Morals vs. Pragmatism, Part 2

As I promised, here is the email I received from President Lewis Duncan of Rollins College after I wrote a blog post on his comments on the Karpova-Tonegawa affair. My commentary on his email is in brackets and italicized. Email and my commentary after the jump.

Dear Ms. Frank, [sic]

I take strong exception to your misleading interpretation and extrapolation of my quote in the Boston Globe.

How disappointing that a fellow scientist would be so presumptuous in her perspectives. [This is lame.
‘You’re a scientist, so you’re supposed to be rational, and you aren’t being rational, so are you really a scientist after all?” which is…a typical kind of retort that one hears whenever one raises gender issues. But not what one expects to hear from presidents

The quote is accurate .. the issue facing MIT is indeed in part a challenge of pragmatism versus moral leadership. However, in no way did I suggest, and certainly never advocated (as you insinuate), a personal preference toward the pragmatic acceptance of such behavior as expressed by Dr. Tonegawa, at least within the context of his role as an institute director and senior faculty research leader. [If you read the blog post, what I actually say is this:

So you don’t have time to compose witty, angry letters to morons who suggest that illegality is pragmatic and therefore we should just toss our morals out the window because after all, it’s just women, and we all know their tiny brains can’t handle the math anyway. I am not, of course, saying that that is what President Duncan himself was saying or implying. I was just letting my imagination run wild there. Nevertheless, you might wish to send a witty, angry letter or email to President Duncan informing him of the danger that statements like his pose for people whose imaginations might run wild and then just stay there instead of coming back to reality.]

In contradiction, this sad incident provides MIT the collateral opportunity to make a strong statement about its institutional expectations of service, mentoring and teaching responsibilities for faculty and staff while acting in such positions of administrative leadership. I sincerely hope they do so. [Well, if this is what you really thought, why didn’t you say that, instead of something about how this comes down to a choice between pragmatics and morals? Then there would be no danger of morons misinterpreting you and misusing your words to advance their own agendas.]

However, I also feel that Dr. Tonegawa in his own research pursuits, like any other individual faculty member, should not be compelled to cooperate with another researcher against his or her willingness to do so. [Here you are just plain wrong. Dr. Toadygawa is just no longer in a position where he gets to act like an individual faculty member. He is the head of a research institute. He has accepted federal funds for that research institute which require the recruitment, training, and mentoring of pre-and postdoctoral graduate students. I repeat: require. His actions in regard to Dr. Karpova may well be in violation of federal law. He is not just some faculty member deciding whether or not he wants to work on a grant proposal with some other faculty member, and the dean can’t make me, nyah nyah nyah. If he does not like this state of affiairs he should step down and let someone else run the institute.] In my mind, the complexity here necessitates a clear separation of institutional administrative responsibility and individual prerogative. [Wrong. Again, if he wants to behave like a faculty member, then he needs to put himself in a position where he is just a faculty member.] While Dr. Tonegawa may have been misunderstood (or perhaps not) as to which context he was thinking when he responded to Dr. Karpova, I also have to wonder how often such competitive concerns influence behaviors on our campuses without being explicitly acknowledged. The view of scientific inquiry as an inherently competitive rather than collaborative process is then at question, and certainly deserves greater attention. [Well, wake up and join my world. It’s called, “The World With Gender”. ]

Also, as I commented in an extended e-note to the Globe reporters (see attachment), I do not believe that Dr. Tonegawa’s response was motivated by gender. [This is just wishful thinking. And shamefully, willfully, blinded to reality for a president of a university who used to be a dean of engineering.] There is nothing in his comments to suggest that his opinions would have been different for a prospective young male professor in a potentially competing area of neuroscience. [And even if that were the case, you should be really upset by his behavior anyway. You are defending a moron.]

