Vanderbilt is working hard to destroy its reputation

I think I like this person, although I don’t think we’ve ever met.

BethAnn McLaughlin has no time for James Watson, especially not when the 90-year-old geneticist is peering out from a photo on the wall of her guest room at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Banbury Center.

“I don’t need him staring at me when I’m trying to go to sleep,” McLaughlin told a December 2018 gathering at the storied New York meeting center as she projected a photo of her redecorating job: She had hung a washcloth over the image of Watson, who co-discovered DNA’s structure, directed the lab for decades—and is well-known for racist and sexist statements.

The washcloth image was part of McLaughlin’s unconventional presentation—by turns sobering, hilarious, passionate, and profane—to two dozen experts who had gathered to wrestle with how to end gender discrimination in the biosciences. McLaughlin, a 51-year-old neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, displayed the names of current members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment. She urged other NAS members—several of whom sat in the room—to resign in protest, “as one does.” She chided institutions for passing along “harassholes” to other universities. “The only other places that do this are the Catholic Church and the military,” she said.

In the past 9 months, McLaughlin has exploded into view as the public face of the #MeToo movement in science, wielding her irreverent, sometimes wickedly funny Twitter presence, @McLNeuro, as part cudgel, part cheerleader’s megaphone. In June 2018, she created a website, MeTooSTEM.com, where scores of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have posted mostly anonymous, often harrowing tales of their own harassment. In just 2 days that month, she convinced the widely used website RateMyProfessors.com to remove its “red hot chili pepper” rating for “hotness.” And after launching an online petition, she succeeded last fall in spurring AAAS, which publishes Science, to adopt a policy allowing proven sexual harassers to be stripped of AAAS honors.

It turns out, though, that being a vigorous voice for equality has a cost. You make enemies.

Indeed, McLaughlin has made bitter enemies: Last fall, she says, she was anonymously FedExed a box of feces. And her scientific career is now on the line. Her tenure process was frozen for 17 months starting in 2015 while VUMC investigated allegations that she had posted anonymous, derogatory tweets about colleagues. The probe was spurred by complaints from a professor whom she had testified against in a sexual harassment investigation. VUMC closed the probe without disciplining McLaughlin, but in 2017 a faculty committee, having previously approved her tenure, unanimously reversed itself, according to university documents. Absent a last-minute reprieve, she will lose her job on 28 February, when her National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant expires.

She had the support of her peers, which ought to be the final say in a tenure decision, but that was overruled by the administration, and I can guess what happened: an influential and moneyed person in the department got the ear of someone higher up, and poisoned the process. That’s not supposed to happen, but it does happen. Here’s the event that seems to have imperiled her career:

But the university halted her tenure process in December 2015, in the wake of allegations that arose during the investigation of a colleague. In early July 2014, former graduate student Erin Watt sued her former Ph.D. supervisor, neuroscientist Aurelio Galli, who was then at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Watt alleged in the lawsuit that Galli had sexually harassed and belittled her, leading her to quit the Ph.D. program.

In late July of that year, McLaughlin, her then-husband (a Vanderbilt neuroscientist at the time, who collaborated with Galli), and a visiting McLaughlin friend and collaborator, Dana Miller of the University of Washington in Seattle, were invited to dinner at Galli’s home. Miller and McLaughlin later recalled that while preparing dinner, Galli threatened to “destroy” Watt. Miller recalled him calling Watt “a crazy bitch” and vowing to “spend every last dime” to ruin her. The women say Galli showed them a handgun and noted that he had a permit to carry it. Miller, a lesbian, also told investigators that Galli made inappropriate comments about her sexuality.

Galli, now at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, declined to comment on the dinner party. But he told Science: “I have never done anything to any student or any faculty in terms of harassment or retaliation.” He provided an email that McLaughlin sent him the day after the party: “Dinner was fantastic. … Thank you,” she wrote with a smiley face.

In December 2014, a judge dismissed Watt’s lawsuit against Galli and he was immediately promoted. (Watt settled with Vanderbilt University, which she had also sued.) Miller says she was alarmed by Galli’s promotion, and in January 2015 reported the alleged events of the July 2014 dinner to a Vanderbilt administrator. McLaughlin testified in the ensuing investigation, backing up Miller’s account. In August 2015, investigators determined that the evidence they had obtained could not support a finding of harassment, according to a letter to Miller from Vanderbilt’s Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Department (EAD).

