Not Recommended: On Evolution and Academic Freedom

Not Recommended: On Evolution and Academic Freedom

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Does a biology professor’s refusal to write letters of recommendation for a student unwilling to embrace evolution amount to unfair discrimination?  For conservative Christian advocacy groups, the answer is a thunderous yes.  For Texas Tech University, where the issue has lately arisen, the answer is a milder no.  For those concerned with science-religion issues, the answer is perhaps a deep sigh, for this may well seem like one more troubling instance of irreconcilable conflict.

“You shouldn’t have to denigrate your religion to obtain a benefit from a government official,” says a lawyer assisting the aggrieved student.

To which retorts the professor at the center of the storm, “Should I have to write a letter of recommendation for someone who rejects what I am teaching?”

Yet, as so often in evolution controversies, there is both more and less to the story.  Your humble columnist has dusted off his journalistic kit and gone out to interview representatives of all sides in this unhappy imbroglio.

First, some background: Hundreds of Texas Tech students take Professor Michael Dini’s introductory biology course each year.  To get an “A” in the class, a student has to become adept in the material.  A shot at a letter of recommendation takes a little more.

For the past three years, Dini has published his criteria for letters of recommendation on his university web site. Slightly abridged, they are:

(1) Earn an “A” in at least one of his classes.

(2) Take on a leadership role or special project so that he gets to know you.

(3) Answer, in person, the question: “How do you think the human species originated?”

On his site, Dini cautions students: “If you cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation for admittance to further education in the biomedical sciences.”

The pitch began to boil after an article appeared Oct. 6 in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal under the oddly suggestive headline, “Professor Rigid on Evolution.”  The story centered on a former Texas Tech student named Micah Spradling.

According to the story, Spradling enrolled in Dini’s course this fall hoping to get a letter of recommendation that would send him on his way to a University of TexasMedicalCenterprogram in artificial limbs, which happens to be his family’s business.  However, the article said, “his family drew the line when his belief in the theory became a prerequisite for continuing his education.”

It went on to heap condemnations on Dini’s head, from local creationist doctors as well as a Universityof Texasprofessor of history and philosophy of medicine, who called the award-winning biology professor an “ingrate.”  Neither Dini nor the university responded to the reporter’s request for statements, and no comments defending Dini appeared in the article.

Since the story appeared, many angry e-mails have been sent to the university complaining about Dini’s policy.  An editorial in the Avalanche-Journal has condemned it as “philosophical bullying.”

Texas Tech President David Schmidly issued a general defense of instructors’ right to apply whatever criteria they choose in writing or refusing recommendations.  He did not specifically mention Dini.  Faculty support has been warmer.  In an interview with this columnist, Architecture Professor Marc Giaccardo, former president of the faculty senate and the American Association of University Professors’ representative at Texas Tech, said, “We will support academic freedom to the hilt.”

Meantime, the Oct. 6 article has touched off a frenzy of outrage from conservative Christian groups.  The Texas Eagle Forum (a branch of Phyllis Schlafly’s national organization) responded on its web site: “This unfairly eliminates Christian students from receiving a recommendation regardless of their academic record or aptitude for biology.  As Dini is a state employee, this is an egregious example of government forcing students to deny their religious beliefs.”

And the Liberty Legal Institute of Plano, Texas, has taken on Spradling as a pro bono client in a pending lawsuit against Dini and Texas Tech. Hiram Sasser, the institute’s staff attorney, says it will be based on at least four federal and state issues, but the essence of the strategy is to say that Dini’s policy amounts to illegal discrimination on the basis of religious belief.

“It is anti anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution,” Sasser said in a telephone interview.  “A large percentage of people who don’t believe evolution is true happen to be Christians.”

What are we to make of all this?  The arguments the Liberty Legal Foundation raises will have to be tested in court to determine their legal worth.  However, the issues that underlie them are fair game for evaluation.

Many people naturally feel sympathy for Micah Spradling.  Requiring ideological conformity seems contrary to American ideals.  Some ask why a professor would go post his views unless he were trying to be provocative.

The truth may be somewhat simpler.  Throughout the controversy, Professor Dini kept silent until agreeing to speak with this writer.  In an interview at his office, Dini said he created the “recommendations” web page to spare himself the chore of turning down large numbers of students face-to-face.

“I teach hundreds of students every semester,” Dini said.  “Many of them ask for letters of recommendation.  Most of them probably shouldn’t.”

