Released Gonzalez e-mails lack context

The Iowa State Daily has published a letter by Joerg Schmailian, Professor of Physics and Astronomy arguing the lack of context surrounding the emails released by the Discovery Institute on the Gonzalez tenure case:

In November 2005, I was part of a discussion with colleagues in the department of physics and astronomy that was concerned with the question of whether we should make a public statement that intelligent design is, in our view, not a viable way to pursue scientific research. Parts of this discussion were carried out via e-mail and portions of those e-mails were recently made available to the public through a request by the Discovery Institute, based on the Iowa open records law. In its Dec. 4 issue, the Daily printed parts of these e-mails. I feel more background information is needed to clarify this issue.

Our 2005 discussion was prompted by our unease with the national debate on intelligent design - assistant professor of physics and astronomy Guillermo Gonzalez, a prominent advocate of intelligent design, was doing research in our department, and we received repeated inquiries from outside Iowa State about our views on this issue. We wanted to take advantage of our freedom to express our opinion on this matter and inform the public about the fact that intelligent design is not generally accepted within our department.

During this discussion we came to realize such a public statement could interfere with the upcoming tenure deliberations on Gonzalez. We did not expect our statement to raise questions in case of a positive decision on Gonzalez’s tenure. However, we did realize that in case of a tenure denial, a public statement by members of our faculty could be seen as prejudging the decision.

Some of us argued our statement could be misinterpreted as creating a hostile work environment. I argued instead that we should proceed and make our statement public. No matter what our action, our statement could always be misinterpreted, either as causing a hostile work environment or as being secretive about our plans to write such a statement. In the end, the arguments against going public seemed more convincing to most, and we did not proceed. It appears I was right when I feared our intentions would be misinterpreted either way.

To deny tenure to a colleague is a very painful experience. It literally causes sleepless nights to those who are forced to make a responsible decision. Faculty candidates who are being hired in our department always come with promising backgrounds and terrific accomplishments. The decision to recommend or deny tenure is then predominantly based on research performance while at Iowa State.

As far as I can judge, this was no different in Gonzalez’s case. What I know with certainty is that Gonzalez’s views on intelligent design, with which I utterly disagree, had no bearing whatsoever on my vote on his tenure case.

LETTER: Released Gonzalez e-mails lack context National debate, not issue of tenure, prompted dialogue Issue date: 12/10/07 Section: Opinion

In context the emails suggest that the faculty was struggling with how to publicly respond to questions about Intelligent Design which most see as scientifically infertile, a scientific ‘dead end’. Was Gonzalez’s belief in Intelligent Design a factor or the factor in the tenure decision? I have my doubts about the latter and as to the former, as far as I have been able to determine, only so far as it affected the scientific productivity of the candidate.