Wayne State University Response to Questions

Wayne State University has released another press release in response to our questions. This follows a prior press release last week (that was retracted less than 24 hours after posting) endorsed by other FACHEP faculty asserting that we were “bullies” and spreading “false information” and deserving of sanctions for our supposed “unethical” behavior. In the new press release, Wayne State University writes:

Dr. McElmurry is a committed scientist and educator, and an academician of the highest character.  We have the utmost respect for the commitment and character of Dr. McElmurry…

Even the newer press release does NOT provide a specific response to any of our questions. Also, for the record, a month ago, we did alert Wayne State to our concerns related to repeated public claims of McElmurry’s work experience “in Flint” from 2010-2014. We have received no response to this day.

We provide the entire press release below:

Wayne State University statement on accusations

April 4, 2018

Statements questioning the personal integrity of Shawn McElmurry, Ph.D. (Department of Civil Engineering, Wayne State University) and research conducted while he was a leader of the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP) team have been posted on the internet and widely circulated.

Wayne State University typically does not respond to postings on independent websites.  These posts, however, were widely shared, and include unacceptable, inappropriate and vitriolic personal attacks on an individual faculty member. We feel it is necessary to defend our faculty member against these personal attacks.

Dr. McElmurry is a committed scientist and educator, and an academician of the highest character.  We have the utmost respect for the commitment and character of Dr. McElmurry and the FACHEP research team.

As scientists and members of the community, we all have a responsibility to maintain the highest standards in all we do.

We have no doubt that Dr. McElmurry and his colleagues take this responsibility very seriously, and work tirelessly toward these goals for the public good.

Questions regarding the integrity of research projects are best reviewed in accordance with established procedures. This involves reviewing the facts and making informed conclusions for the benefit of the broad communities we serve. Wayne State has not received a formal request to investigate the Flint water infrastructure project. If we do, we will evaluate the credibility of the request and follow our established protocol as appropriate.

Considering the Unimaginable: Did McElmurry completely fabricate his story of work “IN FLINT” from 2010-2014?

Friday’s STATESIDE correctly noted that the entire case of Special Prosecutor Todd Flood against Dr. Eden Wells and Mr. Nick Lyons, is critically dependent on the veracity of his star witness — Dr. Shawn McElmurry.  When we filed our formal complaint against Dr. McElmurry on March 1, 2018, we were virtually certain that he had exaggerated his qualifications and work experience in Flint, to win “sole source” contracts for millions of dollars in research funding and leadership of FACHEP during the Federal Water Emergency. After McElmurry evaded direct questions from reporters last week, we reviewed his sworn testimony at trial, and are now forced to consider the unimaginable: What if Dr. McElmurry fabricated the entire story of his 5 year volunteer research effort “in Flint?”


Just consider a few illustrative strands of a tangled web that Dr. McElmurry wove on the witness stand, trying to answer repeated questions about what he did and when, in relation to his past work “in Flint”:

Question: “that was quite some time ago that you were actually started with boots on the ground within the city of Flint?”

McElmurry: “…my work in Flint starts probably about nine years ago now. No, that’s too many, probably like seven or eight years ago .. I got pulled in along with researchers at Purdue University, US EPA Region 5 to try to help him address what he saw as a challenge managing their infrastructure..”…“we worked for a while on the shrinking city problem if you will, and we published some of that work and I kind of took a break from Flint. I wasn’t as involved in Flint and when I started hearing the news reports kind of roll out about problems in Flint I will be honest with you, my wife got sick of me complaining about it and she told me to do something about it and so I did not know Doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha. I did not know anyone else in Flint at the time but I just emailed her and said that I have you know, data from before the crisis that might be useful to understand that and so I started to come re-involved…”

Question: “Just to get, and I understand the gravity of the work. How important was this work to you and your team?”

McElmurry: So obviously Flint was international news but more so then that. You know, we are all residents of the State and you know, I worked in Flint before and for all of us on the team…we felt that this would, you know, this was our family, our kids, I mean we felt, we really felt for the people of Flint….

Question: So Doctor McElmurry I want to take you back in time to your, you had mentioned to the Court you came here in what year specifically to start working in the city of Flint?

McElmurry: You know, I’d have to look back at my records. I’m guessing it’s 2010, 2012, sometime like that.