Finally, I personally am committed to advancing the opportunities for women in science and engineering, and would be dismayed to have you re-interpret my comments to the Globe in such a erroneous and distorted manner. [Your advocacy for women is not well-served by your comments to the Globe. I am sorry, but this is true.] I previously have chaired the external advisory panel in assisting in the establishment of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College, and speak nationally on the importance of diverse educational participation (most recently in June, presenting a distinguished lecture at the ASEE national meeting on “The Unleashed Human Mind: Liberating Education for the 21st Century”; I believe that lecture will soon be available from ASEE as a public video stream if you would have any interest in my broader views on the future of engineering education). Also here at Rollins College I teach a first-year “values” course for non-science majors entitled “Technology and the Future of Human Society.” [These are wonderful things and I am glad you do them. We need more involvement from leaders on these issues. But you need to be able to take input from those of us at the heart of the matter. You don’t know everything, and you still have things to learn, even if you are on our side. ]

If you feel compelled to reframe my brief comment to the Globe in terms of suggesting that I support prejudicial bias against women in science and engineering, I would at least ask for you to include these comments, and my attachment as well. [You were quoted in the Globe only as saying that this could come down to a choice between pragmatism and morals. When I called your office to ask if you were quoted accurately, your staff checked with you and came back and told me yes, you had been. I was given no further explanation of your quote. Only after you read what I wrote did you give me the further explanation. You must realize that newspapers are going to pick the juiciest soundbites for their articles. Why give them something like that to quote, if it does not reflect your true opinions? In your full remarks to the Globe and in your email to me, you do not come out and say that it comes down to pragmatics versus morals but you strongly imply that, even as you say that, really, we should be asking questions about leadership. President Duncan, we women know that pragmatics are always at issue, and that morals have been shoved out the door for decades. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the sorry-ass state of affairs that obtains today. This isn’t news to us. The only thing that surprises us anymore is when someone explicitly acknowledges it.]

Sincerely yours,

Lewis Duncan

President, Rollins College

  1. October 25, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    However, I also feel that Dr. Tonegawa in his own research pursuits, like any other individual faculty member, should not be compelled to cooperate with another researcher against his or her willingness to do so. [Here you are just plain wrong. Dr. Toadygawa is just no longer in a position where he gets to act like an individual faculty member. He is the head of a research institute.

    This echoes a situation about which I cannot speak becuse I will violate confidentiality and get in trouble if I do.
    There’s a difference between being a researcher and being in a position of leadership. Yet, we have this “pure meritocracy” myth in science which has led us all to believe that the best researchers are the best leaders, and hence we should only consider research qualifications when looking for our leaders, and when evaluating the behavior of our leaders.
    We need to get past that idea and realize that in reality, being a good researcher doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader. When we choose leaders of our departments and institutes, we need to recognize this, and we need to choose good leaders, not just good researchers.
    I know we think we are– but that’s because we explicitly do only look at research. Or, even if we don’t think we are, we say, well, the criteria for the high positions are just research, so, no choice, we gotta use those criteria, even if it makes a very wrong decision from a broader perspective.
    It’s not about being a scientist and being rational. It’s about recognizing all of the data and systematic errors when being rational.

  2. Greg
    October 25, 2006 at 11:44 pm

    I can’t speak of your school or department, Rob, I have never been even in your state.
    My observations, in several universities and government labs, is that we pretend to choose good researchers and workers for management.
    Sometimes the political dynamics are such that a good worker but ineffective (or effective) leader is promoted past his competence. Usually, however, pretending to recognize only merit, avoiding leadership, we promote the power-seeker, the one with the careful network of alliances and bonhommie. The politician, who possesses neither merit, nor leadership, nor quite often bureaucratic skills.. and in any case he devotes his best efforts to preserving and advancing his power, at the expense of his duties
    Often, if you look back, you may discover that few had imagined the successful candidate would be elected. Nobody is shocked. Nobody quite understands how all the obvious contenders were bypassed.

  3. bsci
    October 27, 2006 at 11:20 am

    The Picower Institute that Tonegawa heads is actually quite large and significant. It is more than a personal organization.
    Ten MIT faculty, all top people in their own right get recources and support through this institute. You could probably count on your hands the number of Universities who have 10 or more faculty studying learning and memory. There are 24 screens worth of names directly affiliated with the institute.
    That’s a fairly large department within itself. When he’s making a decision about resources he’s also deciding who all these people can collaborate with and no one picks a fight with the person who allocates space and general resources.
    So yes, Tonegawa does have a very prestigous position of power. That’s why his opinion mattered to Karpova. When the director of half the neuroscientists and MIT says “Don’t come here” most sane people would listen. It up to his superiors to decide the appropriate response to this behavior.

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