Alas, poor Guillermo Gonzalez

Les Lane has a summary of Gonzalez’s unfortunate tenure situation. To nudge your memory, Guillermo Gonzalez is the Discovery Institute fellow who was working as an assistant professor of astronomy at Iowa State University; he was recently denied tenure there and is protesting the decision.

It’s an awkward position, but very common — academia isn’t an easy career to break into. It also doesn’t help that Gonzalez fails to understand the process.

“I believe that I fully met the requirements for tenure at ISU,” he said.

It doesn’t work that way. There aren’t a series of merit badges or box top coupons that you collect, and then on Tenure Day you turn them in and get a prize. Tenure is built on a foundation of evidence — we put together big files of documentation (here’s a photo of mine), and our colleagues contact our peers all across the country and ask them to evaluate the data and share knowledge about the tenure applicant. The tenured faculty at the university then get together in a big meeting and discuss everything in painful detail. Do the outside reviewers think well of the applicant? Is this person an enthusiastic contributor to university governance? Is there promise of interesting work to come? Do we want to spend the rest of our working lives side by side with this person? The final decision is a subjective evaluation of the compatibility of the individual with the other scholars of the department.

Complaining that one met all the requirements is like proposing marriage, getting turned down, and then protesting that one has a good job, a nice apartment, and excellent personal hygiene. That may be true, but it’s irrelevant. The university does not want a long-term, committed relationship with you—nothing personal, you can still be friends.

To get an idea of the kinds of responses outside reviewers probably sent in about his tenure application, here’s a review of his book, Privileged Planet. You can ignore my evaluation of the book — as a biologist, I would not be asked to evaluate an astronomer’s work — but it includes part of a book review from one of his colleagues.

The Argument from Design is 200 years old, if not older, and it has not improved with age. It hasn’t resulted in any new knowledge in all of those years. Modern astronomy is constantly producing new knowledge and understanding of the universe. Guillermo is a promising young astrophysicist, and I hope that he doesn’t throw away his career on such nonsense.

That’s a kiss-of-death evaluation. Gonzalez knew other astronomers were voicing criticisms like that well before his tenure review; other academics know that there are only two possible responses to it. One, you shift your emphasis, get on a different project, one that will get you results and reputation to offset this early false start…and then you play up your flexibility and responsiveness to criticism in your tenure file. Alternatively, if you think you’ve really got a hot idea despite that old fuddy-duddy’s un-hip clinging to the past, you go into overdrive and get some fast test-of-concept results that you can wave in the fuddy-duddy’s face. Being an aggressive upstart can be a real plus in the review.

Did Gonzalez come up with new knowledge using the Argument from Design before the tenure review? I haven’t heard of any.

Instead of fighting to get into a department that doesn’t want him, Gonzalez should be trying to get into a different position, one that is a better match to his talents and goals. There may be some understandable reluctance to pursue that, since his next step is something like Liberty University or Bob Jones University—he’d fit in well in those kinds of places, and would probably be a shoo-in for tenure.


  1. quork says

    It also doesn’t help that Gonzalez fails to understand the process.

    Furthermore, it does not help that Gonzalez fails to understand what constitutes science.

    The Argument from Design is 200 years old, if not older

    It’s at least 2500 years old.

  2. jaakko says

    As an ISU alum, I am relieved that he was denied tenure. What a disgrace to the university.

  3. says

    I’ve said this elsewhere, and I’ll say it here. In a science department, in a research university like Iowa State, there is one overriding requirement for tenure: a major research grant. If he has one, it would indeed be unusual to be denied tenure. If he has not, it would be unusual to be awarded it. It’s crass, but it’s the way things are.

    I’ve asked several places if Gonzalez has one, and come up blank. He doesn’t, apparently, have an NSF single-investigator award, and those are the main source of funding for astronomers. If he doesn’t have something else (DoD, or whatever) then the discussion is pretty much moot. University administrators, for better or worse, expect science faculty to bring in the bucks, or at the very least show evidence they can sustain a research program. Research programs cost money. You don’t get tenure without a grant.

  4. CCP says

    Do we know at what level in the interminable process Gonzalez was first recommended for denial? If his own department did not, in fact, want him, then he should shut up and move on. To me, it’s a different story if a Dean, Provost, or President overturns a department’s positive recommendation…I myself have had occasion to be royally pissed off about that.