Question: When was that <working in Flint>?

McElmurry:  As I said, for some reason—well maybe five years earlier.  I know we had a publication that came out right as the water crisis had kind of gotten national attention, and that was probably two years prior to that we had been working in Flint.

Question: And you had been involved in counseling Mayor Walling years ago on water issues in Flint?

McElmurry:  Correct,  Yes.

Question: And I was intrigued on direct examination when you mentioned that you had previously had experience in Flint dealing with the impending, as many communities have, about their municipal water systems, and and that was in 2014, correct?

McElmurry: It was.  I believe it was before 2014.

Question: Well you tell me.  I thought it was 2014.

McElmurry: I came to Wayne State in 2008, and the work was shortly thereafter, so it was before 2014.

Question: Let me ask you, this, in what type of work were you doing in Flint regardless of the time period?

McElmurry: So at the time Mayor Walling had,…..very broad discussion about managing utilities and infrastructure in shrinking cities.

Question:  In other words, the mayor and municipal leaders were trying to learn of the nature of the problem and possible cures, too, right….now how long?…And, for how long did that work in research go?

McElmurry: I mean, I remember I was pretty active with that for more than two years I would say.

Question: And, then, you have a memory in your mind’s eye when it ended, that work?

McElmurry:  I would have to refer to—

Question: Right. Well, let’s work with some dates we do know.  We do know that the switch to Flint River occurred in the spring of 2014, right?

McElmurry: Yes, sir.

Question:  So your research ended before that day?

McElmurry: Yes, sir.

Question: Were you aware of any of the discussion about the water switch obviously prior to April of 2014?

McElmurry: I can’t recall how much I was aware of.

Question:  So even though you had done research in Flint, as far as your academic obligations, you weren’t brought in on any, in any capacity, with respect to the water switch?

McElmurry: At the time I was doing the work on shrinking cities we never discussed switching to an alternative water source as a way to, in any of those discussions.

From the above we created a rough timeline to try and make sense of McElmurry’s research work “in Flint” using his trial testimony and NIH proposal.


The FOIA of Dr. Faust provided documents, which indicate that McElmurry joined her PhD committee and had his first contact with the City of Flint on her project on January 9, 2013. Assuming that document is correct, the only possible window for Dr. McElmurry’s work is from January 2013 to April 2014 before the switch. That is only 1.3 years even if Dr. McElmurry’s now dubious word is taken as truthful. And strangely, even if he was working “in Flint” in that time-frame and counseling Mayor Walling, McElmurry has now claimed under oath that he had NO KNOWLEDGE OF THE PENDING SWITCH TO FLINT RIVER?

Furthermore, Dr. Faust and her advisor, assert that McElmurry did none of the work “in Flint” described in her dissertation or paper. Dayne Walling, supposedly counseled by McElmurry during that critical time period 2013-2014, does not remember any such thing. Nobody has yet vouched for the fact McElmurry even stepped foot “in Flint,” much less worked there for 1.33, 4 or 5 years. “Boots on the Ground?”  We are starting to wonder if McElmurry’s sneakers ever touched a street “in Flint.” The only documentation we have that McElmurry did anything at all related to Flint, is his participation in the one January 9, 2013 phone call.


Despite the fact that some professors who gorged themselves at the FACHEP funding trough (e.g., McElmurry supporters Dr. Love, Dr. Ben Pauli and Dr. Laura Sullivan) are rallying around McElmurry even as we speak – asserting that we are “bullies” and spreading “false information” and deserving of sanctions for our supposed “unethical” behavior, we stand by our every word. And for the record, we can no longer find the WAYNE STATE PRESS RELEASE POSTED YESTERDAY WHICH DENIED OUR ALLEGATIONS. Attempting to provide an explanation for this disappearing denial, FACHEP’s Dr. Ben Pauli stated:

It sounds like the legal folks are being super careful right now given everything that’s going on. I don’t blame them. I’m glad folks got to see the statement in its original form!

We do not blame them either. We repost the original Wayne State University press release (now deleted) for all interested readers and historians.

If our new concerns prove justified, McElmurry may be guilty of perpetrating, one of the most insidious cases of scientific misconduct ever, in relation to procurement of disaster relief research funding.

