Probably not the way to get a good reputation among scientists


Tensions between science and religion, and science and business, continue to drag down Texas’s hopes to be known as a major research location.

A hard look shows it’s not just the Deliverance-style local politics at the State Board of Education on science standards.  Texas has trouble in a lot of areas.

For example, imagine a hurricane wiped out the town where one of the state’s major medical schools resides, and in the aftermath, rather than working to preserve the jobs of professors who agree to come back to the damaged buildings and storm-wracked town, the university uses the troubles as an excuse to get rid of faculty — not bad faculty, necessarily, just faculty the administration doesn’t like, or doesn’t know, or just for the heck of it.

This ain’t no way to run a medical school.

The rolling disaster that hit the Universityof Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, starting with Hurricane Ike, continued through unexpected layoffs of faculty on top of the 3,000 people laid off due to storm damage.  The layoffs were unjustified, too, many thought, and so they appealed.  The appeals process seems to have offered only a semblance of justice, to many of those involved, according to an article in The Scientist (free subscription required).

The story hasn’t got much traction in Texas media.

4 Responses to Probably not the way to get a good reputation among scientists

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    John, you’re right that we should generally not attribute to animus that which can adequately be explained by incompetence.

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  2. John Mashey says:

    Sorry, mw wife was about to shut the router off, so that was a little hurried.

    As I noted, clearly inept, and I always recall Napoleon’s advice about malice and incomptence. Hence it is probably incomptence, but it might not be, and the more general issue may well deserve its own post from someone much closer to this than I.

    For general background,:
    google: Galveston Ike regional recovery

    Here is the generic issue: seen most obviously in post-Katrina New Orleans, for example.

    When there is a local disaster, especially that affects an important facility, it is almost impossible for elected officials to say “you know, that was in a bad place” and we should rethink whether we want to rebuild/expand there, or downsize there and upsize elsewhere. Likewise, it is very difficult for elected officials to say “parts of our city are never going to come back, we’re going to clear them out for parks, and figure out how to relocate the few people in those areas in some fair way.” although I think Youngstown, Ohio, is proposing to do just that. Americans, especially in places like TX and CA just do ‘t easily think that way, although we (in CA) probably get more frequent practice given forest fires and earthquakes.

    In any case, politicians seem incented to swear allegiance to complete rebuilds, even if they know it might not be a good idea, and especially if they think someone else will pay for it. (I note that the Ike regional recovery plan says it expects FEMA to pay 100%.)
    Perhaps, as seems to have happened with Katrina, people may claim to be for rebuild, while providing insufficient resources to attract people back … And actually being quite relieved that people are not moving back.

    I also note in the hits from the Google above that St Joseph medical center says it could provide facilities but would need staff from UT medical center.

    So, while I’d guess this was ineptitude, I have to wonder if somebody was thinking that downsizing was going to have to happen, and just picked a particularly inept way to fo it. I had similar thoughts about New Orleans post-Katrina, but of course there was so much known ineptitude to go around, that I was less tempted to think of subtlety.

    From a distance, the UT medical center seems like a strong institution, so the level of incompetence was modestly surprising, hence my questions.

    I would observe that TX oil revenues will not last forever, that many states are not so well off financially, and that FEMA money is not infinite.

    Anyway, I think the surface issues are separate, but I just don’t have the local knowledge to know if there is more going on underneath. I would consider it excepionally competent if someone stood up and said this is a vulnerable location, and we seriously have to think about slowly shifting key facilities to safer places. I’d be surprised.

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Great questions, John. After the 22-foot increase in island elevation, finished about 1912, Galveston seemed safe from even the most astoundingly perfect storm, which was what scraped most of the island clean in 1900. Population-wise, it’s a great location. Storm-wise, it’s not so good especially if sea levels rise significantly and/or storm intensity or frequency rises much.

    But that is completely separate from the question of firing faculty for no cause in the midst of an academic year.

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  4. John Mashey says:

    Nit: the 2nd link is a copy of the first one.

    The handling seemed especially inept.

    But, a few more serious questions, understanding that this seems a strong institution with a long history, and that these are awkward questions:

    a) Is Galveston island a good place for TX to keep a major medical school?

    b) Is anyone thinking (or willing to admit to thinking) about that question?

    c) Of the $1.4B in fixup money (from Wikipedia entry), $450M comes from FEMA, i.e., Federal money. How much money will TX spend to keep Galveston there? How much money does TX expect the US will spend to do so?

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