'Potentially Evangelical'

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Martin Gaskell is an astronomer who specializes in super-massive black holes, such as the one that lies at the heart of our own galaxy. He recently tripped, however, and fell into a different kind of black hole — the kind reserved for academics in certain fields who are suspected of being tepid in their disdain for creationism and insufficiently hardy in their support for evolution.  

Gaskell is an odd pick for this role. He is as sturdy an orthodox scientist as one might find. With a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a raft of peer-reviewed publications in astronomy (28 refereed papers, 55 conference proceedings), and a record of accomplishment that includes obtaining funding for, and overseeing the design and construction of an observatory at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and eventually running  it. He held a non-tenured faculty position.

Several years ago, the University of Kentucky decided that it, too, wanted to build a modest observatory. In 2007, with construction for the new observatory underway, the UK Physics and astronomy department formed a search committee for the observatory director. Members of the department had already visited Gaskell at the University of Nebraska and in due course he applied and became one of twelve candidates for the non-faculty position. The university acknowledges in its court filings that he was “a leading candidate” and the department chair wrote to the search committee that “Martin Gaskell is clearly the most experienced” candidate. Another member of the search committee described him as having “already done everything we could possibly want the observatory director to do.” In a preliminary vote, the search committee ranked him as first of seven serious candidates.

His appointment looked almost certain. Then something happened that persuaded the university to appoint instead a much less qualified candidate. Exactly what happened is a matter of dispute before the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Kentucky, whose November 23rd order denying summary judgment to either side I have been following in my account so far. The University of Kentucky contends it had a lot of factors to weigh, including an assessment by Gaskell’s former supervisor at the University of Nebraska, who said Gaskell had caused conflict through his efforts to secure a reduced teaching load and that he had a tendency “to re-hash old issues.”

But Gaskell contends that something else derailed his appointment as observatory director. One member of the search committee found on Gaskell’s personal Web site an article titled, “Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation.” Gaskell also had given a public lecture under that title, and one member of the audience reported to a member of the search committee that Gaskell was a “creationist.”

This claim set off a chain of events, leading to consultations with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the provost. The dean told the search committee “not to evaluate Gaskell based on questions of religion,” but to stick to his scientific work. The provost seconded that. The search committee took this as warrant to re-examine Gaskell’s scholarly publications and lecture notes for evidence that he may have deviated from approved scientific methods.

The committee consulted with several members of the biology department, who sure enough found evidence of “creationist” views in Gaskell’s writings.

It seemed of no particular concern to the search committee that Gaskell denies that he holds “creationist” views. He professes that the book of “Genesis is compatible with astronomical science” and he says he sees some problems with contemporary evolutionary theory, though he does not reject evolution overall. These are positions that might be fairly ascribed to very large numbers of professing Christians — not just in the general population, but among scientists. Gaskell openly professes his Christian faith, but he is by no stretch of honest reporting someone who has struck a doctrinaire or narrow-minded religious position. His notes on “Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation” are the musings of a modern man reflecting on the overlaps between a sacred text and a body of scientific knowledge. He comes to the conclusion: “The main point that I’d like to get across from doing this is that given that there is a possible scientific explanation of most things, one cannot say ‘science disproves Genesis’.” Gaskell goes way out on a limb to declare:

It is quite likely that Genesis is describing physical things that happened in space and time in the history of our universe. Having said this, however, I must say again that I personally don’t believe that anything like all the answers are in yet. I know, even from the limited experience of my career as an astronomer, that the science will change.

Should this be enough to disqualify an otherwise highly qualified applicant for a non-faculty position as director of a university observatory?

Of course, the University of Kentucky says that it did not allow religious prejudice to influence its decision. That may be true, though the District Court did not find the argument sufficiently compelling to dismiss Gaskell’s lawsuit claiming religious discrimination. Part of the university’s problem is a documentary record of a member of the search committee e-mailing her colleagues her worry that Gaskell is “potentially evangelical.”

Imagine the reaction if the search committee had worried if its lead candidate were “potentially Muslim,” “potentially Jewish,” “potentially Catholic,” or “potentially atheist,” and then charged off looking for clues that his beliefs might interfere with the integrity of scientific work — a hunt that would include soliciting hearsay from others about what they suspect the candidate believes. The University of Kentucky administration, to its credit, tried to steer the search committee away from its eagerness to investigate Gaskell’s religious views, and some members of the department quite clearly felt uncomfortable with the tone of the discussion. But the record, at least to my eye, shows a department struggling to find a plausible professional cover story for a decision that is deeply infected by religious prejudice.

The nature of the prejudice is clear too: Members of the department repeatedly express in writing their fear that, should they appoint Gaskell, he will end up saying something religious that will embarrass them. They don’t really care what he believes or whether he has some anti-scientific attitude buried beneath all those scientific publications. Rather, they care about appearances. It is Kentucky. The broader world sees the University of Kentucky as “potentially” compromised with backward religious leanings. We cannot afford the possibility that one of our own would give color to that suspicion.

This may be prejudice grounded in a version of “What will the neighbors think?” but it is prejudice nonetheless. And it is the kind of prejudice that undermines academic freedom and freedom of conscience. The Chronicle published a very brief report on Gaskell’s lawsuit several days ago. The string of reader comments that followed it shows most readers defending Gaskell’s intellectual freedom, but a few rush — on the basis of no evidence at all — to condemn him for views supposedly antithetical to science. One writes that he was “lucky to be rejected thereby avoiding the never-ending rancor that would follow if he had been appointed.” Another declares, “it is clear to me that had he been hired, he would have promoted ID theories by creating doubts about Evolution which is the most common approach of the religious zealots who want to teach Bible in every school and science class.”

We will have to wait for the court to sort through this. Gaskell is currently a research associate at a University of Texas observatory and says he has accepted a professorship in Chile. He is apparently escaping the black hole of secularist orthodoxy that marginalizes those who give even a mild nod toward the idea of God playing an active role in the universe. But he certainly leaves us something to think about. Have the structures of university science become so narrow that an astronomer cannot even speculate on theistic creation without jeopardizing his career?

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