Download (PDF, 98KB)

Primary Authors: Dr. Marc Edwards with help from Dr. Siddhartha Roy

Wayne State University Press Release Does Not Address our Allegations

Wayne State has just issued a press release with a blanket denial of “false accusations.” In response to a direct challenge that we first provided to Wayne State in early March 2018, they have been unable to produce any evidence, supporting specific claims related to Dr. McElmurry’s work in Flint from 2010-2014.

In contrast, the e-mails we obtained by FOIA, are perfectly clear that McElmurry gained access to Dr. Faust’s dissertation work under false pretenses. Moreover, McElmurry improperly referenced that work as “his” in an NIH proposal, and to position himself for millions of dollars in relief research grants.

We have been waiting a month for an innocent explanation on this issue. We are still waiting. We are starting to doubt that an innocent explanation exists.

FACHEP vs. The People of the State of Michigan: Part I Dr. Shawn McElmurry

The Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP)


The People of the State of Michigan:

An investigative science reporting series by Flintwaterstudy.org

When MDHHS’ Mr. Nick Lyons and Dr. Eden Wells were charged with felonies associated with the Flint Water Crisis back in June 2017, we took a wait and see attitude. Our original reading of internal e-mails produced through our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests had led us to blame misconduct by a few employees at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) as the primary cause of the Flint water crisis. We contended that the governor’s office and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) were certainly guilty of being overly trusting of those engineers and scientists, but that the true criminal acts were the lies told by these few MDEQ employees. While we always remain open to new information, nothing presented to Dr. Edwards in the preliminary hearings has changed our opinion.

Anyone following us also knows we are not shy about calling out bad actors. In late September 2015, we wrote that some MDHHS employees were behaving unethically, but within a few days MDHHS reversed course by agreeing the water was unsafe, and after Dr. Wells started working with us in December 2015, we were impressed enough to call her out publicly in a good way on our webpage on January 7, 2016. Ever since, Michigan government has supported our scientific work and professionally answered all our questions, even when they were fully aware our research was showing that the switch to Flint River water was one key factor contributing to the Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak and associated deaths. We published two peer-reviewed journal papers documenting this science in 2016 and 2017. At no point did anyone at MDHHS or the governor’s office discourage or impede our teams ground-breaking research that helped reveal the Flint Legionella outbreak.

Given our own positive experiences with MDHHS since December 2015, we were surprised when professors representing the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP) alleged under oath that the State of Michigan had not cooperated with their Legionella research. Indeed, sworn testimony by FACHEP professors was a basis for felony “obstruction of justice” charges against Wells and Lyons. To date, the media has generally sided with the presumably noble FACHEP professors and against the maligned state employees in these disputes.  Starting with this article, Flintwaterstudy will present an investigative series that calls that narrative into question, by examining FACHEP’s public leadership, especially as represented by Dr. Shawn McElmurry (Wayne State), Dr. Nancy Love (University of Michigan) and Dr. Laura Sullivan (Kettering University).

Figure 1. Representative FACHEP leaders Dr. Nancy Love, Dr. Shawn McElmurry and Dr. Laura Sullivan (left to right). Photos from UM and Kettering

In Part 1 of this series, we examine the role of Dr. Shawn McElmurry, an Associate Professor at Wayne State, who was essentially given carte blanc leadership of FACHEP in his formal role as Principal Investigator.

Part 1: Dr. Shawn McElmurry’s Unique Qualifications

The State of Michigan funded FACHEP with a $3.35 million “sole source” grant to study the Flint Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak. This was in 2016: AFTER the switch back to Detroit water, AFTER the declaration of federal emergency, and MONTHS AFTER the Flint Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak had ended. The logic behind awarding this large grant exclusively to Dr. McElmurry and his hand-picked team, without any competition, was summarized in public testimony by Wayne State President Roy Wilson to the Michigan legislature on February 28, 2016:

“Wayne State is uniquely qualified to lead this investigation given its established relationships, expertise in urban water issues, and existing engineering, public health, and social science expertise…This effort is being led by Dr. Shawn McElmurry, who has been working in Flint for a number of years…”

