Joined: Oct. 2005
Allen MacNeill makes an informed comment at PT
Posted by Allen MacNeill on June 4, 2007 7:31 PM (e)
Having been a quasi-tenured senior lecturer at a major research university for over 30 years, I can tell you that (surprise, surprise) it ultimately comes down to money. The emphasis on research grants is primary because that’s what pays the bills. At my institution, the university rakes off over 50% of every dollar that comes in via grant money, calling it “overhead.” And indeed, that’s exactly what it is; paying for laboratory construction and maintenance, equipment purchase and maintenance, paying utility bills, etc. Lecture halls, libraries, and so forth are at least partially funded via student tuition and alumni giving, but research is virtually entirely funded via grant money. At a university like mine, that means that if professors don’t bring in enough grant money to support themselves and their graduate students, that support comes out of the grant support “overhead” earned by their colleagues.
This means that when people come up for tenure review, the amount of grant support they bring into their department is the first and most important thing that everyone considers. “Dead weight” is literally that; it’s a kind of parasitism on the department that can make or break it. If, as the public record shows, Gonzalez brought in minimal grant funding (and the bulk of that was in the form of support from his department/university), while other department members brought in much more, he has literally been parasitizing the other members of his department when he should have been doing exactly the opposite.
This is why it takes several years to make a tenure decision. Department members want to be able to identify trends, so that they can predict what a prospective tenure candidate will do in the future. On the basis of his performance over the critical six-year assistant professor period, Gonzalez showed every indication of being a financial burden on his department, without any corresponding benefits.
If his research had been outstanding (despite low grant funding) and reflected credit on the rest of his department, they might grant him tenure anyway, because that would reflect credit on them and therefore make grant funding more likely for them. This is why people like Isaac Asimov are kept on the faculty of their universities, despite bringing in virtually no grant funding (indeed, Asimov was promoted from associate to full professor, without pay but without debate).
That was clearly not the case with Gonzalez, who made the rest of his department look like a bunch of creationist yahoos. My guess is that the vote against granting tenure was virtually unanimous, and that they are all heaving a great sigh of relief, especially as the professional politicians at the Discovery Instititute daily confirm all of their worst fears.
His department dodged a bullet, IOW, and I’m sure they’re happy they had the opportunity to do so. Gonzalez, OTOH, has been crucified, but by the Discovery Instititute, not his department. The best Gonzalez can hope for now is that the Discovery Instititute can line up some kind of financial support that can provide for him and his family for the foreseeable future. Like Dembski, his career in mainstream academics is effectively over.
There’s an old lesson here; don’t rock the boat until you have tenure. Once you have tenure, generally the only way you can be removed is for malfeasance (which nowdays means having sex with one of your students or stealing departmental funds) or alienating a major contributor and having your departmental line removed from the budget as a result. “Academic freedom,” in other words, is mostly for tenured faculty members and non-tenure-track academics.
Gonzalez abandoned a golden opportunity to establish himself as a credible researcher, apparently prefering to build a career as a guiding light of the “intelligent design” movement. That was a serious strategic error on his part, and he has paid the price. If Gonzalez were in theoretical physics or mathematics, he could still go on to make a name for himself, as he could do them anywhere (a Swiss patent clerk did just that, and not without some midling success). However, Gonzalez’s chosen field requires telescope time and access to high-speed computers to analyze the data obtained from telescope observations. Both of these are now out of reach for him, probably forever. Bad career move, and worse, because now the only people who will pay him anything are the ID supporters, but his academic credibility has now been permanently damaged, with no prospect of earning it back via observational astronomy.
Which means that there is now only one tenured academic in a mainstream university doing even quasi-scientific work in “intelligent design theory” - Michael Behe, at Lehigh University. He has tenure, of course, and so until he retires he can essentially do what he wants…unless he so alienates a major source of funding to his department that the administration decides to eliminate his budget line. The trend for “doing science” among IDers is therefore steeply downhill, and talented people with an open mind and curiosity about the possibilities of design in nature should be re-thinking their career tracks. Showing support for ID is now the kiss of death in mainstream academics, and only those very few who already have tenure and are in secure positions can still publically do so.
As we know from past experience, this does not mean that the ID political machine (as exemplified by the Discovery Institute) will shut down. On the contrary, it will shift into high gear, pumping out more propaganda for as long as its financial supporters will fund it. But as far as penetrating mainstream academics, it’s all over…for now. They will be back, of course, but it will take a generation or more, as it did for ID to take up the cause of “scientific creationism.”
In the interests of full disclosure, I am a non-tenure track professional teacher at a major research university. This means that I come up for reappointment every five years, and as long as I’m doing a decent job teaching, I get reappointed. This leaves me free to do what I want with my free time, as I’m not required to do research. I do some anyway, without the usual restrictions placed on professors.