Whoa. So much awful in that one story. A student, Erin Watt, abandons a career in science because her advisor was a jerk. Nothing happens to the jerk advisor except that he gets promoted, and uses his advancement to make a lateral move to another university. We have two eyewitness testimonials to horrible behavior by said jerk. The jerk then illogically tries to dismiss the accounts by waving around a thank-you note, as if it is impossible for an asshole to serve a good meal. And now various poisonous persons are using the fact that she reported the jerk’s ugly behavior to get her fired.

This does not speak well of the environment at Vanderbilt, which is a shame — I gave a job talk there decades ago and was impressed with the program, and it was high on my list of desirable positions.

I’ve also seen these tenure battles from a couple of perspectives now, and I can say that they’re always ugly and they never end well — even if you win, you lose. McLaughlin deserves to win, but she’s probably better off finding a new home, one that hasn’t been trampled over by the “harassholes”, where her talents will be appreciated. On the other hand, there is virtue in crushing your enemies. What a difficult situation!

No. A Portland professor is not being railroaded.

“No” is usually the right answer when an article is headlined with a question. Jesse Singal has authored an article in NY Magazine titled, Is a Portland Professor Being Railroaded by His University for Criticizing Social-Justice Research?, and think we can cut through all the garbage by simply saying “no.” Singal tries to present both sides, but one side is not at all convincing.

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a mini forum which showcased a variety of different views on the subject. “The entire force of their stunt lies in the fact that they managed to get several satirical papers published,” wrote the University of Washington biologist Carl T. Bergstrom. “But it makes no sense to judge the health of a field by looking at what an insincere author can get through peer review.” On the other side was Yascha Mounk, a Harvard lecturer in government, who condemned the circling of the academic wagons and what he viewed as unfair attempts to undermine the hoaxsters. “[E]ven if all of the charges laid at the feet of Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian were true, they would have demonstrated a very worrying fact,” he wrote. “Some of the leading journals in areas like gender studies have failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit.”

I think Bergstrom already answered Mounck’s objection. You can find bad papers getting published in every field, even, for instance, molecular biology. That there are swarms of worthless submissions and that a few of them leak through is inevitable and to be expected; we shouldn’t be blithe about it, of course, and we should act to tighten up procedures where ever the problem arises, but there was no serious, responsible call to action by the “grievance studies” experiment, other than to simply abolish all of gender studies.

I would point to one extreme example of bad science in molecular biology: the ENCODE project. Does the existence of that badly executed and interpreted project mean that all of molecular biology has “failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit”? I don’t think so. And before you whine about the inclusion of morality as a criterion, I remind you that ENCODE cost $200 million dollars, and if you don’t think sucking away that much money lacks both scientific and moral consequences, well, I don’t think you’ve got much in the way of an intellectual contribution to make.

Here’s the money shot from Singal’s article, though, and why it’s safe to answer “no” to that question.

For the purposes of Peter Boghossian’s case, three facts about IRBs matter a great deal: “study” is defined rather broadly in the federal guidelines; possible risks to humans — even ones that non-IRB nerds may view as negligible — are taken very seriously; and IRBs tend to look especially closely at studies involving deception. For these and other reasons, each of the four IRB experts I spoke or emailed with agreed that yes, the grievance-studies hoax needed IRB approval; yes, it clearly involved human subjects; and no, PSU’s decision to investigate it on that front cannot be reasonably viewed, on its own, as politically motivated. In other words: This particular aspect of the university’s response smells more like a standard reaction to improperly vetted research than a witch hunt.

All the rest is noise; yes, people complain about the onerous paperwork of IRBs, and sometimes the committees tie up research, but only a fool would suggest that we get rid of them altogether.