Indeed. McElmurry burst onto the scene of the Flint Water Crisis in October 2015, by introducing himself to Dr. Edwards of Flintwaterstudy as an extraordinary humanitarian who had just completed 5 years of research into the Flint water distribution system at the direct request of then-Mayor Dayne Walling. McElmurry also provided Dr. Edwards with his pre-proposal for an emergency research grant to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which stated that he was “able to respond with this rapid assessment based on our intimate understanding of the Flint regional water system and social infrastructure” and due to his “research focused on how to best adapt Flint’s existing water infrastructure to changes in population and industrial demandover the last 5 years.” McElmurry further asserted to both NIH and Dr. Edwards that he possessed “a complete hydraulic model of Flint’s water distribution system” as a result of “his” research work.

In the unfolding Flint Water Crisis, such a combination of local scientific knowledge, on-the-ground experience, social contacts and a working hydraulic model were urgently needed. McElmurry’s declaration that he possessed such expertise and assets represented a “golden ticket” to disaster relief research funding and a designated seat at situation room tables where important decisions would be made directly affecting the recovery. Edwards promptly introduced McElmurry to the inner circle of those working on the water crisis response and and wrote a letter of support for the $422,000 NIH grant which McElmurry was awarded.

Within months, McElmurry’s “unique qualifications” and claims of “intimate understanding” based on his 5-year volunteer humanitarian research mission in Flint, snowballed into his designated sole-source leadership role in the $3.35 million FACHEP grant. He also was involved in winning three emergency grants from the National Science Foundation to study water filters, which Dr. Edwards also helped him to obtain, with his Wayne State colleagues and Dr. Nancy Love at the University of Michigan. By late 2016 and early 2017, Wayne State (and other collaborators) were awarded $12.3 million of other NIH grants which prominently boasted about McElmurry’s pioneering work in Flint. Wayne State University was so proud of how the emergence of FACHEP was playing out in the media and  in garnering funding, that they even “branded” their Flint efforts with a heart-warming “Wayne State for Flint” logo.


Dr. McElmurry’s “EXPERTISE” was not what he claimed

Unfortunately for everyone involved (e.g., unsuspecting Flint residents, accused state employees, prosecutors who have been relying on his expertise and testimony) McElmurry’s claims about his prior work in Flint were too good to be true. At best his experience in Flint was grossly exaggerated, and at worst he perpetrated outright academic identity theft, with profound long-term economic and social consequences for Flint and the State of Michigan. Herein we present just some of the evidence of unethical behavior by FACHEP’s founder, which led us to this regrettable conclusion.

1. Second Impressions: Motivation, Expertise and Social Connections

By January 2016, McElmurry’s humanitarian story about his years of volunteer work in Flint, seemed demonstrably inconsistent with his behavior and performance as observed by Flintwaterstudy’s Dr. Edwards. McElmurry showed little interest in conducting quality science or actually helping Flint residents, but rather, was myopically focused on seeking funding and associated academic power. Whenever he was directly questioned about specifics related to his supposed “intimate knowledge” of the Flint water distribution system, McElmurry was completely clueless and unable to provide answers to even the most basic questions. In October 2015, McElmurry acknowledged he did not know how to contact Howard Croft, Flint’s Director of Public Works, and asked Edwards to introduce them. To date, we have not found anyone who can verify that McElmurry was leading the research that he claimed, into the Flint water distribution system from 2010-2015. When asked, former Mayor Walling stated that while he does not specifically remember McElmurry, he did recall research into Flint’s water distribution system that was led by Purdue University.

2. Meet Dr. Kasey Faust: The actual expert that McElmurry was pretending to be.

At that point Dr. Marc Edwards reached out to Dr. Kasey Faust, a remarkable young woman from Purdue University who did work in Flint as part of her PhD dissertation (2011-2015). In 2011, Faust won a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which enabled her to conduct research helping “shrinking cities,” like Flint, understand and prepare for challenges to their water sector infrastructure.

After Faust and her PhD advisor met McElmurry at an EPA organized workshop in April 2012, he was invited to be an external member of her PhD advisory committee in January 2013. Notably, the word “Flint” was not mentioned in McElmurry’s VITA or statement of qualifications provided to Purdue University at that time. Moreover, Faust and her advisor are not aware of McElmurry being independently involved in data collection related to Flint’s water distribution system, nor did McElmurry accompany Faust or her advisor on their trips to Flint, in his role as her external PhD committee member.