  5. frank says

    I tell junior colleagues that tenure comes down to a decision on “Do I want this person down the hall for the rest of my career?” In other words, will this person pull his or her own weight on committees (so I don’t have to do it all), be a strong teacher (ditto), and, most importantly, will his/her scholarship, by advancing the field, be a credit to the department and University? If the answer is negative to any of these, the other stuff had better be outstanding.

    ISU has so far decided the the negatives are strong enough to outweigh the positives in the dossier; so would many other universities, public, private or religous. And I agree. Someone so confused about what science can and cannot do has serious intellectual difficulties that transcend technical competence.

  6. CJColucci says

    “Complaining that one met all the requirements is like proposing marriage, getting turned down, and then protesting that one has a good job, a nice apartment, and excellent personal hygiene. That may be true, but it’s irrelevant. The university does not want a long-term, committed relationship with you–nothing personal, you can still be friends.”

    A large part of my practice is litigating tenure lawsuits. I want to steal that line for my next brief, with proper credit, of course. Though my computer skills are so poor that I wouldn’t know how to cite the site.

  7. says

    A large part of my practice is litigating tenure lawsuits.

    Win any?

    (I ask because in my experience academics are generally far too sloppy about how they handle tenure cases, even absent actual malice. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone reinstated following a lawsuit. From what I’ve seen, courts tend to defer to universities on tenure decisions)

  8. says

    So, the questiuon to me is whether or not he went into astrophysics with the right intentions in the first place; was he doing the work (and I imagine there was a lot of work) at the behest of Intelligent Design crowd, so that like Wells he could add to their list of dissenting scientists against Darwinism?

    Does he have a genuine interest in astrophysics, enough to devote his life to it? If I were him at this point I would consider a move to Seattle and apply for the Biologic institute. They have great coffee there, I hear.

  9. J-Dog says

    Patriot University – “The Fightin’ Tax Dodgers”, “Dr.” Kent Hovind’s school, would be a good fit.

  10. says

    Gonzalez said he submitted 68, of which 25 have been written since he arrived at ISU in 2001.

    … Is that normal? To have 63% of your submitted papers denied?

  11. says

    I don’t think it means they were denied — it implies that he had a particularly prolific post-doc before he started at ISU.

  12. says

    I’ll repeat here a comment I’ve posted on two other blogs about this matter:

    Without taking a position on the particular decision — I don’t know enough — I can say that based on 20 years of experience with faculty hiring, retention, promotion, and tenure decisions that the last — tenure — is a different animal from the others. To appoint someone to a tenured position is a forward-looking decision. It is a bet that the person will professionally contribute to the department, university, and discipline over a lifetime career. It is not a reward for accomplishments past; it is bet on accomplishments to come.

    Very good people don’t always get tenure. A recent case in point is Sean Carroll, cosmologist and Cosmic Variance blogger. He recently failed to get tenure at the University of Chicago. Rather than having a socio-political organization agitating for petitions and letters of indignation directed at the U of Chicago, he went out and got another job, as a Senior Research Associate in Physics at CalTech no less.

    The differences between his situation and that of Gonzalez are impossible to assess on the information available, but Carroll’s situation does illustrate the fact that tenure decisions are not automatic and even very good people do not always get it at their first institution.


  13. Chi says

    Gerard, no need for hostility–look deeper into his post, and you’ll probably realize that he represents the Universities in these lawsuits.

  14. CJColucci says

    “A large part of my practice is litigating tenure lawsuits.

    Win any?”

    So far, so good. Though I certainly agree that academics can be awfully sloppy about it.

  15. Great White Wonder says

    Great news! I love it when creationist idiots get chumped.

    Gonzales is/was a moron and if he dies without tenure it only means that the system is working.

  16. Great White Wonder says

    Great news! I love it when creationist idiots get chumped.

    Gonzales is/was a moron and if he dies without tenure it only means that the system is working.

  17. Diogenes says

    Monado, non-denominationalists are christians that reject the notion of different denominations of christianity, instead treating all christians as being part of “the body of christ.” This doesnt prevent them from using denominational names, and most end up with a name for their individual non-denominationalist denomination. What it means in practice is that they lack a hierarchy above the level of an individual church.

