Monday, July 23, 2012

The Gaskell Affair

C. Gordon Gaskell is an astronomer with an impressive record who sued the University of Kentucky because he was allegedly denied a position as an observatory director because of his religious beliefs, and instead the position was given to an applicant with a "less qualified" record.

It so happens I worked at a campus that routinely turns down top-tier applicants in favor of "less qualified" applicants. It all hinges on how you define "qualified." The most common scenario is to get an application from someone with a dazzling research record who tells us she wants to teach, say, graduate level courses in oxygen isotope geochemistry. However, since jobs at that level are hard to come by, she'll condescend to grace us with her presence until that job at Harvard opens up. Never mind the fact that we don't have a course in geochemistry, still less one in oxygen isotope geochemistry, let alone one at the graduate level. We need generalists, people who can cover a broad variety of courses, especially at the introductory level. It's called "programmatic fit," and our job descriptions always stress things like breadth and versatility. Moral, a raw resume is only part of the story. That's why there are interviews. Someone like our hypothetical applicant isn't "overqualified;" she's unqualified.

Fortunately, the National Center for Science Education has posted all the documents pertaining to the case. The most informative documents are Gaskell's deposition dated January 13, 2010, and UK's defense memorandum of September 29, 2010.

Gaskell has an impressive record with more than 200 professional publications going back 25 years and a sustained history of getting grants. His first professional position was a tenure track appointment at the University of Michigan, but he was denied tenure after four years, in his words, because he hadn't been aggressive enough in applying for funding. Now, for the record, if there's one thing I would ban, it's using grantsmanship in hiring and promotion, but getting grants was part of the job expectations. There's already enough here to make my Spidey-sense tingle:

    • Most universities have a six year probationary period. The tenure decision is made in the fifth year to give the candidate a year to find another position if the decision is negative. Early tenure is usually a sign that a candidate has a really extraordinary record. What made Gaskell think he had a strong enough record to make early tenure at a research institution like the University of Michigan?
    • Why did he leave, even though he had time remaining? Was he so far behind the curve he couldn't catch up?
    • Even given the truly crappy job market in astronomy, why wasn't he able to find a tenure-track position somewhere else?

      He finally ended up at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, teaching astronomy and doing research, and also running a small observatory, which would seem to make him a perfect fit for the UK job. But this was not a tenure-track position, it was a short-term position repeatedly renewed. The job in Nebraska finally terminated in 2007 when the Astronomy program was ended and merged with the Physics program.

      After his initial application, Gaskell requested that UK not contact his boss in Nebraska. This has red-flag potential. Some supervisors might retaliate if they knew an employee was seeking a job elsewhere, though why it would be an issue in a job that was about to end isn't clear. But when Gaskell obtained a position elsewhere (again, temporary), the search committee at UK felt it was appropriate to contact Roger Kirby, Gaskell's boss at Nebraska. According to the UK defense memorandum:

      Kirby said that Gaskell’s main source of conflict with the UNL faculty was his constant desire to decrease his teaching load. (Cavagnero, p. 95). Although Gaskell had been hired to primarily teach, Kirby told Cavagnero that Gaskell applied some of his research funding toward the hiring of an instructor to replace him as a teacher so that he could focus more exclusively on research. (Id.). Kirby was placed in a difficult position of having to hire replacement instructors.

      Whoa! Bridge Out! The guy was hired at Nebraska to teach. Then he used some of his research money to hire replacements, or more precisely, foist the job of hiring them onto his boss. Believe it or not, I once ran into this myself. I was chair of a large unit with people from numerous programs. One guy applied to take a year leave of absence. After a number of things aroused my suspicions, I finally asked him "This is going to be an unpaid leave, right?" "Oh, no," came the reply. He was going to collect his paycheck and use it to hire ad hoc lecturers to cover his courses. I thought: You. Have. Got. To. Be. F#@#$#%. Kidding. Me. If the legislature or the media had ever found out, they'd have had a feeding frenzy. If you can hire someone to do your job at half pay, what are we paying you the rest for? So we voted no.

      Gaskell's job at UK would have been running the observatory, teaching intro astronomy, and public outreach. His record at Nebraska suggested strongly that his intent was to do research and use his grant money to pay other people to cover his primary responsibilities. Also he wanted a salary at the upper end of the range in the position announcement (about $70K). If I'd been on the search committee, I'd have said "Stick a fork in it. We're done."

      Gaskell also has a personal page on connections between science and religion. Gaskell is not a creationist and has no problems with the conventional chronology of the earth and universe, or even with biological evolution guided by God. Nevertheless, it's pretty cringe-worthy reading, even if - especially if - it's aimed at a non-specialist audience. A big chunk of it is devoted to quotes demonstrating that famous scientists of the past believed in God. It's not at all the level of writing or analysis I'd expect from someone with 200 research publications. Then there's a fairly appalling section devoted to trying to reconcile the scientific view of the universe with a rather literal reading of Genesis. But the really damaging portion comes right at the very end:

      There is a profound difference between believing that God created the world and people in the world rather than insisting that the origin of our universe and of ourselves is to be traced to an accidental chance combination of blind impersonal physical forces.  It as been said that it is doubtful whether the latter, purely mechanistic, atheistic view of our origins can be a sufficient basis for such human values as goodness, truth, justice and beauty, etc.

      Where does the science of evolution promote a "purely mechanistic, atheistic view of our origins?" Tell me that lots of atheists have misused evolution as a prop for their ideology, and there would be no problem whatsoever. But failing to distinguish between science and the ideological abuse of it is absolutely inexcusable in someone with Gaskell's record.

      Gaskell's religious views came up during his interview, given the religious climate of Kentucky and the opening of the Creationism museum tourist trap not far away. Gaskell could have made his beliefs a good selling point by arguing that he knows how to address religiously conservative audiences, and that he knows some of the things not to say. Instead he became defensive and criticized the questions as "inappropriate," thereby reinforcing concerns about his ability to separate his personal beliefs from his duties, and indeed, showing a complete lack of sensitivity to the likelihood that it could even be an issue.

      I really hoped UK would take this case down to the mat instead of selling science out and settling. The fact that he used grant money to buy out his teaching duties - for which he was hired! - at his previous position is enough to knock him out of contention. Especially since he expected a high end salary. Hire someone who has a demonstrated willingness to do the job, instead.

      It will also be interesting to find out what Gaskell hopes to gain from this case. He won't get the job at UK, and he has a position elsewhere (after being turned down by sixty institutions,) so he's going to have a hard time proving damages. Is he being supported by someone in this case?

      Win or lose, unfortunately, Gaskell will end up in the pantheon of creationists who were martyrs to their beliefs, like Raymond Damadian, who was denied a share in the Nobel Prize for developing MRI scans solely for being a creationist. Well, that and the pedantic reason that his method took hours, never yielded detailed information, and the actual winners spent seven years working on ways to develop what we now have, which is detailed images in seconds. Damadian made some key initial discoveries, to be sure, but he didn't develop a practical scanner.

      UK folded like a cheap card table. They settled with Gaskell for $125K, and each side pays its own legal bills. It's small consolation that Gaskell won't have much left after paying his legal tab, but he'll still paint himself as having "won." Gutless and spineless. If you want to major in craven cowardice, consider UK, which apparently stands for University of Kowardice.

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