In response to a FOIA from Mr. Lyon’s lawyers, Dr. Faust provided her e-mail correspondences with McElmurry, and they are quite revealing. Reading through the emails is truly heart-breaking: suddenly McElmurry’s “cluelessness” makes perfect sense.  McElmurry literally stole Dr. Faust’s unique and visionary work and claimed it as his own in order to get his foot in the door and a leading seat at the table in Flint.  How did he do it?

First, in October 2015, McElmurry asked Faust to participate in his NIH emergency grant. This would have been a tremendous opportunity for Dr. Faust, who was now a newly minted assistant professor at the University of Texas, and it could have showcased her visionary expertise and continue her quest to help Flint residents.  Next, McElmurry requested that Dr. Faust send him her Flint water network and associated hydraulic models from her dissertation work for the NIH proposal. Faust also introduced him by email to people in Flint with whom she had worked. Final step, once Dr. McElmurry had the data/hydraulic models and introductions to collaborators in hand, he subsequently claimed they were “his and cut Dr. Faust out of his NIH grant.  McElmurry then used her data/models into his NIH grant proposal (without her permission or knowledge). At some point he did inform Dr. Faust that he was sorry she was dropped from the NIH proposal, but that the research went in a different direction than anticipated.

Thereafter, McElmurry essentially assumed Faust’s identity related to her Flint work and embellished it by adding three years additional effort for good measure. In this manner, McElmurry completed his academic identity theft, effectively lining his own pockets, opening the door to important leadership roles and harnessing the Flint disaster for his self-promotion—at the expense of Dr. Faust, Flint and MI residents.

3) Violating Ethical Canons of Engineering and Perjury?

By now, McElmurry has told and re-told the story of his 5-year volunteer humanitarian research mission in Flint so many times, he probably believes it himself. He testified to this story under oath as the star witness in the prosecution case against Mr. Lyons and Dr. Wells, and it is prominently featured in FACHEP press commentary and in Wayne State pressroom materials. McElmurry occasionally cites a research paper written by Dr. Faust, on which he was included as the last (i.e., least contributing) author, to imply intellectual ownership of her entire dissertation work. Here is an example from a Wayne State page: “McElmurry [began] working in Flint in 2010 (Faust et al 2015). However, according to Dr. Faust and her advisor, he conducted none of the work in that paper related to Flint or any other specific city mentioned.

Wayne State release states Dr. McElmurry began working in Flint in 2010 citing a research paper by Dr. Kasey Faust. According to Dr. Faust and her then-PhD advisor, McElmurry did none of the work on Flint (or other cities) described in that paper.

As the veil is now being lifted, it is becoming more and more apparent that Dr. McElmurry seems to be in the habit of making false statements that benefit his career. When posing as a “uniquely qualified” leader for the FACHEP funding in 2015, he asserted in writing to the State of Michigan that his research specialty was in “urban infrastructure and human health.” This false claim was not added to his online VITA until mid-2017, before his sworn testimony in the case against Lyons and Wells. The reality is that McElmurry’s true experience and academic record do not qualify him to serve as a contributing member of a group like FACHEP, much less lead it on behalf of Flint residents and the State of Michigan.

Our discoveries reported herein are truly shocking, and it is regretful to be put in a position where such information must be publicly shared, but it provides an explanation for the incompetence and disastrous consequences of McElmurry’s FACHEP leadership.  Ironically, our engagement in Flint was initially compelled due to the first canon of Civil Engineering ethics: to hold paramount the public welfare. Herein, as painful as it is, we are now compelled to call out McElmurry’s blatant violation of the second canon of Civil Engineering Ethics that Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.”

Accordingly, Dr. Edwards has submitted a corresponding complaint to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) and has agreed to testify in a second canon violation hearing if necessary. He has also reported McElmurry to NIH for possible scientific misconduct in the midst of a Federal Emergency, due to falsifications that directly (and indirectly) may have won millions of dollars in research grants for himself, Wayne State University, and his collaborators.

When it comes to truly criminal behavior related to the FACHEP grant, perhaps the individuals who are presently accused, should be star witnesses for the State of MI in the case against Dr. McElmurry.


