How to respond to a creation “museum”

There are creationist “museums” all over the place — I’ve been to ones in Kentucky, Washington state, and Missouri, and maybe a few others, but they’re all rather forgettable. I haven’t been to the the Big Valley Creation Science Museum in Alberta (how could I, what with the Royal Tyrrell right nearby?), but someone visited it and posted a summary. Harry Nibourg, the guy who runs it all, sounds like an enthusiastic glad-hander who is happy to give anyone a tour of his personal garbage heap. But I think these tourists summed it up well.

While I was there, a retired English couple had been making their way around the exhibits. As they reached the end, Harry asked them what their professions were. Turns out they’re retired biology teachers.

Harry asked,” Did you understand what you were looking at, and did it change your minds?

In the polite manner that only the English can achieve, the husband replied, “Well, you see, I think your museum is a crock of shit.”

Harry offered that they should “agree to disagree.”

That last line…is there any other phrase that is a better example of passive-aggressive truculence and an admission of a failure to defend one’s ideas than “agree to disagree”? Hate it.

Fathers’ Day hangout

I changed my plans about what to talk about, and was uncertain about what to do, and then I realized, “It’s freakin’ Fathers’ Day, duh!” So go ahead, bring your tales of great dads and bad dads to the discussion today at noon central time.

That’s the conversation starter, anyway. I imagine we’ll degenerate into random topics before the end of the hour, and that’s OK.

It’s also OK if you skip it altogether because you’ve just been reminded to call your dad or be a dad.

Another professor behaving badly

At least Clyde Magarelli isn’t molesting students, I don’t think, but William Paterson University in New Jersey has a real clunker in their sociology department. He’s teaching conspiracy theory nonsense instead of sociology. It’s the usual stuff: the Holocaust was exaggerated, the moon landings were faked, etc.

“We can’t land on it [the moon] and get back. We’ve never landed on it, you didn’t know that?” he says in one clip.

Magarelli also claims that the Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany, only engaged in torture during the “last part of the war.”

In another video, he tells his students that Native Americans are not indigenous people.

“We call them Native Americans but those that have their own government outside — they were never considered part of the system,” he mumbles. “They had their own tribal system.”

Magarelli also believes that the Irish were the first slaves in America — a theory debunked by Irish experts who said their indentured servitude was “in a completely different category from slavery,” according to the New York Times.

Video clips of the guy saying stupid stuff can be found on this Twitter thread.

He is a full time, tenured associate professor at the university, and has been teaching there since 1967 (!!!).

Now this is a case, though, where academic freedom does come into play. He’s saying stupid, wrong, ignorant things, but the whole point of tenure is you’re protected — you can defy the orthodoxy in all sorts of ways. He’s doing it. You can’t fire him for that.

But the flip side is that he has a job — he’s supposed to be teaching young people sociology, and he’s failing to do that. Academic departments have ways to deal, though: from the clips, it seems he’s teaching a first year course called “Social Problems”, which is almost certainly not part of the core curriculum. I’m going to guess that what the functional part of the department has done is shunted him off into non-critical electives, because you certainly can’t expect him to prepare students for other courses in sociology, and are limiting the harm he can do as much as possible. The curriculum can be thought of as a network that routes around damage, and deadwood faculty — he looks like the very definition of the term — are interpreted as damage and shuffled off to the side until they get around to retiring, or die.

The students should view him as a practical exercise in dealing with bad ideas.

The greatest harm he is doing, though, is that he’s taking up space that could be used more productively and creatively with a new faculty member — and he’s probably getting paid more than he’s worth. But that’s one of the inherent flaws of the tenure system.

Maybe it’s just neurobiology departments that suck…

What is this? Another case of academics behaving badly? And specifically, academics involve in neuroscience research?

The Psychological and Brain Science department at Dartmouth is experiencing a bit of upheaval, again based on sexual misconduct. The stories have all been a bit vague on the details, but it was serious enough that one faculty member’s tenure was about to be revoked, and two others are under investigation.

