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Publish and perish

Science | Iowa State denies tenure to an intelligent design advocate with impeccable credentials

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez never anticipated becoming a test case for academic freedom. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, the self-described "geek-scientist" is heralded throughout his field for developing the concept of a Galactic Habitable Zone. Journals such as Nature, Science, and Scientific American have featured his work.

But in his spare time, Gonzalez shuns scientific orthodoxy to research evidence for intelligent design (ID), an extracurricular pursuit that draws sharp criticism from many colleagues and now threatens his job. Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy denied Gonzalez tenure last month despite a distinguished publishing record that includes 68 peer-reviewed articles.

"I was surprised and a little depressed," Gonzalez said of his emotional reaction. "I almost decided not to turn in an appeal, but several friends convinced me to do so. This might have precedent, so it was important for me to go through it for the sake of others who might go through this in the future."

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Gonzalez filed his appeal May 8. President Geoffroy has until June 6 to consider overturning his initial ruling, an unlikely reversal that would defy the consensus recommendation from the tenured faculty of the Physics and Astronomy Department, the chair of that department, a committee from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the dean of that college, and the university provost.

Gonzalez elected not to share with WORLD the specific stated reasons for his tenure denial or the substance of his appeal, fearing such public revelations might hinder the process. He referred to the disputed issues in more general terms: "I really don't think they have a legitimate reason for denying me tenure." He also said that possible discrimination for his views on intelligent design was one of his concerns.

Geoffroy declined to make any public comment on the matter while it remains under review. But Eli Rosenberg, chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department, told WORLD the central issue was not ID: "That was not an overriding factor in the decision that was made at the departmental level. You take a look at somebody's research record over the six-year probationary period and you get a sense whether this is a strong case. Clearly, this was a case that looked like it might be in trouble."

John West of the ID-advancing Discovery Institute, which counts Gonzalez among its senior fellows, scoffs at that explanation. "His department's standards for excellence in research require 15 peer-reviewed publications. Guillermo has nearly 70," West said. "It's pretty apparent that the reason for this tenure denial is because he is a proponent of intelligent design." Statistics obtained by the Discovery Institute reveal that 91 percent of faculty up for tenure this year were approved. Gonzalez fell short of that soft standard despite co-authoring one of his department's textbooks last year.

Two years ago, on the heels of Gonzalez publishing his pro-ID book The Privileged Planet, Iowa State religious studies professor Hector Avalos circulated a petition calling for university faculty to denounce ID as non-science. Avalos, an avowed atheist, procured the signatures of 120 faculty members and generated what Gonzalez calls "an extreme level of hostility against me."

Curtis Struck, a colleague of Gonzalez in the Physics and Astronomy Department and professor at ISU for 24 years, told WORLD he was not surprised by the decision to deny tenure. "Some of Guillermo's papers any astronomer would be proud to have written. Some others that is not the case," Struck said. "He includes some things in his astronomy resumé that other people regard as taking a coincidence too far."

Specifically, Gonzalez listed The Privileged Planet on his resumé when applying for tenure. Rosenberg admitted that the presence of that text played into the decision-making process. He also explained that the reputation of a professor among others in his field is a significant factor.

Gonzalez said he does not regret his ID work despite the resultant grief. He has never introduced the topic into his classes and sees no reason why academia should require him to abandon a personal interest. "I've never been involved in any of the educational debates over whether creation or evolution should be taught in schools. I just want to do ID research on my time," he said. "Maybe I should have waited until after I received tenure."

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