FOIA and other associated emails/documentation on FACHEP and Dr. McElmurry:

Download (PDF, 4.72MB)

Dr. Edwards’ complaint to Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs:

Download (PDF, 146KB)

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards with help from Dr. Siddhartha Roy

Bizarre Attack on FlintWaterStudy, Rigor, and Purdue Slide Rules: An Epic Failure to Measure Up

Flintwaterstudy represents a scientific collaboration between a group of Flint residents and Virginia Tech scientists, who aspire to uphold the highest standards of rigor, objectivity, truth-seeking, and truth-speaking. While we have received more than our fair share of accolades associated with our role in exposing the Flint water crisis, we have also received more than our fair share of criticism. For instance, our response to an unfortunate editorial in ES&T generated healthy conversation about the occasionally misplaced priorities of modern academia. Although we have received overwhelming support from Virginia Tech, two very vocal internal critics and colleagues (Dr. Donna Riley and Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou) and their off-campus supporters have repeatedly questioned our methods, motives, and ethics.

We have supported their exercise of academic freedom, even as their views played out painfully and publicly in the pages of the NYT Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, and in a letter to ES&T’s Editor to which we were compelled to respond “We Helped Flint Residents Save Themselves and Are Proud of It.” But it has become increasingly difficult to ignore their underhanded tactics of trolling us on social media, accusing students of perpetrating grave injustices in Flint under our unethical leadership, and putting into practice principles of science anarchy that they teach in the classroom (illustrated below in an excerpt from Dr. Riley’s course):

“By questioning the commonly held assumption, shared by engineers and non-engineers alike, that engineers hold, or ought to hold, particular expertise and power around technology…  disruption of engineering expertise is a central goal of the course.”

For more than a year we made it our policy to turn the other cheek.

But these two colleagues unfairly, and unethically, took aim at the Flintwaterstudy team at several recent events. At one event, Dr. Riley, formerly of Virginia Tech but now Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, live tweeted that our Flint team (29 women and 16 men at VT) engaged in “structural bullying,” on par with what would be recognized by individuals experiencing sexual harassment and assault “#metoo” (Figure 1). After learning of this, members of our team were astonished and respectfully offered to exchange information to improve understanding of these serious allegations, but Dr. Riley refused.  She then falsely stated that her tweets were not about us at all, cowardly refusing to further discuss her Twitter activity, and then took steps to make her tweets visible only to approved followers.

Figure 1: Dr. Riley’s live tweets

Forced to seek better understanding through publicly-available information, we discovered a peer-reviewed article just published by Dr. Riley in the journal Engineering Studies entitled “Rigor/Us: Building Boundaries and Disciplining Diversity with Standards of Merit.” Herein, we explore development of ideas presented in that article and then reflect on lessons learned.

RIGOR/US:  American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) 2013 Distinguished Lecture.

As the newly appointed Program Director of Engineering Education at NSF, Riley was invited to give the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) 2013 Distinguished Lecture. The script of this lecture was the basis for the 2017 peer-reviewed Engineering Studies article. A primary exhibit in Riley’s distinguished lecture is an excerpt from a 2004 WIRED Magazine article entitled “SLIDE RULE STILL RULES.”

In her distinguished lecture, Riley highlights the WIRED article to support her contention that the term “rigor” reflects the “phallic state” of “white male, heterosexuality” that afflicts both women and men in engineering. While she develops her argument orally, a slide was presented to the audience with an image taken from the WIRED article, juxtaposed with an added quote about penis size from a fictional character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel (Figure 2).  The Vonnegut quote on the slide does not appear anywhere in the WIRED article.

Figure 2. Slide and partial transcript of Dr. Donna Riley’s “Association for the Society of Engineering Education (ASEE)” 2015 Distinguished Lecture.”
Slide accessed 12/29/2017.

Transcript of Riley discussing above slide.  Time: 11:52-13:30 min in lecture video.

So what is the purpose of rigor in our community? What ends does it serve? Or as Gary Downey might put it, “what is rigor for?”

