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.