Psychological and brain sciences professor Todd Heatherton has elected to retire immediately following a recommendation from Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Elizabeth Smith, upheld by the faculty-elected Review Committee, that his tenure be revoked and his employment terminated. Smith’s recommendation follows a review of Heatherton by an external investigator for sexual misconduct. Professors Bill Kelley and Paul Whalen of the PBS department, who are also under investigation for sexual misconduct, remain under review.

In a press release provided by his lawyer Julie Moore, Heatherton stated that he retired because he thought it was best for his family, the College and the graduate students involved in the investigation.

Oh, that familiar song. “I was a reprehensible shit for years, but now I’m committing a selfless act of career suicide for my family’s sake, so forgive me.” Late-in-life remorse is such a useful card to play, especially when the hammer is about to come down anyway.

This has been building for a while — there were reports months ago about a growing criminal investigation.

Three tenured professors from the psychological and brain sciences department at Dartmouth College—Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley, and Paul Whalen—are targets of a criminal investigation, according to official statements from Dartmouth’s president and the New Hampshire attorney general on Oct. 31. The school, which has variously described the allegations as referring to “serious misconduct” and “sexual misconduct,” had already launched its own internal investigation of the three men. Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen are all on paid leave with restricted campus access, according to the statement from Dartmouth’s president. Heatherton also lost his affiliation at New York University, where he had been a visiting scholar since July.

Again, the details are lacking, but whatever they were, they were sufficient to prompt 15 students and post-docs to make a complaint and bring in outside law enforcement. University administrations hate bringing in the law from outside, and that more than anything tells me there is an awful lot lurking beneath the official statements. And also that they’re actually revoking tenure for at least one professor.

The professors — Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley and Paul Whalen — are under investigation by both college and law enforcement officials for sexual misconduct.

“We wish to dispel any sensational or inaccurate accounts of these allegations and to counteract any efforts to minimize their severity,” the statement reads. “In our collective experience, these professors have all created a hostile academic environment in which sexual harassment is normalized.” (Scroll down to read the statement in full.)

Beyond the written statement, several students also described to the paper a culture of drinking where the line between professional and personal interactions was often blurred.

OK, I confess: I’m also a graduate of a neuro program, the Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. Also, for many years it was a tradition for the lab to stroll over to a nearby bar late on Friday afternoon and shoot pool and share a pitcher of beer, and faculty were often there, socializing. That’s a good thing. But there was no drinking to excess, no sex talk, and I honestly cannot imagine my advisor, Chuck Kimmel, behaving in any way other than with respect and kindness to his students.

OK, sometimes he could get a little cranky. There were a few clashes. But nothing where we ever felt a lack of decency in our treatment.

While informality and social interaction are good, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed — lines that are there to protect students and faculty together. Dartmouth PBS seems to have made a practice of crossing them.

What the heck is going on at the University of Rochester?

Let’s check in on the ongoing saga of T. Florian Jaeger, shall we? He’s a computation linguist working in the cognitive sciences department at the University of Rochester whose tenure so far has been a real shitshow, and also a familiar story. He’s a sexist pig who doesn’t recognize boundaries or any limits to his behavior. One of the stars of the place, Richard Aslin, resigned his position over the ongoing behavior of Jaeger, the former president of the university, Joel Seligman, resigned the day the investigative report was published, and other faculty, like Jessica Cantlon and Brad Mahon, followed suit. Now Celeste Kidd and Steven Piantadosi have quit.

That is a department in a shambles. The wave of resignations sends a very clear message that this is not a place where you want to work — you’d have to be desperate to take a job in the cognitive sciences at Rochester. And that means they’re going to get worse, and not the least because the rot, Jaeger, is still there, supported by the administration.

Kidd and Piantadosi made public their resignation letter. Ouch.

