Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Academic "Freedom" at Ohio State

Ohio State University Graduate student (and high school teacher) Bryan Leonard, who apparently argues in his thesis that the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution should be taught in high school, is under attack by unscrupulous professors.

At this moment, it looks as if they have succeeded in preventing him from defending his thesis.

For more background on this story, see this post by Rob Crowther.

A massive spin is underway, insisting that the sole reason behind the uproar is the fact that Leonard tried to "game" his committee, the makeup of which did not follow university guidelines.

It's no wonder. Leonard was between a rock and a hard place. Follow the rules and face certain failure (regardless of the quality of his work) or break the rules in an attempt to achieve a fair reading of his dissertation.

The spin is that Leonard was stacking the deck. The reality is that this was his only chance to receive a scholarly evaluation.

No matter. This is not really about the composition of a committee. That's just a red herring.

The three yahoos at the heart of this story are OSU Professors Rissing, McKee, and McEnnis.

Spinmeisters like The Panda's Thumb would have you believe that Rissing, McKee, and McEnnis (who by all accounts have not read Leonard’s thesis) are valiant guardians of academic integrity, who undoubtedly investigate all Ph.D. committees for bureaucratic violations, and when found, respond just as quickly and forcefully regardless of the thesis topic.

Actually, this trio of cowards is not bright enough to hide their real motivation. If they had stuck to their fabrication that it was "all about the composition of the committee" then it would be difficult to discredit them. But like Panda Thumb's P.Z. Myers, who criticized (comment #8) Leonard's thesis as "substandard" (without having read it), they couldn't resist sermonizing. In a letter to the OSU graduate dean they reveal their true concerns. From this Inside Higher Ed article we read what's really bugging these academic titans:

…the letter [from the three professors] noted that two of the committee members were the only two Ohio State faculty members who have spoken publicly in defense of Leonard’s views on evolution. "The only qualification that these gentlemen bring to Mr. Leonard’s dissertation committee is an assurance of a non-critical hearing."

In other words, the integrity of a professor who agrees with Leonard is automatically suspect. Leonard must obey the rules even if it means populating his committee with faculty who, like Myers, have prejudged his work, sight unseen, as substandard.

Commenting on my criticism of the premature designation of substandard, another commenter on Myers's blog rose to his defense, writing (comment #15):

Proposing a program of science education based on non-scientific concepts IS prima facie evidence of doing "substandard work". He was obviously ignoring actual DATA that invalidated his thesis.

Which I think rather nicely sums up what is going on here. Leonard has the audacity to write a thesis that questions evolution's claim of unassailability on all fronts. He must not be allowed to pass, under any circumstances, no need to bother with the incovenience of reading his thesis.

A further, insightful OSU faculty complaint from the Inside Higher Ed article

…objected both to the idea that Ohio State appeared to be on the verge of awarding a Ph.D. for work questioning evolution.

No, we can't have any questioning of evolution. Slash. Burn. Fail. Then shout, over and over, this has nothing to do with academic freedom.

If OSU valued academic freedom, Leonard would not have had to break the rules. In a bygone era when professors possessed more integrity than Myers, Rissing, McKee, and McEnnis, a committee member radically opposed to your position was acceptable, even a badge of honor, because while he might give you a hard time, he could be trusted to judge your work on its merits.

In the same way, those two objectionable professors who allegedly agree with Leonard concerning evolution would, without a second's thought, be trusted to evaluate the thesis critically rather than being slandered as rubber-stamping minions.

Not at OSU. Not anymore. At OSU, your thesis is subject to failure based on the abstract placed on the announcement of your defense.

The three fundamentalist professors also wrote:

There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution. Mr. Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise. His dissertation presents evidence that he has succeeded in persuading high school students to reject this fundamental principle of biology. As such, it involves deliberate miseducation of these students, a practice we regard as unethical.

The ethics of these professors is so twisted that to be regarded by them as unethical is undoubtedly a good thing.

Questions are also being raised as to whether Leonard's high-school teaching violates university rules dealing human subjects in experiments.

This story, if nothing else, demonstrates two things:
  1. The old aphorism that truth is stranger than fiction.
  2. That the tenure system should be scrapped.

Good luck, Mr. Leonard.

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