One other point is that Boghossian is afraid he might get fired. He should be! Not because this one “study”, but because he’s already on somewhat shaky ground. Boghossian is a non-tenured, non-tenure track assistant professor! He has no path to promotion, and he’s probably on a year-by-year contract. This is not to say that it is a good thing how PSU manages their faculty: they have 9 tenured/tenure track philosophy faculty, an equal number of adjuncts, and 6 full time non-tenured instructors, of which Boghossian is one. He’s employed as long as his department finds him a useful contributor to their teaching needs, but if the negatives start to outweigh his utility, they could easily let him go at their next contract review. And this is academia…it’s not as if there aren’t heaps of philosophy Ph.D.s who’d love to get a full-time appointment in a lovely city like Portland.

I doubt that this fuck-up he’s made will get him fired, but it will put a black mark on his record, and administrators will remember it. I would suspect that he’s already signed a contract for next year — no one likes last minute, rushed job searches to fill an abruptly vacated position — so what will be interesting is what PSU does next year, after all the hubbub about this issue has died down, and it’s decided whether his appointment is renewed.

If I were him, I’d be shopping my CV around right now. Although he might be instead banking on notoriety to help him squeeze donations out of alt-right fanbois, since he’ll have his very own grievance to tout.

Boghossian in a panic!

He thinks he’s going to be fired from his position at Portland State. That’s not necessarily the case, but Boghossian has been found guilty of ethical misconduct for his “grievance studies” exercise.

Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University and the only one of three researchers on the project to hold a full-time academic position, was found by his institutional review board to have committed research misconduct. Specifically, he failed to secure its approval before proceeding with research on human subjects — in this case, the journal editors and reviewers he was tricking with his absurd but seemingly well-researched papers.

Their defense is peculiar. James Lindsay literally says “It’s not actually scholarship”, Pluckrose says, “They can’t say we needed IRB approval…because there weren’t any real human subjects”, and that they couldn’t ask for IRB approval because that would tip off the (human) reviewers they were trying to trick. But that’s nonsense — of course you can do blind and double-blind studies on humans, IRBs approve those all the time. Here’s what they actually expected:

“An IRB protocol application should have been submitted to the Office of Research Integrity,” reads a determination letter from Portland state’s IRB dated last month. “University policy requires that all research involving human subjects conducted by faculty, other employees and students [on campus] must have prior review and approval by the IRB.”

Exactly. As an extra bonus, having an official declaration of exactly what they were trying to do and how they planned to analyze it ahead of time would have been more persuasive that they were actually doing a real study. But they weren’t, and they’ve even admitted it — if it’s not really scholarship, then what was it? I don’t know. Garbage? A publicity stunt? Propaganda?

It’s also the hypocrisy.

Over all, Christensen said he and Sears believe that Boghossian “wants to have it both ways.” That is, publicly presenting his project as a “rigorous study that exposed flaws in the peer-review system” while also “claiming that the hoax wasn’t a genuine study, and therefore IRB approval doesn’t apply.”

I don’t do research on humans, but even I know this kind of work demands IRB review (spider research doesn’t, at all), and I’m a bit shocked that they didn’t even discuss it with an IRB officer. I don’t even see any reason to expect that the application would be turned down, except possibly over its lack of rigor and poor foundation. By not going through the protocols — which even Boghossian admits are important and necessary — they did a disservice to research.

I agree with this assessment.

“We think that he did commit academic fraud, by design, and that some professional sanctions might be warranted,” Christensen continued. Boghossian and his colleagues “did misrepresent themselves, they did falsify their evidence and they did commit a serious infraction of research misconduct by deceiving these editors, wasting the time of the readers and then publicly slandering the journals and their fields. It is the right of any university to investigate fraud perpetrated by its employees.”

They also wasted the time of reviewers — you know that reviewing papers is unpaid service work for professors, right?

But guess who is defending Boghossian: Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker. Of course.

At least we’ve got the authors on record now admitting that their “study” wasn’t a study, and wasn’t even any kind of scholarship at all.

Dysfunctional academics

The Avital Ronell story was ugly enough, but now more critics are emerging. This one is from a former colleague of Ronell’s who was displaced by her as head of the department, so there’s some obvious disgruntlement that might warrant dialing it down a few notches, but even so…the German department at NYU was a dysfunctional mess, largely because of Ronell’s ego.

