Let us consider the cases of Professor Antonio Lasaga and Professor Michael Bellesiles. Both men are professors of renown at respected universities — Bellesiles taught history at Emory, while Lasaga taught geophysics at Yale. Both men have received the distinctive praise of their peers — Bellesiles was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2001, and Lasaga was the Saybrook College Master. Today, both men stand guilty of two very public crimes — Bellesiles' sins are academic in nature, while Lasaga's are something far more vile.
Yet it is not the actions of these two professors that begs examination, but the subsequent reaction of the academic community.
Eighteen months ago, Bellesiles published a book (Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture) claiming that, contrary to earlier research and conventional wisdom, very few early Americans actually owned firearms. He based his findings on an examination of over 11,000 probate records, listing the contents of estates. The book was a political bombshell, as anti-gun groups used Bellesiles' claims to assault the National Rifle Association's constitutional views and legal scholars were forced to reexamine their interpretations of the founders' meaning in the Second Amendment. Praise was heaped on Bellesiles from both historians and book reviewers. Bellesiles was awarded prizes for his work, and invited to speak at several universities on "The Myth of Gun Rights" and other such topics. Historian Michael Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania described Bellesiles' impact thus: "The way we think about guns in America will never be the same."
After further investigation, however, Bellesiles' research has proven to be nothing more than a pack of fabrications and lies. When Northwestern Professor James Lindgren requested access to the book's probate information for his own research, Bellesiles claimed that his notes on legal pads had been destroyed during a flood in his office. When a Boston Globe reporter confirmed that serious errors existed in Arming America's figures, Bellesiles claimed a hacker had tampered with his data. When other professors pointed out that many of the records Bellesiles claimed as sources were either unavailable or never existed, the whole house of cards came crashing down.
In the wake of published reports by National Review's Melissa Seckora and The Chronicle of Higher Education's Danny Postel detailing the vindication of the book's critics and Bellesiles' insufficient explanations, the academic community has shown little toleration for Bellesiles' sweeping fraud. In the latest issue of the William & Mary Quarterly, four historians from different universities condemn Bellesiles citations as "misleading or wrong," and conclude that his efforts indicate "a consistently biased reading of sources and on careless uses of evidence and context." Faced with the kind of outrage only professors can muster, Emory University has ordered an enormous investigation into Bellesiles' research methods.
Yet even as the academy has vilified Bellesiles en masse for his falsehoods, it has risen in defense of another colleague, Professor Antonio Lasaga.
Unlike Bellesiles, Lasaga does not dispute his crimes. He has admitted to sexually abusing and molesting a young boy from the age of seven to thirteen. He has admitted to videotaping the abuse, and amassing an immense collection of child pornography. He has admitted to meeting his victim through a New Haven school-mentoring program.
Instead of condemnation and rebuke, Lasaga has received enormous amounts of sympathy from the academic community. Indeed, even after Lasaga pled guilty in a federal court to the crimes of which he was accused, more than nine months passed before Yale decided to revoke his tenure. During his sentencing hearing, colleague after colleague argued for leniency.
"[Lasaga] is in his most productive years," argued Pennsylvania State University Professor Hubert Barnes, former head of the prestigious Geochemistry Society. "When you penalize Tony for his indiscretions, you also penalize society."
"I don't believe Tony had any sexual interest in boys," said Princeton Professor Hiroshi Ohmoto, suggesting that the abuse was merely a misunderstanding.
"All of us in science are expendable, but the loss of the most capable are felt the most strongly," said Prof. Heinrich Holland, who has taught at Harvard and Princeton. Holland suggested that Lasaga be punished with no more than a six-year sentence, or some form of counseling. His suggestion was not accepted, and Judge Roland Fasano sentenced the professor to twenty years in prison.
Lasaga's defenders have pointed out that no one has impeached Lasaga's academic work, either in his role an associate editor of the American Journal of Science and editor in chief of Chemical Geology, or as the author of several important books on geophysics and kinetic theory. Frank Podosek, the editor of the academic journal of the Geochemical Society, has tried to prevent Lasaga from publishing more work, but has been overruled by his board. From the perspective of the academy, Lasaga's personal failings are apparently a matter for the man to deal with in his own private way, and in no way prevent him from living as a respected member of the scientific community. Moral outrage does not outweigh professional respect, and thus Lasaga's sins are washed away by his enlightened reason.
The fact that the denizens of the academy condemn Michael Bellesiles and defend Antonio Lasaga should surprise no one. The comparison merely serves as an apt illustration of the forgotten goals of scholarship. For today's community of professors, Bellesiles' sins — serious as they are — are a far more egregious offense than Lasaga's, which have shamed and damaged the lives of his victim, his wife, and his two sons.
Today, the members of modern academia have lost sight of truth and beauty. They build ivory towers without foundations. They map the world, yet supply no compass. They have become nothing more than a fraternity of hollow men, a brotherhood whose knowledge exists without purpose or end.
John Milton wrote that the ultimate end of education is "to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him." It is an impossible goal for any human to attain, but it is our goal, nonetheless. The goals of men like Michael Bellesiles and Antonio Lasaga can be achieved in this life, and their choice is the choice of every man, weighing the possible goals against the impossible. But do not forget that their path ends far from God.
Reprinted with permission from Boundless Webzine, March 14, 2002.