Mark Regnerus, who has been an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin since 2007, will be promoted to full professor, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation. That decision was made at the level of the central administration, overriding negative recommendations from both the Department of Sociology faculty and the College of Liberal Arts.
In terms of research productivity, Regnerus’s record is adequate for promotion at a leading research university. His early work was well-cited. His most recent book, Cheap Sex (the only one I’ve read) is atrocious (as I have written). But the real problem is ethics, and there the protocol is less clear. I previously wrote:
To get background on the story of the Regnerus Affair, you can read the chapter in my book [Enduring Bonds], or read the entire Regnerus thread on this blog, or read this 2015 recap, which is the latest long piece, with links to everything else. For purposes of this discussion, these conclusions are salient: he used crudely biased survey methods to gin up harms attributable to same-sex parenting, to help stop same-sex marriage in the courts, as part of a conspiracy with other right-wing academics (principally Brad Wilcox) and institutions (Heritage Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Witherspoon Institute), which included manipulating the peer review process to plant supporters on the panel and submitting the article for publication before the data collection was even complete, and then repeatedly lying about all that to cover up the conspiracy (including in the published work itself, where he falsely denied the involvement of the funders, and in an ethics proceeding by his university).
So what do we do with all this now? All that didn’t get him fired, and he still does research in the academic system. That is galling, because there is at least one really good, honest researcher who doesn’t have a tenure-track job today because Regnerus does. But that’s the system. Meanwhile life is long, people can change. In our weak system, however, which relies almost entirely on good will and honesty by researchers, reputation matters. With his reputation, you simply can’t take his word in the way that we (naively) do with regular researchers. I think there are two options, then, if we are to take the research seriously. The first is he could come clean, admit to what he did, and make an honest attempt to re-enter respectable academia. The other (non-exclusive) option is for him to make his research open and transparent, to subject it to scrutiny and verification, and let people see that he is behaving honestly and ethically now.
He has not yet done either of those things.
I would vote against his promotion based on this record. Maybe the internal documents will come out and allow us to debate this more fully, but to me it’s not a hard decision.
So I think it’s bad for the UT administration to override the faculty recommendation and impose the promotion for Regnerus. With the stroke of that pen, they commit the university — barring unplanned events — to several million dollars worth of salary and benefits for him for the next several decades. And thousands of students subjected to his teaching. That’s money that could be spent on much more valuable things, including honest, ethical sociologists.
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