and do not provide evidence for their views that can be verified or duplicated by subsequent researchers.

A scientist should not expect his colleagues to ignore his advocacy of a perspective that those in his field have overwhelmingly rejected. For faculty members to have looked askance at Gonzalez’s acceptance and advocacy of a nonscientific movement is expectable. Of course, Gonzalez is free to disagree with the position of the American Astronomical Society, and does so when he insists in Expelled that “The questions that I ask in my Intelligent Design research are perfectly legitimate scientific questions.”

But if this is so, his failure to produce any results from that research would legitimately count against his tenure application, as would pursuit of any other failed research program. If, on the other hand, his work on intelligent design would not be considered science, his colleagues could legitimately consider how much time he was investing in non-scientific pursuits which could otherwise have been put toward writing grants, conducting research, or publishing research results. He cannot have it both ways.

In either case, his distracting work on an unscientific enterprise like intelligent design, combined with his declining publication record, his failure to obtain outside funding which would support graduate students and new research, and his failure to mentor graduate students to the completion of their degrees, all make it impossible for supporters to legitimately claim that the decision not to grant him tenure was unfounded.

Read More

Statement from Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy

Tenure and the ID Persecution Complex