One of its purposes is a thinly veiled assertion of white male heterosexuality. We’ve already seen that the term has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and an erect quality. Its sexual connotations, and links to masculinity in particular are undeniable. My visceral reaction to many conversations where I have seen rigor asserted has been to tell the parties involved, male and female, to whip them out and measure them already. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that this image came from WIRED magazine which is widely critiqued for its puerile sexist humor and boys’ club working climate. It comes from a 2004 story about two Purdue engineering faculty members who collected two hundred slide rules for a campus exhibit. In the article they interviewed another slide rule enthusiast who said, and I quote,

“Slide rules made me miserable in school but now I collect them with a passion. I know it’s weird to talk about passion and connection with slide rules but they fascinate and delight me the way my ex-wife never did. They are functional and beautiful. I guess you could say I’m obsessed.”

Sometimes a slide rule is just a slide rule. But glorifying a tool for calculation, an icon of engineering rigor, and in the same sentence denigrating, in sexual terms, the woman he presumably once loved, reflects a quintessential sexist engineering culture.

As illustrated by the transcript (Figure 2), Riley effectively manipulated the WIRED slide rule image, alongside a left-field quote from a fictional Vonnegut character, to generate a hearty laugh from her audience and frame two Purdue engineering faculty. As far as the audience was aware, the Vonnegut quote on the lower part of the slide was part of the WIRED article. The fact that the supposed overtly sexual quote from a “slide rule enthusiast” whose profession is unknown, was not made by either Purdue faculty in the WIRED image, did not deter Riley from “poster-izing” these men in front of a disturbingly appreciative and laughing ASEE audience.

This entire portion of her presentation strikes us as highly inappropriate, unprofessional, and hurtful, especially because the ASEE lecture is a formative experience for many young students who were attending to hear a powerful and distinguished voice in the field.  Afterall, Dr. Riley would be distributing tens of millions in NSF grant funding over the next 3 years.

Riley’s Engineering Studies journal article (2017).

In the peer-reviewed journal article, Riley used the transcript of her 2013 distinguished lecture (Figure 2) as the framework. The image of the two men with a large slide rule is prominently displayed, but the accompanying quote is moved into the article text along with a dubious explanation that Vonnegut “studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Tech and the University of Tennessee.” Riley is clearly insinuating that Vonnegut’s experiences taking engineering classes while serving in the army influenced his writing about penis size more so than participating in the Battle of the Bulge, stacking naked victims of the Dresden firebombing like cordwood while a German prisoner of war, or pursuing his chosen field of undergraduate study in biochemistry at Cornell.

Her peer-reviewed article has already been the subject of considerable outright derision for many other reasons, but herein we focus specifically on an issue that has not yet been explicitly addressed. Specifically, were Riley, and the journal, justified in allowing use of this image with Purdue faculty posing with a large teaching slide rule as a permanent iconic memorial to their Freudian interpretation of the “phallic state” of engineering and “white male heterosexual privilege”? Seeking to resolve that and other questions, a member of our team exchanged emails with two editors of the journal, one of whom (at Virginia Tech) oversaw the publication of the paper and a second editor who took over the role effective January 1, 2018. We made it clear that we thought the image (and perhaps the entire paper) should be retracted. The goal was to give the editors a chance to thoroughly re-review the paper and respond to the use of the image before we publicly critiqued the article.

Exchange with Journal Editors

Within 48 hours of our email query to the editors, Dr. Riley’s “ASEE distinguished lecture slides” previously available through a link on YouTube (Figure 2) mysteriously could no longer be accessed.  Clicking on the link now states “This uploaded file has been marked private by the author. Sorry!.”  The first editor then e-mailed that our questions were “unethical,” “unprofessional,” and a possible attempt to “demonize the journal and the field of scholarship it represents.” Moreover, that if we proceeded with our critique containing the alleged unethical and unprofessional elements, he suspected that “the journal will take appropriate action.”  Obviously, questions that seemed professional and relevant to us were received with immediate and open hostility.

After full consideration of our questions by the new editor, a final decision was made that we summarize with the following quotes (emphasis added):

“… this article passed a review which was entirely in keeping with the standards of the journal, of the field of engineering studies, and of the various broader fields (e.g., anthropology, sociology, science and technology studies) which most of our authors and reviewers are affiliated with.”