Before I offered Avital Ronell her job, I’d had many in-depth conversations with her. She engaged my queries with what seemed like understanding. She said she’d throw herself into the building of an integrated study and research program. She promised actively to contribute to department research, conferences and publications. Once she had assumed the position, however, she broke all her promises. She did her best to sabotage the program. She pursued one goal: The work of Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida must be at the center of all teaching and research. Instead of an academic program, we were left with boundless narcissism. Once she’d become the head of the German department, she had her secretary announce in a departmental meeting that in the German department no student’s written work would any longer be acceptable unless it cited Derrida and Ronell.

Whoa. No one would stand for that kind of nonsense in any department I’ve ever been part of — to dictate content in student work is simply not done. Somehow, I suspect that citing Ronell to criticize her work would not be acceptable.

From her second semester onward Professor Ronell reigned with an authoritarian hand, gloved in her well-proven hypocrisy. Instructors whom I had brought to the department either submitted to her regime or lost their jobs, always according to the letter of the law and in discussion with the dean, never in consultation with members of the German department. Once, she drafted a secret dissenting opinion against the unanimous decision of a commission and submitted it to the dean. The protest we as a department made to the dean against the dismissal of a junior professor fell on deaf ears. He would make no decision that ran counter to the will of the chairperson. The cynicism of Professor Ronell’s reasoning was hard to beat. The dismissal of this junior colleague was in this professor’s best interests, she explained, for she would not have felt comfortable in the department. In fact, Ronell wanted this colleague to leave because she was not prepared to be subservient. Someone else was found to fill in. Sure, the new hire had no experience, but at least she was ready to submit to Professor Ronell.

Now that I have seen — some deans see their role as one of imposing their vision of the discipline in the department. It never works. It only demoralizes the faculty.

The quality of teaching in the department unraveled. The carefully planned program of teaching German literature was ignored. Many students arrived in the department with minimal knowledge of German literature or history. The courses that were meant to correct this no longer existed. Now philosophy, from Hegel to Judith Butler, was taught. But multidisciplinarity quickly deteriorated into dilettantism. Students were encouraged to take philosophy seminars at other universities. Soon, students who had learned about deconstruction and feminism in Paris, but who had no idea who Gottfried Benn, Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin were, were no exception in the department. As one student told me, “We study in a German department where French theory is taught in English.”

I am amazed even today that we succeeded in preventing the inclusion of a clause in the German department’s charter that would have exempted students from mastering the German language. It was Professor Ronell who, in all seriousness, made this suggestion. In fact, however, she admitted students who spoke English and French, but not a word of German — but they had studied in Paris and proven in their term papers that they were Derrida connoisseurs.

She tried to make knowledge of German optional in a German department? OK. That sounds a bit off. That’s like a biology department deciding students can graduate with no knowledge of biology, as long as they know some physics.

And then the article gets brutal.

Now, however, a few commentators will have us know that the case of Ronell is a fresh example of the oppression of a leftist feminist by conservative white men. This political polarization is crude, and its goal transparent: This is war, and ranks are closing around Ronell.

Leftist? Avital Ronell’s father figures are Martin Heidegger and, often quoted and paraphrased, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Who could possibly describe them as left-leaning theorists? If Ronell has a political agenda, it is the liquidation of the legacy of 1968.

In the German newspapers Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronell has been elevated to the “shining light” of feminist studies. I had to read this description twice before I could believe my eyes. Anyone trying to find a substantial contribution to feminist thought in her work will be searching for a long time. And “shining light”? If pure ignorance did not produce this phrase, then it is simply the reality-denying militancy of ideology. If “light” is supposed to refer to the Enlightenment, this is also a perversion of standards. Few other books in recent years have served the Counter-Enlightenment as well as Avital Ronell’s books. Her hypocrisy serves the commentators’ lack of insight. She likes to cast herself as diabolical and loves the color black — but only in the sanctuary of her inner circle. As soon as her audience grows beyond those confines, she performs a new role, namely, that of the fragile and vulnerable woman.

Everyone has an ideology. That she told everyone what her label was supposed to be doesn’t mean she fit it well, and we should not judge (or avoid judging) people because of the banner they fly. Leftists can be bad people, too.

Why does Jordan Peterson hate education?

Sheesh. Jordan Peterson came out with a video in collaboration with the awful PragerU, and it’s basically an anti-education screed, relying on misrepresenting universities, students, postmodernism, Marxism, and all the things he hates uncomprehendingly. So I responded to it.

