Censorship

Well, I’ll never work in academia again after those last two posts.
I suppose if my migraines ever get under control I can always go back to industry. Pharma is always desperate for experienced medical writers and they pay better than academia anyway. Plus the hours are better. Let’s just hope pharma doesn’t give a crap about my blog.
Which brings me to the topic of this post. Why do you think that I am able to rant so freely, express the truth so bluntly, expose morons to the blinding light of revelation with impunity, all under my real name? It’s because I have no job. And I’m not talking about how having no job gives me extra hours in the day to blog. I’m talking about something else that having no job gives me. It gives me no fear. I do not fear retribution. And I do not fear being censored.
Take a look at a recent example of someone who was censored for talking about gender and science.


Dr. Free-Ride wanted us to read one of Rob Knop’s posts:

…read Rob Knop’s account of his attempt to get his department to seriously examine the climate it creates for its female students, and his reflections on the reactions this elicited. This is a hard issue to handle — changing a culture always is — but it’s nice to know that people like Rob think that poking that hornets’ nest is important enough to risk being stung.

But if you follow the link, here’s what you will find:

This post has been removed as per the instruction of my department chair.
(I wouldn’t interpret this as an attempt to suppress public information about our department. The point was, what I was primarily discussiong was a discussion from a faculty meeting, which was supposed to be confidential. Even though I didn’t use any names, and except for a few cases was speaking generally about what was going on, I suppose it was technically a no-no. I am not sure I agree with the reasoning, given all other considerations, but there you have it.)

Please note: Rob is not calling this censorship. Zuska is calling this censorship. Did you hear that, Rob’s department chair? Zuska, not Rob.
Since when have discussions in faculty meetings been off-limits (with the exception of hiring, promotion, and tenure discussions)? Many departments record faculty meeting minutes and send them round to all the faculty. They could be shared with anyone. I don’t think there is a serious expectation of privacy in these discussions.
One might argue that Rob perhaps didn’t act in his own best self-interest by posting whatever he did (we’ll never know now, will we?) to his blog, but that’s his right. Dare I even say that’s his First Amendment Right?
But Zuska is pissed as hell that Mr. Department Chair was so much more concerned with controlling the (false) image of the department than with addressing the (real) concerns about the department’s climate for young women students. Yes, by all means, let’s keep a pretty picture for the outside world. Even if it takes censorship to do it. Yeah, I’d send my niece to Vanderbilt physics and astronomy. NOT.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy:People page at Vanderbilt lists Robert Scherrer as the department chair. That’s robert DOT scherrer AT vanderbilt DOT edu.
Look at the blogroll to the left. I have lots of links to nice blogs all written by actual women scientists. They write eloquently, poignantly on gender and science issues. Do they write under their real names? They do not. Why do you suppose this is? Rob’s example might be one good reason. Another is that it is just too frickin’ dangerous for women to admit to concern for gender issues. It compromises their integrity as scientists. “Oh, you’re not one of them, are you?” “Them” being hairy-legged, man-hating, castrating feminist bitches who are NOT good at science.
When I first arrived at K-State, the Women in Engineering and Science Program was housed in a small faculty office in the same building as the TRIGA nuclear reactor on campus. Since one of my degrees is in nuclear engineering, I felt right at home. I had a nameplate on my desk, given to me by a friend, that said “S. Franks – Woman of Steel”. One faculty member used to walk by my door every day and make some sort of jibing comment. One day it was about the nameplate – what kind of steel was it, he wanted to know, was it this or that type of steel? I said, “The toughest kind – it’ll withstand radiation damage in a nuclear reactor.” He looked shocked, and walked away. Ohmigod! The girl said something in techspeak! A week or so later the dean introduced me at a convocation for the college of engineering, and rattled off my list of degrees. A few days later the same faculty member came by my door and said, “So you have a degree in nuclear engineering.” “Yes.” “From MIT!” “Yes.” “So you can do the hard stuff! Why do you want to mess around with all this soft stuff?” I attempted some brief explanation of why working on gender issues and engineering was just as important as working in engineering itself, but he just couldn’t understand. I had an honorary penis. Why would anyone choose to care about the soft stuff if she were sufficiently hard?
Perhaps I should give Rollins President Lewis Duncan a call and tell him: if you want to see some pragmatic decision-making about gender and science, go read Young Female Scientist. Or Naked Under My Labcoat. Or Female Science Professor. Or Rants of a Feminist Engineer. Or any of the blogs on the blogroll. Then we can chat about pragmatism. And morals. And just who is really making the hard choices about science and gender in academia.

  1. SuzyQueue
    October 25, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    Department faculty meeting notes in engineering are viewed and used as evidence for ABET accreditation. I know we had copies of notes, handouts, and links to our outcomes and objectives.
    Say, how many departments list increasing under-represented student numbers in their program (usually it is a lofty goal)? Assuming they have that outcome, what are their documented steps they are using to reach the outcome? How do they measure success, retention and recruitment, or graduation rate?
    As far as censorship of any kind, I am against it. I would assume that there was some embarrassment that the comments were made public which begs the question, why were they made at all in the meeting.
    Another thought, the SOB faculty member (gee I have two guesses who that oculd be) who didn’t understand why an engineer would be interested in gender issues when they are actually capable of doing tough things really is being two-faced. On one hand, it is okay to have a ‘Women in Science/Engineering program director’ but how dare they be an engineer. A non-engineer is much easier to ignore, insult, or denigrate in their role as they have no real understanding of what it takes to be an engineer. If an engineer is the Women in Engineering director, faculty can’t accuse them of not understanding ‘what it takes.’ I have always wondered why more Women in Engineering directors are not recruited from engineering. I usually see job ads asking for applicants with degrees in sociology, women’s studies, human relations, or psychology. This guarantees that they won’t be listened to by the engineering faculty and certainly won’t be paid very well since they aren’t an engineer and don’t deserve the big pay. But, at least they have a Women in Engineering program right!
    Recently, my mailbox has been flooded with mail forwarded from a higher up to me since it includes the words ‘Women’ and ‘Engineering.’ We have no Women in Engineering program so it can’t be sent there. It’s sent to me since I am a woman in engineering and the faculty advisor for Society of Women Engineers so I must be interested in this. Needless to say, I am furious about getting the mail as I have no program, resources, or time to do anything besides grumble and throw the mail out.
    And last but not least, yes, I hesitate every time I post something to a public arena. What if my boss is reading this? That would be great, but I highly doubt any of my bosses or folks I work with here have any clue this place exists – kind of like a trip to Neverland. My other big concern is whether I misspelled anything or used poor grammar.

