Saturday, July 26, 2008

PZ Steps In It,
Woods Gets It

This is a case study in what academic freedom and tenure are all about.

These concepts are easy to support in the abstract, but every once in a while a case comes up that makes us think about whether we really mean all those fine words.

I am proud that both Woods and PZ are at the University. I don't think that it is a good idea to gratuitously insult sincere believers of any faith, so I question PZ's judgment in this matter. But if academic freedom and tenure are to mean anything this kind of behavior is not grounds for dismissal. Most in the academy seem to realize this, but I thank Woods for making the case forthrightly.

PZ Meyers is one of the world's best known scientific bloggers. If you don't believe this google Pharyngula. PZ is an exemplary biology faculty member at the University of Minnesota, Morris, one of the outstanding public liberal arts institutions in the ... world?

PZ has done yeoman service in battling the militant creationists. He himself might best be described as a militant atheist. He has potentially annoyed most of the Catholics in the world by desecrating a host, and some of the Muslims by ripping pages out of the Qur'an, along with pages from one of the books by Dawkins. Death threats and requests to OurLeader to fire him have ensued.

I have been struggling with putting up something about this, but another colleague at the University, the distinguished physicist Woods Halley, has done the job far better than I ever could.

Woods writes in the Daily:

The letter by JoAnna Wahlund, as well as the storm of commentary on the Web about Professor Myers, fail in every instance I have seen to make a fundamental point about the nature of academic freedom and tenure: The University does not condone nor endorse the views of tenured professors when it continues their employment, even when those views are controversial.

It is appropriate to disagree with Myers as strongly as you wish, and to publicize your arguments as widely as you can, but it is totally inappropriate to call for his dismissal. Tenure is specifically designed to protect people whose published views arouse the antagonism of some sector of society.

The reason for this protection is precisely to assure that controversial views are heard. If you hear views with which you disagree, the right response is to publicly explain why you think they are wrong - not to threaten, insult and try to shut up the individual who uttered them.

J. Woods Halley
University Professor of Physics

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