Americans like to think of our university system as a haven for unimpeded truth-seeking, where tenured professors press the boundaries of knowledge, no holds barred. The picture is attractive but false when it comes to scholarly consideration of big questions such as: Is the universe meaningful?
Just ask Iowa State University astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. His troubling case is a parable illustrating the limits of academic inquiry, and not only at ISU. Despite a stellar research record, Gonzalez is being forced out of his job for expressing his view on a scientific matter possessing religious implications.
In 2004, Gonzalez co-wrote a book called "The Privileged Planet." He argued that life on Earth and our ability to make scientific discoveries about the cosmos depend on a host of incredibly improbable planetary conditions, suggesting intelligent design rather than a cosmic accident.
Gonzalez never taught this material to students. But if he and co-author Jay Richards are right, then the late astronomer Carl Sagan was wrong when he mocked our human "delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe."
Gonzalez was up for tenure this spring at ISU, where 91 percent of tenure applications in 2007 were approved. In the same season, a religious-studies teacher, Hector Avalos, was elevated to a full professorship despite wildly anti-religious statements in a 2005 book, "Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence," which compared the Bible unfavorably with Hitler's "Mein Kampf." Avalos wrote, "Mein Kampf does not contain a single explicit command for genocide equivalent to those found in the Hebrew Bible."
But it was Gonzalez, not Avalos, who was seen as going too far. In 2005, 120 members of the Iowa State faculty signed a petition targeting Gonzalez, though not by name, and denouncing intelligent design.
Intelligent design is a blanket term for arguments that a designer directed nature's evolution. But Gonzalez's research is about astronomy, not biology. In that research, he shines.
The criteria for tenure in Iowa State's Department of Physics and Astronomy include a candidate's publication record. 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 beats the department's standard for tenure by 350 percent. He has also co-authored a standard astronomy textbook used by his faculty colleagues.
Some say he didn't raise enough in research grants. But according to his department's published criteria, fundraising is not a test for tenure.
So far the university's top academic, Provost Elizabeth Hoffman, has not intervened to protect Gonzalez's free speech, which is interesting, because her previous job was as president of the University of Colorado, where she defended the academic freedom of another embattled professor, Ward Churchill, to write as he pleased.
Churchill is the famous fellow who penned an essay justifying the deaths of the victims in the 9/11 attacks, calling those who worked in the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns."
If the professorial hierarchy at Iowa State doesn't see this case as a challenge to academic freedom, the context of our times explains why.
With atheist tracts on the bestseller list and the rest of academia aghast at the heresy of intelligent design in biology, Gonzalez's colleagues must think their prestige depends on giving no quarter to any hint of support for religion.
At ISU and similarly benighted universities, a scientist who offers such support is beyond the pale, less acceptable than a scholar who merely compares the dead of 9/11 to Nazis, or who calls the Bible worse than Hitler. So it goes in the strange world of the professoriate.
DAVID KLINGHOFFER is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is the author of "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History" and other books.