When a Professor Tries to Serve Her Nation

Posted on September 11th, 2014 by

Science Insider reports that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has terminated Valerie Barr after the first of what ought to have been two years as a Program Officer. I know Professor Barr professionally–we are both members of the Liberal Arts Computer Science consortium–and also had the opportunity to talk with her about this strange and sad case shortly after she received the initial notification letter, before her appeal. She has always struck me as a person of complete integrity, and she did so again in that conversation. I simply cannot believe that she was engaged in “deliberate misrepresentation, falsification, deceit, or omission of material fact.” Having heard her story face-to-face, I find her a more credible witness than the anonymous agent of the Office of Personnel Management.

Beyond how sad this is for her and for the entire computer science education community that is deprived of her service at the NSF, there is an easily overlooked twist for Union College, where she is on the faculty. They granted her a two-year leave to serve at the NSF and proceeded to hire a replacement for a two-year term. I can imagine a lot of financially-strapped liberal arts colleges would either decline to take Professor Barr back until the end of her two-year leave or would find some legally permissible, if ethically questionable, justification for cutting her replacement loose just as their second year ought to have been starting. To their immense credit, Union College did neither of these things. They recognized their ethical responsibilities, as well as the contributions both faculty members could make, and agreed to pay both of them to do good work on campus this year.

 

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