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Anti-vax “prof” ignites scandal at Queen’s U

This week the Principal and Provost of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario publicly acknowledged student complaints that an instructor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies was promoting anti-vaccine materials in a basic health class. The instructor in question, Melody Torcolacci, is reported to have presented her Health 102 class with slides containing such gems as:

No scientific evidence exists showing vaccines are NOT contributing to increased incidents of chronic illness and disability in children.

Yikes. With a howler like that, you have to wonder how Torcolacci ended up teaching such a class in the first place.

And that, as they say, is where things get interesting.

It’s not uncommon for university faculty to have pseudoscientific or irrational beliefs, or even to communicate those beliefs to students. I once had a professor who spent several minutes of a dreary Friday morning extolling the virtues of homeopathy, and another who clearly felt that feeding conventional produce to children was tantamount to poisoning them. But–and here’s the thing–they taught in entirely unrelated disciplines, and so their opinions could be regarded as personal rather than professional.

It is comparatively much rarer for university faculty to advocate pseudoscience or other nonsense in their own fields, precisely because they have the professional expertise to critically evaluate the claims being made. This is the all-important intellectual counterbalance in the social contract known as the tenure system: researchers are given the academic freedom to express unorthodox ideas under the assumption that they will do so in good faith, bringing to bear the full weight of their training and experience.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this rule. Take Michael Behe, for instance, who is a tenured professor of biology at a real university despite being a creationist. The thing is, even in these unusual situations where total cranks are protected by tenure, colleagues tend to step up with public statements, and the faculty in question are usually given teaching duties that keep them away from their crankery.

So what happened with Torcolacci? Some coverage of this scandal has noted, based on her faculty bio page, that Torcolacci is technically an adjunct and not “permanent” faculty. This might lead to the impression that she is just a temporary employee, some kind of short-term hire who happened to slip through the cracks in the ivory tower.

But this would be wrong.

Torcolacci is anything but a typical adjunct. Typical adjuncts (unfortunately) make poverty-level wages even with a full teaching load, and have little to no job security. Any normal adjunct caught promoting junk science in the classroom would see her teaching contract left silently and unceremoniously unrenewed at the end of the term. Melody Torcolacci, on the other hand, has reportedly been teaching shaky facts and pseudoscience for years* and, according to Ontario public salary disclosures, earns approximately $135,000 per year for doing so.

That’s right folks. An adjunct who makes $135k/yr. At the standard per-course rate at Canadian universities like Queen’s (which are thankfully higher than US equivalents), Torcolacci would still have to be teaching nine courses per semester to earn that much money. Not to mention she has approximately zero professional qualifications related to health classes she is assigned to teach. That’s right, did I mention the subject-less MA listed on her bio is in Sport Sociology?

And here we have solved the mystery. Torcolacci is a former track and field coach and champion discus thrower and shot-putter, qualifications which obviously give her the background to teach undergraduate courses on public health and vaccines. This is a straightforward case of academic graft: Torcolacci has been awarded a cushy “adjunct” job with astronomical pay as a kind of kickback for her services to the university’s athletics programme.

With so many eminently qualified PhDs on welfare, this practice is absolutely unconscionable. Queen’s could hire two assistant professors or four full-time adjuncts for the price of one retired coach’s sinecure.

But I’m sure shot put is such a cash cow for alumni donations that it’s all worth it in the end. Right? Right?




Featured image: Queen’s University file photo.

*Who would have thought? RMP.com does have a legitimate use!

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!

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