University of Rochester President Richard Feldman has declined to sanction, much less fire, T. Florian Jaeger, a professor who sent an unwanted picture of his penis to a student; made insulting and objectifying comments about female students’ sexual desirability, appearance, and vaginal taste; used drugs at a lab retreat with students, and had sex with an undergraduate student, among many other unethical behaviors. These are not accusations. These actions were confirmed by the University of Rochester’s own investigation. The University also verified that such behavior led at least ten women to avoid Jaeger to the detriment of their careers.1 President Feldman declines to take responsibility for his own refusal to punish Jaeger, instead blaming the faculty senate, a body which he knows has no authority to impose sanctions. Unbelievably, Former President Joel Seligman and Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department Chair Greg DeAngelis both publicly defended Jaeger’s tenure — to the media and faculty senate respectively — by an appeal to the sanctity of “academic freedom”.

Holy crap. That’s not what academic freedom means. It does not mean that professors get to rob banks on the side with no repercussions on their career; it does not mean you get to fuck up a required part of your job, teaching, and no one can fire you for dereliction of your duties. This is the kind of thing that gives tenure and academic freedom a bad name when it is badly abused.

The university administration is also failing to do their job. They’ve got faculty resigning right and left, they’ve got ten women whose careers have been harmed, the university’s reputation is wrecked, and they’re trading all that to keep this one man, T. Florian Jaeger, in his job. I’m going to take a wild guess that Jaeger is also viciously litigious and has let the admins know that he plans to be an expensive headache if they don’t defend him.

Oh, and there’s a footnote to Kidd’s and Piantadosi’s letter.

1President Feldman returned Jaeger to teaching undergraduates shortly after the University’s own investigation defended with the argument that “A combination of Jaeger’s harsh and demeaning language, flirtatious behavior, use of sexual innuendo, promiscuous reputation, open relationships with students and blurring of social and professional lines all contributed to some extent [to students avoiding him], but we cannot unravel the degree to which women avoided Jaeger because of the sexual elements in his conduct, as oppose to other simply offensive or unappealing aspects of his personality.”

Wow. So his repellent personality so thoroughly blends in with his despicable attitude towards women that they can’t be sure which of the two makes him a terrible colleague and bad teacher, so they’re restoring his undergraduate teaching duties. Does this make any sense at all? All aspects of his performance are equally awful, masking which bits are due to sexism and misogyny, so hey, let’s put him in a classroom with 18 year old men and women.

But here’s the most chilling part for the future of Rochester.

Jaeger is not named in the federal lawsuit against the university and has said he believes the department, and his lab, are “worth rebuilding.” He will resume teaching in the fall after spending the 2017-18 school year mostly away from campus.

Now that he’s driven away the ethical, principled faculty, T. Florian Jaeger’s way is clear to rebuild the department in his own image.

New college students are independent adults. Respect that.

I remember when I went off to college. I enrolled at DePauw University, a liberal arts college in Indiana. All my life until then I’d lived only on the West coast; it was going to be my first flight on an airplane, too. My family supported my decision, helped me pack the one beat-up, shabby suitcase with about 50 pounds of stuff, and waved bye-bye as I boarded the jet at Sea-Tac. I still remember that I sat on the plane next to a school teacher from Brownsville who must have noticed that I looked rather lost, and he talked to me the whole way to reassure me that this was going to be a great adventure.

After I landed in Indianapolis, I had to find my way to Greencastle, and I had no idea where it was except that there was supposed to be a bus service that could take me there. I stumbled my way around, found the bus, eventually got delivered to the town, and this was what I saw.

Just picture a scrawny 18 year old standing there, hauling a massive battered suitcase held shut with a belt strapped around it, his arms aching, blisters on his hand, standing there alone with absolutely no clue about where to go. That was me. It was terrifying and thrilling all at the same time. I managed to drag my burdens across campus to the dorm (why did Bishop Roberts Hall have to be so far from the campus entrance?) and began my first year of living independently. I was a totally clueless nerd, but I managed and learned a lot.

So now I’m reading this article about a young student at Bristol University who killed himself in his first year, and I’m sympathetic — that first year is hugely stressful. I was doing new student registration just yesterday, and I saw students in tears because they’re suddenly facing new decisions — “Why do I have to take that class? Oh, no: this class I wanted to take is full! My life is over.” It is hard. Go ahead and cry, I’m not going to hold it against you, I’ve been there myself. But the solution in the article isn’t a good idea.

