(Just to be clear about where I’m coming from, I believe in a Creator and also believe that the evidence I’ve seen supports the evolution of species. When asked about evolution, I say, “It looks like that’s how God did it.” Now that I’ve alienated all but a few of my readers . . .)
The New York Times has an article today on the resignation of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) employee, Chris Comer. In my opinion, the NYT and the Austin American-Statesman focus on the wrong theme. The story is more about the politics of being a State employee than about the politics of science.
However, there’s a difference between speech and advocacy on scientific controversies while working in a academic position (even when paid by the State) and the same activity while working for a State Agency. While both should avoid frank political advocacy while on the State’s time clock, the former is in the business of discussing and critiquing science. The Agency employee works directly for men and women who are themselves restrained by the voters of the State, who have their own politics.
The implication of the NYT piece is that Ms. Comer was under pressure due politics, the appointment of a new Chairman of the State Board of Education and the hiring of a woman who used to work for the Bush Administration. On further research, I found a possible connection between a statement that Ms. Comer made concerning the lack of “real” leadership at the TEA under an acting Commissioner and the appointment of the same man to the office of Commissioner.
In addition, it might help to know that the Texas Legislature recently mandated that each agency develop ethics policies.
Texas elects our State Board of Education, the Governor appoints (and the State Senate confirms) one of these elected officials to the Chair and he also appoints the Commissioner of the TEA. The TEA is the bureacracy that provides “leadership, guidance, and resources to help schools meet the educational needs of all students.”
State employees are forbidden by policy to mix in politics while on the job and with State resources. At the very least, it’s not wise to risk bringing pressure down on your appointed or elected bosses. The offense that led to Ms. Comer’s resignation was sending an email from her TEA account that announced a talk entitled, “Creationism’s Trojan Horse.”
Ms. Comer and the author of the NYT article find something notable in the policy at TEA:
But several months ago, in response to an inquiry letter, Ms. Comer said she was instructed to strike her usual statement about the board’s support for teaching evolution and to quote instead the exact language of the high school biology standards as formulated for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills test.
“The student knows the theory of biological evolution,” the standards read, and is expected to “identify evidence of change in species using fossils, DNA sequences, anatomical similarities, physiological similarities and embryology,” as well as to “illustrate the results of natural selection in speciation, diversity, phylogeny, adaptation, behavior and extinction.”
I fail to see a problem in a policy requiring the quote. I would think that it would inform and educate any one with questions and protect State employees from political fallout.
Ms. Comer herself makes correlations between certain politically controversial subjects:
“I don’t see how I took a position by F.Y.I.-ing on a lecture like I F.Y.I. on global warming or stem-cell research,” Ms. Comer said.
And she did consider the email risky:
As for the e-mail, Comer said she did pause for a “half second” before sending it, but said she thought that because Forrest was a highly credentialed speaker, it would be OK.
For a step-by-step report about Ms. Comer’s troubles at the TEA, see the Austin American-Statesman article and my earlier post.