Sacking Tim Hunt - what about tenure and academic freedom?
Fiona Fox just wrote Call off the hunt, a post questioning whether the firing of Tim Hunt from important positions in any way advances the cause of women in science. And yesterday, Claire Lehman made an interesting argument:
@lteytelman No. I think a better way to deal with bad ideas is to publicly debunk them, not fire people for holding them.— Claire Lehmann (@clairlemon) June 12, 2015
I know how vitriolic and vicious Twitter can be. I am no fan of social media witch hunts. I also appreciate the issue of academic freedom and the protection for voicing unpopular opinions that tenure is supposed to protect. And yet, I find it appropriate that Tim Hunt was asked to resign from his honorary UCL position or that Jim Watson was pressured to step down as Chancellor of CSHL.
So what about tenure? After all, we have many examples of professors that say dangerous and harmful things but are protected. Peter Duesberg is an AIDS denialist. I think he has blood on his hands, and I am pretty sure the entire MCB faculty at Berkeley want to see him gone. But he is tenured and not much can be done. Similarly, Columbia University resisted due to tenure strong calls to fire Dr. Oz for being a quack and peddling dangerous misinformation.
I have a violently allergic reaction to Duesberg and Oz, but I believe in academic freedom and agree that universities cannot just dismiss professors for their opinions. That would have a chilling effect on research and discourse in our society. However, I think it is appropriate for the universities to remove such professors from positions of power (e.g. department chair). This is exactly what happened in the case of Tim Hunt, exactly what CSHL did with Jim Watson, and what I thik Columbia should do with Oz.
Why are punitive actions necessary? Because otherwise, if Tim Hunts and Jim Watsons can say terrible damaging things with impunity, we are essentially validating the terrible things they are saying. Academic freedom protects your faculty appointment, but it shouldn't protect you from damaging your university and more importantly from damaging groups of people.