The father of a student who killed himself is calling for the relaxation of data protection rules that currently deter universities from alerting parents that their child has serious mental health problems.

Nope. I guess some parents just can’t let go, but you have to. The official, legal position of American universities is that we have to abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which respects the privacy of the student — they are now independent adults. They can, of course, freely communicate whatever they want to their families. I did! I wrote letters every week or so back home, and this was in the 1970s, no email, long distance phone costs were absurd, and I had to write by hand (we didn’t have printers) on paper and send it by mail with a stamp and everything. But all of my interactions with students are confidential. They’re between the university and the student, even if the parents are paying tuition.

I put three kids through college. I never saw a single report card. I’d ask in a general way how things were going, but it was their choice how to answer me…and they always said “fine”, so I’m pretty sure there were dramas and anxieties and struggles they weren’t telling me about. That’s the way it goes. This ain’t kindergarten anymore — these are adults, taking their first steps forward. Let ’em go.

I occasionally get concerned parents who ask me what their student’s grades are in my class — I tell them no, ask them, not me. I’ve had parents show up at my office door, very worried about whether their student will graduate, and I tell them the same thing. In one case it was tough, because the student was actually blowing off all their courses, had dug themself a very deep hole, and was not going to graduate for sure…but that’s not their business. What can a parent do in such a situation? Yell at them? Cut off their funds? None of that helps solve the problem. I sent the student off to talk with advisors in our learning center instead.

But, you’re saying, this Bristol student killed himself. Yeah, and what is the parent going to do? I would assume they have been giving their unstinting love and support all this time, but the student is still struggling. They don’t need mom and dad, they need professional help. If I were informed by a parent or a peer or observed a student flailing, I wouldn’t call the parent: I’d call a counselor (we have trained experts in this sort of thing), or a dean or take it all the way up to the chancellor to get them help. Parents aren’t usually trained in clinical interventions.

Also, terrible as it is to say, some parents are the problem. I’ve seen everything from neglect and abuse to those high-pressure parents who are the ones applying the most strain to the students’ sense of self-worth and identity. I usually don’t know. I’m not going to contact someone who is a stranger to me and is unlikely to have the specialized skills to deal with, for instance, depression or an identity crisis. Yeah, like I should call a parent and say, “Your son has discovered he’s gay, thinks he’s going to hell, and just broke down in tears in my office. Could you come take him away?”

The father here blames the university. He thinks the cause of the suicide was a sense of failure because he didn’t get into his first choice university.

Murray believes that sudden change of plan and narrowly missing out on Edinburgh made his son vulnerable. “He loved Edinburgh. We had been there many times,” he said. “A sense of not succeeding becomes a sense of failure. I think that’s what Ben was carrying with him going to university. To take your own life you have to be in extraordinary mental pain.”

Ben told his family he was enjoying university, but they discovered after his death that he had struggled to engage with the course and had missed lectures and exams. Murray said his son had informed the university he was suffering from anxiety and he was sent a link to support services.

He killed himself a few days before he was due to leave Bristol at the end of a formal withdrawal process.

And there’s the problem. Ben Murray was in contact with his family, and chose to hide his problems from them. That was his choice. His father now wants the university to change their policies and inform the family of difficulties against the student’s desires. There may be a very good reason their son didn’t want to discuss these issues with his parents; if we go against the wishes of an adult student, unaware of the full situation, we could make the problems worse.

It is worth noting that Ben Murray was more willing to inform the university of the problems than he was his parents. That’s a decision that should be respected, and that we are obligated to respect, and he made that choice. You could make a case that the university should have done more — sending a link to support services is kind of impersonal — but the more appropriate response would have been to set him up with appointment with a trained counselor, not to go running to the people Murray was avoiding.

Rebecca Traister on Bill Clinton

I feel terrible that Al Franken had to resign. He was a good senator, one of the best, but it was all that other behavior that had to be clearly and unambiguously censured in the strongest terms. Any doubts I might have had were dispelled by Bill Clinton, of all people.