  18. Kevin says

    “The university does not want a long-term, committed relationship with you–nothing personal, you can still be friends.”

    well, maybe it was really: “The university does not want a long-term, committed relationship with you. Its your personality. It sucks. and NO, we can’t be friends.

    and you smell like old socks and cheese.

  19. rather not say says

    It seems to me if there were an intelligent designer, there’d be some sign of intervention in the tenure process. No angelic choirs? No smell of brimstone?

  20. Alex says

    I actually heard Gonzales speak a couple of years ago at UNI and I was understandably underwhelmed. SIgma Xi invited him under the auspices of giving an “academic” talk over the faculty’s objections (c.f. the disappointing students’ reactions here and here).

    He pulled out all the usual creationist canards: the argument from design, the Gospel According to Behe, &c. My employer at the time, one of the earth science faculty, said to me as we were leaving, “no way he gets tenure.” I said I found it hard to believe they ever hired him knowing what sort of lunatic he is.

    He was openly hostile to the, well, rightly hostile audience. After hearing him grasp at straws defending his Emperor’s New Clothes-ism, I have to say it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.

  21. W. Kevin Vicklund says

    From the article via Les Lane:

    “I was surprised to hear that my tenure was denied at any level, but I was disappointed that the president at the end denied me,” Gonzalez said during a telephone interview with The Tribune Friday.

    But via PvM at Panda’s Thumb, we found out that he was recommended for denial at all levels.

    And I just looked through the university’s faculty handbook, and discovered that prior to the review recommendation being advanced to the next level of review, he is supposed to be sent the results and the reasons why. Also, all mandatory tenure decisions are required to be advanced to the president, who makes the final decision. What Gonzales is really saying is that he was disappointed that the president followed the recommendations of all the previous reviewers. Of course, he’s trying to imply that he had met approval in the earlier stages. Typical creationist dishonesty.

  22. Manual Goldenshower says

    Cut the crap. Once he was identified with ID he was finished.

    Who ya kiddin?


  23. Manual Goldenshower says

    But ya know what? It a lesson for all grad students.

    If you want to go the ID route…hold your tongue!

    Follow Behe’s example.

    Get tenure first, THEN drop your load on em!

    That what Dembski could have done but he couldn’t wait.

    But I have learned, oh, I have learned.

    Just give me time.

  24. daenku32 says

    Is “manual” admitting that he will hide his motivations of using a tenure position to make arguments from authority over non-scientific matters from those who will have to work with him on a daily basis?

  25. Carlie says

    Ah, it was already mentioned. The Iowa State release said the decision was: “Based on recommendations against granting tenure and promotion at every prior level of review,”

    So, then, why did he keep getting reappointed, if every prior review was negative? They could have let him go long before the tenure decision. Or do the prior levels of review refer to all the other committees the tenure packet went through before ending up at the president’s desk?

  26. says

    There are multiple levels of review. It’s not uncommon for there to be an initial departmental review, that result is forwarded to a college-level review, and then it goes off to the university level. The departmental level is usually most important, but any of the higher ranks can reverse a decision. At my last job, for instance, my tenure was approved at the departmental level (my colleagues wanted to keep me around), but squelched at the college level (our dean wanted more grant money). The last one is the one that really counts.

    There are also yearly pre-tenure reviews. Those can be negative, but they are treated more as warning shots — “fix this before the final tenure review, or you’re outta here” — and it takes extremely serious problems to recommend that a tenure track faculty not be approved to renew his or her contract before the final review. That’s only fair — most people aren’t going to be able to establish an assessable track record in anything less than 5 or 6 years.

    I suspect this was a case of the various levels of review all being negative. If the yearly reviews were that negative every time, he wouldn’t stand a chance of arguing against the decision.

  27. says

    While the discussion is on tenure, we should consider another case. More than in Carroll’s situation, Gonzalez’s denial resembles another highly publicized tenure decision – James Sherley’s lack of tenure in Biological Engineering at MIT. The headline in that case (the validity of which I cannot evaluate) was a claim of racism, but underneath that situation was Sherley’s controversial views about the morality of human embryonic stem cell research.

    If you are interested, I just made a post on summarizing that case.

  28. slpage says

    Ales writes:

    c.f. the disappointing students’ reactions here and here).

    I found it interesting to note the majors of the students suppoting ID:

    Ryan Wilson

    marketing major

    Elizabeth Tometich,

    Elementary/Middle Level Education