Despite a stellar research record, Iowa State University astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez is being forced out of his job for the expression—outside the classroom—of an inconvenient personal belief.
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—the preponderance of which suggested intelligent design rather than cosmic accident as the explanation for the universe.
Gonzalez never taught this material to students. But if he and co-author Jay Richards (a former colleague of mine) 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.” Privileged Planet was praised on its dust jacket by senior scholars at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and England’s Cambridge University.
Gonzalez was up for tenure at ISU this spring. He didn’t make the cut. Which, in academia, is the equivalent of being fired (with a year’s grace time to look for other work).
Normally, it is not especially difficult to attain tenure at ISU. In 2007, 91 percent of tenure applications were approved, including that of Hector Avalos, a religious-studies teacher. 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 Kampfdoes not contain a single explicit command for genocide equivalent to those found in the Hebrew Bible. . . . Thus, if all of Mein Kampf is to be rejected simply for its implied genocidal policies, we should certainly reject all of the Bible for some of its explicit and blatant genocidal policies.”
Somehow, it was Gonzalez, not Avalos, who was seen as having gone too far. Gonzalez is a more-than-capable research astronomer. 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.
Yet in turning down Gonzalez’s appeal, ISU president Gregory Geoffroy claimed that the astronomer “did not show the trajectory of excellence that we expect.”
After Gonzalez was initially denied tenure last month, the department chairman, Professor Eli Rosenberg, commented to the science journal Naturethat in the faculty’s deliberations about Gonzalez, The Privileged Planet was discussed: “I’d be a fool if I said it was not.” But he claimed it was not a “big factor.”
However, writing in the Des Moines Register, Professor John Hauptman, another department colleague, honestly admitted that he voted against Gonzalez because of The Privileged Planet; Hauptman conceded that the rejected professor “is very creative, intelligent and knowledgeable, highly productive scientifically and an excellent teacher.”
Sadly, the university’s top academic, Provost Elizabeth Hoffman, did not publicly intervene on Gonzalez’s behalf. Which is interesting, because her previous job was as president of the University of Colorado—where she defended another embattled professor, the academic huckster Ward Churchill.
Churchill defended the murder of Americans in the 9/11 attacks, calling those who worked in the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns.” During the ensuing media blowup, Hoffman was quoted in the Rocky Mountain News as calling academic freedom “the heart that gives life to the body of any university.”
At ISU, a scientist who offers support to Intelligent Design theory 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 modern academia.