The interaction happened during an interview Clinton did, alongside Patterson, with the Today show’s Craig Melvin. Melvin kicked things off by asking Clinton about how his relationship with Lewinsky — consensual but nonetheless a clear abuse of professional and sexual power — had sullied recent reassessments of his presidency.

Clinton reared back, flustered. “We have a right to change the rules but we don’t have a right to change the facts,” he said, suggesting that Melvin didn’t know the facts of the Lewinsky case. Clinton claimed to “like the #MeToo movement; it’s way overdue.” But when Melvin pressed him on whether it had prompted him to rethink his own past behavior, like so many millions of other men and women around the world — including Lewinsky in a March Vanity Fair essay — he sputtered that of course he hadn’t, because he’d “felt terrible then.”

He spends a lot of time insisting that there are “facts” that the interviewer is glossing over, implying that they exonerate him. I think the only fact that matters is that he took advantage of a star-struck young intern in his office, a fact that he has admitted was true.There’s no getting around that. But he “felt terrible”. Gosh. About what? That he exploited this woman, or that he got caught?

“Nobody believes that I got out of that for free. I left the White House 16 million dollars in debt,” Clinton said, as if having paid a literal debt was the extent of the work to be done in the midst of a cultural and social reckoning. Then, as if he’d forgotten the rules of time and space and the evolution of progressive movements, Clinton kicked into full self-defense mode: “This was litigated 20 years ago … Two-thirds of the American people sided with me; I had a sexual-harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s; I had two women chiefs of staff when I was the governor; women were overrepresented in the attorneys general office in the ’70s.”

I will happily admit that Clinton was a better man for women’s rights than the Republican hypocrites who used his personal misdeeds to make him pay that price and to hound him relentlessly in office; shouldn’t Newt Gingrich be paying an even more savage price for his behavior? I agree that American political culture is a morass of double-standards, and that a Democrat faces higher standards for personal probity than Republicans. But what I want to see is recognition that he was wrong, an acknowledgement that he screwed up badly, rather than whining about how he was sorry and he paid the price.

I was getting exasperated with Clinton’s obstinacy about admitting a huge mistake, but then James Patterson, his ally, leapt in and delivered the coup de grâce.

Toward the end, James Patterson jumped in, perhaps hoping to assist his floundering co-author: “This thing was 20 years ago. Come on. Let’s talk about JFK. Let’s talk about LBJ. Stop already.” Clinton took the opportunity to angrily query Melvin: “You think President Kennedy should have resigned? Do you think President Johnson should have resigned?”

Hmm. Well. When you put it that way…YES. You’re saying that there has been 60 years of deplorable behavior in the Oval Office while the American public mostly turns a blind eye, and the political parties actively shelter sexual predators? I hadn’t thought of it that way. But maybe if we’d told the American president in the 1960s that he doesn’t get to use the power of his office to go on pussy patrol, there would have been an example set that guys, you have to keep it in your pants. You have a job to do.

This isn’t an unrealistic demand for purity and perfection. This is not something that is particularly hard to do: recognize that you have a professional relationship with your colleagues, not a romantic one, and there are lines you don’t get to cross. Most of us men can handle that just fine — it’s no hardship — in our working and personal life, it’s just a few that are oblivious to the barriers. It doesn’t help that the most prestigious and high paying jobs seem to be accompanied by the perk that you get to throw away all personal responsibility and ignore the autonomy and humanity of your underlings.

Traister deserves the last word:

Considering all this, it is truly only a powerful white man who could have lived the past 20 years — through the defeat of his wife and the social revolution it helped to galvanize — and think that none of this effort or upheaval applied to him, especially given that so much of it applies to him directly. So as he goes on to sell more copies of his book I’d advise Bill Clinton to stop bitching about how this is Kennedy-era ancient history. This is the muck that many of us have been swimming in for decades, and much of it is of your making. Come on in; the water is sickeningly warm.