I include my sorta script down below, but I’m not sure how comprehensible it’ll be, since the video is just me commenting on still frames from the PragerU BS. You’ll probably find ContraPoints on Peterson’s incoherence more enlightening.

[Read more…]

When the mask slips…

“Free speech” is a favored cause for the right wing, but they don’t really believe in it: it’s a sound bite, a meme, a tool they can use to silence others. The latest example comes from Niall Ferguson, you know, this Niall Ferguson, the well known academic whose views are so totally suppressed by PC culture:

Ferguson himself is well-known for his conservative views. He made headlines in March for organizing a conference of 30 white male historians.

In 2013, for instance, he stated that acclaimed economist John Maynard Keynes did not care to consider future generations when discussing current affairs because he was gay. Ferguson later apologized for the statement.

He has also been criticized for his outspoken support of colonialism and the British empire.

We must have missed him in the bloody purge of right-wing assholes from university campuses. That happened, right? Anyway, he was an advisor to some abomination called the Hoover Institute, the conservative think-tank with an endowment of almost half a billion dollars and the mission of spreading capitalist propaganda on college campuses; he also has connections to Turning Point USA, which has the same mission, buckets of money, and a reputation for brain-dead stupidity that ought to persuade any kind of respectable academic to avoid them.

But not Niall Ferguson!

Even worse, some of his private emails were leaked — they were accidentally forwarded to someone not in his trusted circle of wingnut associates — and it’s been revealed that he and various organizations on the Stanford campus weren’t really interested in promoting the free discussion of controversial ideas. It was all about baiting their ideological opposition and crushing their left-wing critics.

As The Stanford Daily reported on Thursday, newly public emails show that Ferguson’s eagerness to fight off what he saw as encroaching political correctness led the historian to some bizarre extracurricular activity. Ferguson teamed up with a group of student Republicans, led by John Rice-Cameron, to wage a covert political battle against Michael Ocon, a student they viewed as excessively left-wing. In the e-mails they refer to Ocon as “Mr. O” and talk about ways to discredit him. “Some opposition research on Mr. O might also be worthwhile,” Ferguson wrote. Ferguson’s research assistant Max Minshull was tasked with the job of collecting the dirt on Ocon.

“Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” Ferguson wrote in another email. “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Rice-Cameron, the son of Barack Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, was equally grandiose. “Slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure,” Rice-Cameron crowed in an email, showing he has a great future ahead of him doing Darth Vader cosplay.

Further, it was clear that they brought in the repulsive Charles Murray simply to piss off the campus left. The whole charade is an exercise in antagonism — this is why the Murrays and the Dinesh D’Souzas and the Ann Coulters still thrive on the right. It’s not because they bring in fresh insights and challenge conventional ideas — they are the tired old hatreds of the status quo — but because they are good at inflaming and posturing and aggravating with lies. We should be aware of exactly what they are doing.

It’s a kind of power game. The goal isn’t to vindicate the abstract right to free speech but to assert the right’s power and influence over campus discourse — to force the campus mainstream into a choice between allowing vile ideas to spread or looking hostile to free speech.

The Ferguson emails are an unusually clear admission that this is what’s going on. Digging up dirt on a student in an attempt to silence their activism isn’t about “free speech” — it’s about suppressing left-wing speech. The entire framing of the Cardinal Conversations in the emails positions the initiative, which Ferguson ran, as part of a broader war on “the Left” and “SJWs.”

You know, I’ve been part of many conversations over the years about who should be invited to give campus talks — I’ve never heard anyone suggest that we ought to bring in X because they’d set the College Republicans on fire, or crush the Right. We invest in speakers who have stimulating ideas and good stories to tell. When we factor in the response of the reactionary right at all, it’s to suggest that Speaker X might help them learn.

I can’t imagine suggesting that we need to do “opposition research” on individual students at the university. There are some terrible people enrolled at any school, but all we have to do is wait for them to do something stupid in public (although we’d rather they didn’t, and just wised up). But I guess if you’re a professor with appointments at Stanford and Oxford you don’t have to be a responsible educator anymore.

