One man’s fight for justice after critiquing BLM
If you work for a well-established American institution, be it a Fortune 500 company or a prestigious research foundation, are you constantly worried about being targeted for not endorsing political fads or prevailing cultural symbols?
The often-dichotomous struggle between inconvenient truths and popular beliefs is nothing new. When the Catholic Church and the scientific establishment persecuted Galileo Galilei for his support of Copernican heliocentrism, the majority of Europe’s educated citizenry held to Aristotelian geocentrism. While the Copernican model, which positions the earth around the sun as the center of our universe, is now an established scientific fact, the Italian polymath was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which labeled his writings in support of heliocentrism as foolish, absurd and heretical. Europe’s political and religious leaders reprimanded and imprisoned Galileo because his views were not aligned with popular beliefs of the time.
The pattern of scientific inquiry colliding with accepted norms has repeated again and again throughout history. Today, the related battle between conventional wisdom and popular culture has befallen an unassuming computer programmer who was employed and then fired by a world-famous biomedical research flagship—the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. This is a story about Bob Kuczewski, a 64-year-old aviation specialist and computer scientist whom I interviewed extensively before and after the 2021 holiday season. You may not agree with Bob’s opinions, but you may come to respect his journey to defend his rights to free speech and equal treatment.
On June 2, 2020, Bob made the fateful decision to speak out against Salk’s anti-racism stance championing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which came in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death. On that day, after having received a barrage of messages on his work email server condemning systemic racism, Mr. Kuczewski broke his silence at 10:46 pm to offer a differing perspective on the tragedy:
At the risk of losing a job that I love very much… Black lives matter? White lives matter? All lives matter? How about… Good lives matter… most. The notions of good and bad are being undermined by the superficial colors of black and white. Rodney King was not a particularly good man. From what I have read, George Floyd was also not a particularly good man. Certainly, Derek Chauvin is not a very good man either. Their skin color doesn’t matter.
It’s not about black and white. It’s about good and bad. That’s what matters and that’s what we should hold up as our ideals. The deification of people based on the color of their skin is extremely flawed and does not lead us to a better society. Holding people accountable for being better human beings… does.
All hell broke loose. Many of Bob’s colleagues rebuked his comments, and some took to social media to demand that Salk take disciplinary actions against this “old white man keeping academia unsafe.” Bob was immediately suspended by Salk and put through a 6-month-long investigation probing his “racially insensitive conduct,” turned down Salk’s offer to work from home for a partner institution, and even agreed to take mandatory sensitivity training in an attempt to keep his job. But he adamantly denied wrong-doing and refused to sign a “confession” of such. His employment was terminated on February 10th, 2021. Bob is now representing himself in a lawsuit against Salk for wrongful termination.
What went wrong? Why is an esteemed scientific research organization willing to go to such great lengths to appease the woke thought police? Why was a personal statement respectfully challenging mainstream narratives on race worthy of this reaction? What happened to “agreeing to disagree”? And most importantly, why is Bob still fighting?
To say that our STEM fields, both academically and professionally, have gone woke is an understatement. A recent survey by Nature, one of the world’s leading science journals, identifies systemic discrimination in science as a determining factor for more diversity work. The American Medical Association has a strategic plan to embed racial justice in medicine, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls racism a public health crisis. The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the world’s largest biotech advocacy association, has an “Equality Agenda,” which purports to promote health equity, talent investments, and enhanced opportunities in underrepresented minority communities. According to BIO, equity is justice.
STEM industry leaders and intellectual powerhouses unconditionally embrace the politically correct dogma of racial and social justice. Conducting scientific research and development through the prism of race is now the new cult of geocentrism. And Salk is no exception. Facing pressure to racially diversify its Board of Trustees and its workforce from donors and the public, Salk’s leadership is eager to jump on the “equity and inclusion” bandwagon. Bob stood in the way and became a scapegoat so that the institute could advertise itself as an equitable organization for its 850 employees.
But can we punish unpopular views, such as those expressed by Bob Kuczewski, and still call ourselves a free, tolerant, and diverse society? You don’t have to see eye to eye with Bob, but canceling him in the name of justice is pure hypocrisy.
Bob is no career activist. Neither is he a “keep your head down and do your work” type of guy. At a time when our nation’s winds blew decisively leftward in favor of a “racial reckoning,” he stood up to speak his mind and lost his job as a result. I asked Bob why he couldn’t just keep quiet for the sake of a secure and fulfilling career. He responded: “I believe that there is a price for justice that we must be willing to pay.”
There is much more to Mr. Kuczewski than the incendiary label of “an old white man.” Bob is “married” to his career, although he regrets passing up opportunities to start his own family. At the time of the incident, Bob was working as a programmer in the laboratory of Terry Sejnowski, one of America’s most respected computational neurobiologists. 2020 marked Bob’s 8th year with the Salk Institute, where he worked on simulations of molecular diffusion inside biological cells. Before that, he cultivated a keen interest in aviation while serving in one of the U.S. Army Ranger Battalions in the mid 1970s, worked at large aerospace firms such as General Dynamics, TRW, and Northrup Grumman, and later on took up independent consulting after receiving a patent for networked classroom computers in 1999.
After a long and successful career in aerospace, Bob chose to settle down with Salk before retirement because he appreciated “the open and collaborative nature of the work,” even though it was one of the lowest paid positions he’d ever held. More than the material harms of losing a job, Bob is disappointed “when the Salk Institute sacrificed that open and collaborative spirit to appease the hateful and destructive elements in our society.”
Bob’s quagmire reached its pinnacle in early 2021, when his negotiations with Salk broke down after he added a short statement below the signature line on an agreement offered by the Salk HR Department as a condition for him to return to work. He wrote:
By signing above, I am not agreeing to having committed any wrongdoing or any violation of Salk policy. I explicitly do not agree with any findings of the investigation report which may state or imply otherwise.
Salk rejected the statement and let go of an otherwise high-performing employee because he voiced an opinion and denied any fault in doing so. While Bob had consistently expressed his desire to reach a positive resolution, he is now suing Salk for imposing race-based disparate treatment against him, retaliating against him for opposing a majority stance, and subjecting him to racial harassment. To this day, Bob is blocked from accessing the findings of the 6-month investigation into his post-Floyd conduct. So much for equal treatment, the most fundamental principle of justice.
Bob’s saga is not just about Bob or Salk. It raises a bigger, thornier question: what is the proper role of the educated elite in our society? In his celebrated 2010 book entitled Intellectuals and Society, economist Thomas Sowell criticizes intellectuals’ power-induced tendency to offer opinions beyond their technical expertise:
Many intellectuals are so preoccupied with the notion that their own special knowledge exceeds the average special knowledge of millions of other people that they overlook the often far more consequential fact that their mundane knowledge is not even one-tenth of the total mundane knowledge of those millions.
So why in the world is an independent nonprofit organization with a mission to “seek new understandings in neuroscience, genetics, immunology, plant biology and more” striving to become a racial justice icon? Perhaps because perpetuating prejudice and groupthink awards the educated elite rich political advantages.
Accusing a dissenting employee of harboring white privilege and anti-black racism for critiquing an increasingly radical movement is hardly justice. And Bob is right to fight for his constitutional rights for freedom and equality.
As our conversation drew to an end, Bob tossed out a rhetorical question: “Could Galileo work at Salk?”
Better yet, let’s ask ourselves: Would Galileo be good enough for Woke America?