“the photo doesn’t seem to have upset anyone when it appeared in WIRED, even though the WIRED article itself indulges in a sexualized interpretation of the photo.  What you seem to be saying is that the photo was unproblematic when presented in WIRED, but that a feminist interpretation of the photo is illegitimate even when that interpretation relies on the overt text – not the subtext – in which the photo was embedded.”

“WIRED chose to begin the article with a photo of the curators holding a seven-foot-long slide rule, and chose to end the article by quoting an overtly sexualized ode to slide rules…. there is an overt sexual reference in the WIRED article which Donna, relying on the literature she cites, was well within her rights to juxtapose with the photo that accompanies that article.

The idea that no one was upset when it appeared in WIRED, because there was nothing in the article that most people would be upset about, did not seem to be within the realm of reason to the editors. Review the article as a postmodernist Rorscach test and decide for yourself: Does the alleged micro-aggression by a civilian slide rule enthusiast justify Dr. Riley’s academic macro-aggression against her fellow engineering faculty at Purdue?


Our story does not end with the editor’s decision. Although the author of the WIRED “SLIDE RULE” article was correctly cited by Dr. Riley as Delio (2004), what she failed to mention is that Ms. Michelle Delio is not a member of a WIRED “boys club working climate” that supposedly conspired with the Purdue faculty to assert “white male heterosexual privilege.” Rather, Ms. Delio is infamous for fabricating quotes to “color” stories, often to add misogynistic flare, as in the case of 2 retracted stories about corporate culture at Hewlett Packard in 2005. WIRED itself now generally affixes a Reader’s advisory” to all of Delio’s work, stating “WIRED News has been unable to confirm some sources for a number of stories written by this author.”

Delio’s Wikipedia entry, and dozens of articles about her unverifiable quotes, have been accessible by a simple internet search since 2005. But we are not the least bit surprised this fact eluded Dr. Riley for 5 years as she told and re-told her story, since she espouses purging rigor completely in favor of “other ways of knowing.” It also escaped the journal’s peer review process and the re-review by the editors. Suspiciously, while we have searched as best we can, we have not yet been able to find evidence that the “slide rule enthusiast” quoted in the WIRED article actually made the quote or is even a real person. Like most Delio fabricated quotes, we may never know for sure, but the quote hyped-up by Riley is perfectly in keeping with the type of secondary color quote Delio was known to fabricate. Clearly, we come to find out that use of the WIRED article to support Dr. Riley’s argument that rigor must be done away with in engineering education, well, it lacks …rigor.


<Buckminster Fuller> believed that the future lay in cultivating the scientist in all of us.  If science is an unfinished project, the next stage will be about reconnecting and integrating the rigor of scientific method with the richness of direct experience to produce a science that will serve to connect us to one another, ourselves, and the world.”   Peter M. Senge.

We believe, more now than ever before, that the future lies in cultivating the scientist in all of us-the virtuous aspiration to seek objectivity and rigor, while openly resisting all provocateurs who recklessly appeal to subjectivism or a common enemy. Failing to do so, collectively, will end in anarchy.

The problems faced in rectifying diversity disparities in STEM are of utmost importance and urgency. But Freudian interpretations of slide rules, lack of due diligence in fact-checking colorful quotes lifted from the internet, or recklessly live tweeting about “structural bullying” and “#metoo” in relation to our scientific and humanitarian mission in Flint is not a solution. Social scientists frequently complain that their quantitative STEM colleagues do not listen to them, but this is a clear case where we were repulsed in horror because we did listen.  We only wish it were possible to completely ignore such unprofessional provocations. Riley’s paper and the ASEE presentation should be carefully studied by all STEM faculty to better understand the logic and motives of postmodern science anarchists before they become ingrained into positions of power in modern academia.

As we return to our work after remembering and celebrating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us re-dedicate ourselves to bending the moral arc of history towards justice, and be inspired by his visionary wisdom as applied to our present circumstance:

We must learn to live together as brothers <and sisters>, or perish together as fools.”

Marc Edwards, Amy Pruden, Siddhartha Roy, Jeannie Purchase

Virginia Tech-Flintwaterstudy Science Team Members

LeeAnne Walters, Kaylie Mosteller

Flint Residents and Citizen Science Collaborators

Email exchanges with Dr. Donna Riley, Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou and editors at Engineering Studies journal:

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