  2. October 25, 2006 at 4:36 pm

    One might argue that Rob perhaps didn’t act in his own best self-interest by posting whatever he did (we’ll never know now, will we?) to his blog
    Oh, and, no, I fully realize it wasn’t in my own best interest. However, that hasn’t stopped me from having posted other things to my blog before….
    Also, I want to add, without giving anything away that I’m not supposed to give away, it appears that something will happen as a result of the concerns raised at the faculty meeting Monday. We’ll see what comes of it.
    -Rob

  3. Greg
    October 26, 2006 at 12:41 am

    It certainly “wasn’t appropriate” to discuss reportable topics at a meeting convened around a confidential topic.
    You spend half your life fighting for openness and accountability. You agree, rightly (maybe), that a few issues are private. Immediately, the issues that ‘they’ don’t want to be accountable, the very issues which you fought to make accountable, they drag into unofficial, unreported discussions in private meetings.

  4. Anonymous
    October 26, 2006 at 12:49 am

    You didn’t hear it from me, but :
    http://physwomen.livejournal.com/
    seems to have archived the deleted post.

  5. Anonymous
    October 26, 2006 at 1:01 am

    (Zuska — could you delete the URL off the previous comment? I just demonstrated extreme incompetence….)

  6. rehana
    October 26, 2006 at 11:04 am

    Zuska, I think Anonymous wanted you to remove the URL in the link from the word “Anonymous”, not the URL in the comment itself.
    In any case, Google does have it cached.

  7. Absinthe
    October 26, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Below is the letter I sent to the department chair and dean of science at Vanderbilt today; posted here at the risk of revealing my true identity to Rob 😉
    It took a lot of guts for Rob to bring this topic up in a faculty meeting; pointing about the 800 pound gender-discrimination gorilla that is shitting all over the department isn’t career enhancing for either gender. So make the most of Rob’s bravery; if you give a damn about the crappy climate for women in physics, write the chair and the dean of science at Vanderbilt a letter. It will goad them to hopefully actually do something concrete about the problem.
    Zuskateers; *never* underestimate the power of writing a letter that expresses your views in polite, yet firm terms. Zuska and Absinthe highly recommend it. And, as we’ve both discovered, sometimes it actually achieves a desirable result.
    **********************************
    **********************************
    Dear Professor Scherrer,
    I am a female particle physicist who until recently was a researcher at Fermilab.
    I read a recent article on the climate for women in physics at Vanderbilt that was written by one of Vanderbilt’s professors, Robert Knop. The article had luckily been archived by another web-site, because I have heard that you forced Professor Knop to remove his original article from his website not long after he posted it. Your efforts to censor the comments of Professor Knop
    have not been as effective as you planned, because it has drummed up a lot more interest in the archived copy of the article than the original article itself likely would have garnered.
    The content of Professor Knop’s post, and the fact that you, as department chair at Vanderbilt decided to censor it disturbs me greatly, because the situation he describes at Vanderbilt echoes the climate I have seen at Fermilab and elsewhere…
    I have no doubt that the situation Professor Knop describes at Vanderbilt is accurate; it seems to be an epidemic in physics departments that men who profess themselves to be “pro-women-nice-guys” turn a blind eye when confronted with the discriminatory acts of their colleagues. Their silence is as damaging as the discriminatory acts themselves (if not more so).
    The issues Professor Knop raised in his article should be addressed and taken seriously by the department, rather than just trying to hush up the whole issue through censorship. Your censorship of that article has generated much more hostility towards your department than the original post ever would have. It distresses me that a university with an excellent reputation such as Vanderbilt would behave in this manner.
    I have two daughters, both of whom show interest in science careers, and the handling of this issue by the Vanderbilt physics department has removed your university from my list of potential colleges for them to attend. I will also recommend to my friends with college aged female
    children to not send them the Vanderbilt until your university starts taking its gender climate issues much more seriously.
    Yours sincerely,
    [Dr. Absinthe]

  8. October 27, 2006 at 12:25 am

    Absinthe is right. It took considerable courage for Rob to do what he did, and it was a good thing to do. His efforts should not be in vain, nor should he face reprisals as a result. A polite note to Prof Scherrer seems like good insurance on both counts. Here’s mine.

  9. September 5, 2009 at 4:31 am

    I have no doubt that the situation Professor Knop describes at Vanderbilt is accurate; it seems to be an epidemic in physics departments that men who profess themselves to be “pro-women-nice-guys” turn a blind eye when confronted with the discriminatory acts of their colleagues. Their silence is as damaging as the discriminatory acts themselves (if not more so).

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