The devaluation of knowledge accelerates

Here’s an announcement that kind of says it all.

Southern Illinois University Carbondale is asking department chairs to recruit graduates to serve as adjunct faculty on a volunteer basis.

A statement from the office of SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno, posted on the chancellor’s website Tuesday afternoon, indicated that the university is developing a “pilot project” in collaboration with the SIU Alumni Association to “create a pool of potential, volunteer adjuncts with advanced academic degrees who might contribute as needed for up to three years after their approval.”

I’ve written a few rants about the appalling practice of universities surviving on the backs of poorly paid, part-time temporary faculty, that we churn out brilliant, educated people that we then put in such desperate straits that they’ll work for a pittance, and for long hours. But they were paid…poorly. Now we’re at the stage where the administrators, who are better paid than the faculty, are thinking they can get our intellectual labor for free.

If, 40 years ago when I was a graduate student, I had heard about this practice, I would have decided it was time to leave science and find an occupation that would keep me and my family alive. Not because I wanted to, but because it would be necessary.

We are looking at the end result of years of Republican misrule, of long efforts to starve and destroy the infrastructure of this nation.

Hey, look! It’s a tenure-track biology job!

The University of Minnesota, Morris biology discipline has been approved to fill a tenure track line in biology. Here’s the description:

The University of Minnesota, Morris Division of Science and Mathematics seeks an individual committed to excellence in undergraduate education, to fill a tenure-track position in biology beginning August 20, 2018.

Required/Preferred Qualifications:

Required: Applicants must hold or expect to receive a Ph.D. in molecular biology or related field by August 20, 2018. Experience and evidence of excellence in teaching and mentoring undergraduate biology students is required (graduate TA experience is acceptable.)

Preferred: Preference will be given to applicants who are able to develop and teach upper-level elective courses in their area of expertise and which complement those offered by the current biology faculty. Applicants with expertise in quantitative approaches to molecular-scale data are strongly encouraged to apply.

About the Job

Duties/Responsibilities: Teaching undergraduate biology courses including introductory biology, molecular biology with lab, electives in the applicant’s areas of expertise, and other courses that support the biology program; advising undergraduates; conducting research that could involve undergraduates and potentially in collaboration with our data sciences faculty; and sharing in the governance and advancement of the biology program, the division, and the campus.

This tenure-track position carries all of the privileges and responsibilities of University of Minnesota faculty appointments. A sound retirement plan, excellent fringe benefits and a collegial atmosphere are among the benefits that accompany the position. Appointment will be at the Assistant Professor level for those having the Ph.D. in hand and at the Instructor level for those whose Ph.D. is pending. The standard teaching load is twenty credit hours per year.

As a small university, note the teaching requirements: we need someone to help teach molecular biology, so wet lab experience is important. Molecular biology is an awfully broad category, though, so also note the buried detail: “Applicants with expertise in quantitative approaches to molecular-scale data are strongly encouraged to apply.” The magic word there is “quantitative”. We’re looking for someone who applies quantitative analysis to their work. We’re wide open to a lot of different approaches. Are you a bioinformatics person who is analyzing the evolution of specific genes? Lovely. Are you a systematist studying plant taxa with quantitative techniques? Go for it. Looking at biomechanics? We don’t do that here, but it would be cool to have it. We just hired a big data guy in computer science and statistics, so being able to work with that field is a big plus. Help us add a deeper mathematical element to undergraduate education.

Why should you apply here? We’re on the western prairies of Minnesota (no, we’re not located in Minneapolis/St Paul, so don’t think we’re a big city place) and kind of remote — if you like small town life, it’s a great place to be. Our university strongly emphasizes a quality education, personalized and supportive, so if teaching is your bag, we want to hear from you.

Shorter summary: we are looking for a biologist who likes math and teaching. Come join us!

Please. Education is not a horserace.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t use the classroom to proselytize atheism. I have a job to do, and that is to help the students learn biology, and that’s all I care about — that they graduate after a few years and understand the concepts and can apply them, and if can do that while believing in Jesus or Allah, that’s just fine.

There’s another thing I don’t do, and that is penalize them for their health or situation. You’ve got clinical depression or your grandmother died or you had a nasty break-up with your romantic friend? I’ll make what accommodations I can, because I want you to get through all of that and learn biology. That’s all I can judge you on, is your mastery of the material, but I will welcome any changes that can help you out.

