ID vs. Academic Integrity: Gaming the System in Ohio

Bryan Leonard is a recently visible figure in the intelligent design creationism movement. Leonard is a high school biology teacher at Hilliard Davidson High School in a suburb of Columbus. As an appointee to the Ohio State BOE’s model curriculum-writing committee, he was the author of the IDC-oriented “Critical Analysis” model lesson plan adopted by the Ohio State Board of Education last year, and he recently testified at the Kansas Creationist Kangaroo Court hearings. The credential that endears him to the IDC movement is that he is a doctoral candidate in science education at the Ohio State University, and his dissertation research is on the academic merits of an ID-based “critical analysis” approach to teaching evolution in public schools.

Leonard was scheduled to defend his dissertation yesterday, June 6, but we learned late last week that his defense has been postponed.

More below the fold.

Here are the facts as we know them and some reasonable inferences from those facts.

The Graduate School of the Ohio State University generally requires that a thesis defense be publicly announced. There’s some question whether the announcement of Leonard’s defense actually occurred. In any event, several members of the OSU faculty learned of Leonard’s impending defense and of the composition of the committee that was to conduct the examination.

The entity that actually grants the degree Leonard is seeking is the School of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education. Within that, the Science Education Ph.D. program requires that

Upon completion of the [candidacy] examination, the student may reorganize the committee to reflect the expertise needed for the dissertation. The dissertation committee must have at least three members: two from the science education program area and one from outside the science education program area. (Italics added)

Leonard’s final dissertation committee did not meet those requirements. It was composed of his advisor, Paul Post from the technology education program area of the section for Math, Science and Technology; Glen R. Needham of the Department of Entomology in the College of Biological Sciences; and Robert DiSilvestro of the Department of Human Nutrition in the College of Human Ecology. For the final defense an Assistant Professor from the department of French & Italian in the College of Humanities was also assigned to the committee to monitor the procedure. Thus, there were no members from the science education program area on Leonard’s final dissertation committee.

What is more noteworthy is that there are no members of Leonard’s dissertation committee who are specialists in science education or in evolutionary biology, even though Leonard’s dissertation is specifically directed at methods of teaching evolutionary biology in public school science classes. The two senior tenured members of the committee, DiSilvestro and Needham, in fact share a single salient qualification: they have both publicly associated themselves with the intelligent design creationist movement in Ohio and elsewhere.

DiSilvestro is an original signer of the Discovery Institute’s A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism statement and testified for the Intelligent Design Network at the recent Kansas Kangaroo Court hearings, as did Leonard. According to his departmental profile, DiSilvestro’s professional interests are “Nutritional biochemistry and clinical nutrition of antioxidant nutrients and phytochemicals, especially in regard to inflammatory aspects of disease and exercise recovery; mineral and phytochemical effects on weight loss.” According to a transcript of a recording supplied by an attendee, DiSilvestro told the Kansas Kangaroo Court that he doesn’t use evolutionary theory in his own research.

Needham has testified in support of IDC proposals before the Ohio State Board of Education. There is a department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology in the College of Biological Sciences, but Needham is not a member of that department. His research on ticks is only marginally related to evolution and he does not teach evolution. (See here from one of his colleagues in Entomology.)

DiSilvestro was contact person for the Ohio Intelligent Design Movement’s 52 Ohio Scientists Call for Academic Freedom on Darwin’s Theory petition, and Needham was a signer.

Leonard’s Ph.D. advisor, Paul E. Post, is primarily associated with technology education at the Ohio State University and has no visible credentials in science or science education. Post replaced Leonard’s first advisor, Paul Vellom, who was a science education specialist, when Vellom left OSU. It’s not clear why Leonard’s current Ph.D. advisor is not in his area of concentration.

As far as we are aware, DiSilvestro and Needham are the only two faculty members of the Ohio State University who have spoken publicly in support of Leonard’s approach to teaching evolution using intelligent design creationist-based materials. (Judging from the model lesson plan Leonard wrote for the Ohio State Board of Education, his materials are primarily drawn from Wells’s Icons of Evolution.) The committee deck was clearly stacked, and a “design inference” regarding the composition of Leonard’s committee seems warranted. As Michael Behe tells us

The strong appearance of design allows a disarmingly simple argument: if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it’s a duck. Design should not be overlooked simply because it’s so obvious.

When several members of the faculty of the Ohio State University brought these and other anomalies to the attention of appropriate administrators in the Graduate School, the novice Graduate School Representative on Leonard’s Committee, the assistant professor of French & Italian, asked to be relieved, and was immediately replaced by Dr. Joan Herbers, Dean of the College of Biological Sciences and an evolutionary biologist. Shortly thereafter, Leonard’s dissertation defense was postponed, apparently at the request of Leonard’s advisor in consultation with the Math, Science and Technology Education section head.

So what we have is a graduate student, by all reports an earnest young man, who has been led down the garden path, seemingly guided by a couple of tenured ID Creationist faculty members whose anti-evolution agenda apparently overrode any commitment to the integrity of the academic process, the value of graduate education and research, or the well-being of the student. The phrase “cynical manipulation” comes to mind. Regardless of whether Leonard was a willing participant in the exercise, the tenured faculty members involved have a direct responsibility – to education, to science, to their colleagues and university, and to Leonard himself – to ensure that the integrity of the degree-granting process at the Ohio State University is maintained.

By participating in a loaded committee for his dissertation defense, Leonard’s mentors demonstrated as clearly as possible that they have no confidence in Leonard or in the academic worthiness of his dissertation. Had it been otherwise, there’d have been no need to load up his committee with ID Creationists who have no professional qualifications in the subject of Leonard’s thesis research. That behavior is of a piece with the IDC strategy of the last couple of years: fix the jury and you don’t have to worry about the merits of your position. Sternberg publishing Meyer, Sermonti publishing Wells, the Kansas Creationist Kangaroo Court, and now the Leonard affair, all demonstrate the same pattern of behavior: game the system so the fix is in, and science (and education) be damned.

This is emphatically not a case of academic freedom. It is rather another example of academic carpetbagging by the DI and its associated IDC zealots. Academic freedom entails academic responsibility, and it is not apparent that Leonard’s mentors fulfilled their responsibility, either to Leonard personally or to the academic world as a whole.

So Leonard’s dissertation defense is being held in abeyance while the Ohio State University ascertains whether the processes that are intended to ensure the academic integrity of OSU degrees are being adhered to. The dissertation may be a perfectly acceptable piece of work, but the apparent attempt to subvert the degree-granting process at the Ohio State University makes that moot. One more time: the issue is the integrity of that process and the responsibilities of faculty members, not the specific student or his work. One hopes that in the end, Leonard gets an appropriately constituted committee, one that not only satisfies OSU’s requirements but also has the expertise to help Leonard correct any errors introduced by the old committee and that can knowledgeably evaluate his dissertation so his degree is not tainted and he has contributed something of value to science education.