Weighing in on Gonzalez's tenure decision
Yes, it's been a while since I posted on the blog (summer field season gets busy), but I wanted to weigh in on the decision at Iowa State University to deny tenure to Intelligent Design advocate Guillermo Gonzalez. The Discovery Institute is all over this claiming that denial of tenure is a slap in the face of academic freedom. Given how little the Discovery Institute knows about science, it's not surprising that they've got it all wrong on the tenure process as well. I've been through the tenure process now twice. Once at Indiana State and once at the University of Florida. I've been able to get tenure both times and have a pretty good insight into what it takes to receive tenure. Everyone is focusing on GG Intelligent Design views and very few have focused on what it takes to get tenure at a state University. First, tenure is not a guarantee. It's something that is earned and the decision is based on inputs from colleagues and peers across the country and even international. It's not based solely on what you've done so far, but that certainly plays a role. Tenure reviews are based on your previous work and your trajectory. A person who received multiple grants in their first two years of appointment and wrote 15 papers in those two years will not receive tenure if no grants or pubs were made in the subsequent 5 years. Similarly, a lack of grants or papers in the first two years is not going to stop someone from getting tenure if that person obtained funding and published a lot in the subsequent years. Tenure is based on the body of work and the likelihood of continued productivity once tenure is granted. Because tenure assures a lifetime of employment, the employer wants some assurance that the lifetime contract is going to work out for the insitution and department and not simply work out best for the person being given tenure. By all accounts, Gonzalez had a good publication record up to his involvement with the Disco Institute, but his trajectory was on a downslide and not an upslide. In his public statements regarding the rejection of Gonzalez's appeal, Iowa State University president makes the following observations:
Because the issue of tenure is a personnel matter, I am not able to share the detailed rationale for the decision, although that has been provided to Dr. Gonzalez. But I can outline the areas of focus of my review where I gave special attention to his overall record of scientific accomplishment while an assistant professor at Iowa State, since that gives the best indication of future achievement. I specifically considered refereed publications, his level of success in attracting research funding and grants, the amount of telescope observing time he had been granted, the number of graduate students he had supervised, and most importantly, the overall evidence of future career promise in the field of astronomy.I've bolded the most important part of the statement. Basically, this decision came down to the fact that his future career did not hold much promise. In fact, once Gonzalez began dabbling in the supernatural, his scientific career started to wilt. Tenured professor Michael Behe is on a similar decline since he started dabbling with the supernatural. For all intents and purposes, Behe is an academic dead-duck at Lehigh. Behe has tenure and cannot be fired, but Lehigh has lost out on this investment. Iowa State decided that the scientific trajectory of GG was most likely to lead to a dead end and followed the proper procedures for termination.
Tenure is not a guarantee. It's an earned privelege and tenure is not granted to everyone who applies. According to a report by the Chronicle for Higher Education in 2006:
Now, there are many reasons why the percentage is low, people move to new jobs, see the 'writing on the wall' and leave etc. The percentage of faculty who stay for the tenure decision and make it through the process is higher, but not 100%. Some simply refuse to see the writing on the wall and stick out the process. What troubles me most about the GG decision is that there was no warning shot in his direction. At UF, faculty are evaluated on a yearly basis and part of that evaluation (for non-tenured folk) is an estimate of what it will take to earn tenure. By the time a faculty member reaches the tenure point, the writing on the wall should be clear and the process should be transparent. Whether or not GG was warned that his package was not up to snuff is unknown as are the exact reasons for his tenure denial. Only GG knows what the decision letter says and he has not yet made that public. What we do know is that GG is not the only assistant professor to be denied tenure this year. He's simply the one making the largest stink about it.
Earning tenure at a major research university is one of the biggest hurdles of a professor's career. But just how many young scholars who start at a particular institution make it through the process and out the other side?
Only about half, says a new study that provides the first-ever data on the subject. A report on the study, called "Tenure Achievement Rates at Research Universities," was completed by Michael J. Dooris, director of planning research and assessment at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. The study found that only 53 percent of the 1,382 young scholars hired in the 1997-98 academic year by 10 major research universities stayed long enough to be considered for tenure and earned it. And a significantly smaller proportion of women succeeded than men: 48 percent versus 56 percent.