But all too often I run into non-academics (and sometimes even academics) who don’t understand this basic idea, that we’re supposed to help our students learn. So someone like Margaret Wente can write drivel like “Why treat university students like fragile flowers?”

The first answer is that we don’t. We have standards that have to be met in order to pass a course, and they’re not “be free of mental health concerns” or “have a stable family life” or “be rich enough that you don’t have to work part-time”. If you have an illness that makes mastering the course material difficult for you, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass; it means you should talk to me and I’ll do what I can to give you the opportunity to learn it in spite of your handicap. My job is to make all the flowers blossom, not to make half of them wither if they need a little extra watering.

However, there are things that Wente objects to.

Today, any proper university has registered therapy dogs to cheer you up. If exams have you down, drop in for a lick and a cuddle and you’ll feel better in no time. And if you’re too depressed because of Grandma, no problem. The disability office will provide you with a private room and extra time to write your final. Your professor never even needs to know.

Today, colleges and universities are highly concerned with the mental well-being of their students. Student distress, we’re told, is at an all-time high. It’s the pressure. The competition. Social media. Career anxiety. Long commutes. Money worries. Cyberbullying.

Therapy dogs are bad? Why? I want a therapy puppy to visit when grading gets me down! I suspect students learn better when they’re less stressed. All I care about, remember, is student learning.

I have students who take their exams at our office of student learning. We have students with agoraphobia, with test anxiety, who are easily distracted, who have language issues and need extra time. Why shouldn’t they get an environment that reduces those concerns and allows them to demonstrate their knowledge better? Why does Margaret Wente think learning has to be a stress test?

Meanwhile, the definition of “disability” – originally used for physical issues – has expanded beyond recognition. Now, it includes not only learning disabilities, but all manner of mental, social and cognitive disorders – anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, PTSD and the like. These may also require special accommodation. As a consequence, universities now routinely give students extra time to write exams and finish assignments. But not all professors are happy about this. But it’s not up to them any more – it’s up to the ever-expanding disability bureaucracy.

Wait. So we should accommodate ex-military students, for instance, who’ve had an arm blown off, because that’s a visible injury, but students with bodies intact but suffering from PTSD don’t count? Why? If my university provides the resources to reduce anxiety for anxiety-prone students, why shouldn’t we take advantage of it? It’s not as if anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, or PTSD make you stupid and incapable of learning cell biology or genetics; it means there are extra hurdles for you to overcome, and hey, if we can clear away the barriers to learning, I’m all for it.

But they get extra benefits, like more time to work on an exam, and that’s not fair! It’s also not fair to be afflicted depression or migraines or PTSD. We’re not demanding that every student be equally traumatized to create a level playing field, you know. The mistake is to think of education as a game where there are winners and losers rather than an experience in which we try to make sure every single student comes out at the end with more knowledge. It’s not a competition.

Wente finds someone who shares her barbaric attitudes.

Bruce Pardy, a law professor at Queen’s University, thinks the accommodation industry has gone too far. Giving someone with mental-health problems extra time to write an exam doesn’t level the playing field, he says. It simply tilts the playing field against everybody else. As he wrote recently: “The purpose of exams and assignments is not merely to test knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability but to do so under conditions that require poise, organization, forward planning, and grace under pressure.” He says it’s like letting someone with a limp start at the 20-metre mark in a 100-metre race. The results are meaningless.

Stop with the “playing field” bullshit already! It’s not a race. It’s not a contest. I’m not trying to determine who “wins” in my cell biology class. I do test “knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability”, because I want the students to be prepared for the next course in the sequence, or for graduate/professional school, or the workplace.

If you want to demand grace under pressure, though, I can cover that. I’ve got students who are working two jobs to pay for college. I’ve got students from broken homes. I’ve got students who were poorly served by their high schools who are working twice as hard to catch up. If we must analogize it to a race, these are students who start 20-meters behind the other students, and Pardy is complaining that we are trying to help them get to the starting line before the starting gun. We’re still going to insist that they make it to the finish line to get credit, and we even evaluate them on their performance. To decide a priori that the person with the limp can do nothing to get around the meaninglessness of their efforts is heartless and wrong.

I have no idea who Wente is, but I’m going to guess she’s conservative, and the Canadian version of a Republican. The callous disregard for others’ situation, the lack of empathy, and the inability to imagine the utility of helping all to succeed, rather than just the “winners”, is a giveaway.

Another fine academic sexual harassment mess

There doesn’t seem to be any question that Andrew Escobedo, a professor of English at Ohio University, sexually assaulted several of his students, and then threatened them if they exposed him. The case looks like a done deal.

…the school’s civil rights office issued a graphic 78-page report that not only substantiated their claims but also those of two other women alleging sexual harassment by Escobedo dating back to 2003. Escobedo denied the accusations, but his bosses, from the dean and provost to the president, agreed he should be fired.

It also looks to me like Escobedo has basically confessed.

After the investigation finished, Escobedo wrote a letter to colleagues — outing the names of witnesses and alleged victims — in which he said they had multiple opportunities to move away from him, yet they didn’t. Adams and Hempstead told investigators they feared that if they more forcefully rejected Escobedo, he could retaliate when giving them their final grades.

That letter…yikes. While vehemently protesting that he didn’t do it, and the witnesses couldn’t have seen him do it, and that it was the students’ fault for not running away from his grabby hands, and he was really drunk anyway, he also proposes that appropriate punishments would be a year of unpaid leave (in the business, we call those “sabbaticals”) and a permanent ban on working with grad students. He’s bargaining about the degree of guilt! Ick.

But he’s not out yet. He has been suspended from teaching duties, but he’s still getting paid.

The administration may want Escobedo gone, and the school’s own report may have painted Escobedo as a predator who “has engaged in a pattern of exploiting females who are subordinate” to him, but because of tenure, university policies entitle him to an administrative process that has kept him on staff for months. The Athens News reports that Escobedo’s salary last year was $87,000. At any time, Escobedo could resign without facing formal punishment, something the graduate students want to prevent.

Now Adams and Hempstead are questioning whether tenure, a system they both believe in as it safeguards intellectual freedom, has actually hamstrung how universities like theirs deal with sexual harassment cases.

Wait a minute — this looks like a case where the system is working. Escobedo was reported in March of 2016, and he was removed from his teaching responsibilities fairly quickly. That 78 page report was completed in December of that year, so a thorough turnaround in 9 months is simply amazing to anyone who knows how slowly academic bureaucracies grind. The breakdown of the schedule of the investigation shows that while it was lengthy, it was also prolonged by protocol.

Ohio University said it strives to finish investigations within 60 days, but it can be tough booking witnesses for interviews. That’s why the probe of Escobedo’s behavior took nearly nine months. The president then took almost three months to weigh in on how to punish Escobedo. Escobedo then had 30 days to request a hearing before the faculty senate to challenge the firing recommendation, and another 60 days to prepare his defense. Escobedo’s hearing is scheduled for Sept. 1 — nearly 18 months after Adams and Hempstead formally complained about him.

That is not unreasonable. You don’t want tenure decisions to be lightly rescinded, since that would defeat the whole point of tenure.

Now, in light of all the evidence against him, if Escobedo is not fired after his hearing, then there are grounds to complain. Keep in mind that his colleagues are also eager for a certain resolution of this problem because they are currently paying for a faculty line that is doing nothing, so his teaching load has been distributed among others, which is not an acceptable solution. Everyone in a department has to work to keep students progressing smoothly.

The one flaw in the system, though, is that “At any time, Escobedo could resign without facing formal punishment”, and move on to apply for new positions elsewhere, without a big black flag on his record. The internet does provide an informal check (imagine future hiring committees googling “Andrew Escobedo Ohio University”) which probably means his academic career is dead, but still…being able to just put “Resigned” on his CV and invent a bullshit excuse that won’t be checked gives him an out. It also means that when prospective employers check on his work history, Ohio University can pretend the sordid mess did not occur and say something bland.

Having tenure does not mean that you no longer have to worry about the repercussions of your actions.


Oh. Escobedo has already resigned. OK, English hiring committees, keep an eye open for CVs with his name on them. You don’t want to hire him.