That judgment has nothing to do with their religious beliefs, Dini explained.  Rather, as a teacher of introductory biology courses, he feels that most students should turn to instructors who work with them in the more intimate setting of advanced courses.  Those who do seek his recommendation, however, must cleave to his standards.

No one can justly charge Dini with being cavalier in his requirements.  He harbors a strong concern for pedagogy.  He has coauthored three journal articles on science teaching.  His faculty web site carries not only his recommendations policy but also a stern and lengthy essay on his teaching philosophy.

It includes these statements: “An educator who possesses integrity does not act with the purpose of making him or herself popular…I do not make it my concern to bolster a student’s sense of self-esteem, or to permit a student to remain in college, in a particular major, in a particular organization or in a particular career path.”  Nevertheless, the Texas Tech Honors College named him the 1998-99 “Teacher of the Year”.

Is Dini within his rights to make acceptance of human evolution a condition?  To answer this question, we must make crucial distinctions between grades and letters of recommendation.

Grading is a core responsibility of instructors.  Writing letters is not.  Grading must be rational and unbiased.  The American Association of University Professors includes in its policy on grading this statement: “students should be free from prejudicial or capricious grading.”  But, according to experts on academic freedom, no such restriction applies to letters of recommendation.

“A faculty member has not only the right but the responsibility to set personal standards for consenting to write letters of recommendation,” said AAUP representative Giaccardo.

“We don’t get paid to write letters,” said an expert on academic freedom at another university.  “If we withheld grades, that would be a different matter.”

The distinction is not lost on Dini.

“As long as you understand the theory of evolution and can explain it, you would get an “A” in my course,” he said.  “But if you want me to do you the favor of giving you a letter of recommendation to medical school, you should be a scientist.”

The Liberty Legal Institute disputes the idea that recommendations are purely optional.  “A letter from Professor Dini means absolutely nothing except for the fact that he holds an appointment at Texas Tech,” staff attorney Sasser said.  “If all professors refused to give them, students from Tech could not go on to further education.”

True or not, it seems inconceivable that professors could be compelled to write letters of recommendation.  Would every student then be entitled to a letter of recommendation?  How would they be parceled out among the faculty?  And what would be their subsequent value?

Still, a court might declare that a professor may not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or creed, etc., in deciding whether or not to write such letters.  Indeed, that appears to be the aim of the pending suit.

So we may ask: Does it make sense to call Dini’s stance religious discrimination?  Certainly not in a broad sense.  It appears that the major religions are deeply divided over the question of human origins.  Within Christianity alone, there are numerous splits.

Fundamentalist and evangelical churches generally reject evolution as contradicting the “special creation” described in the Bible.  Liberal churches generally accept evolution and interpret the Bible accordingly.  The Catholic Church and various mainstream Protestant churches regard evolution as one step in the divine plan and consider that God intervened at some point to create the human soul in our ancestors.  Other religions also have varying attitudes and doctrines concerning evolution.

Must a science professor be cognizant of all students’ religious views and take them into account in deciding for whom to write a letter of recommendation?  It appears that this could actually foster religious discrimination.  If one student declares that her religion bars belief in evolution while another declares that he’s allowed to believe in evolution, but he disbelieves the scientific account, “because it just doesn’t make sense,” does the former deserve higher consideration or special dispensation?  If so, it’s by no means clear why.

Dini’s controversial criterion makes no reference to religion.  But suppose it were both religiously offensive and unrelated to the subject matter.  In our interview, Sasser raised the point by asking, “What if he had a requirement that you have to believe that Mohammed was a pedophile?”

Academic freedom experts maintain that, when it comes to letters of recommendation, a professor’s discretion is inviolable.  Even such detestable criteria as Sasser’s hypothetical example are allowed.  But at least in that case we might raise moral protest.

In point of fact, however, evolution forms the keystone in the edifice of modern biology.  In a famous 1973 essay titled, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” the late geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote, “There are no alternatives to evolution as [biological] history that can withstand critical examination.”  And so, comparisons with imaginary professors who erect arbitrary and bigoted hurdles in the way of students seeking letters of recommendation miss the mark.

Perhaps the best hypothetical comparison is with a business professor who teaches introduction to capitalism.  Might such a professor reasonably require that students who wish to receive her recommendation profess a sincere acceptance of the principles of capitalism?  Quite likely.  Would a Marxist student be justified in suing the professor for discrimination?  Obviously not.  Marxists are not a protected class.  But what if a student belonged to a communal religious sect?  Would that student be entitled to successfully sue?  Surely not.

For if that were the case, then geography professors would be compelled to write letters of recommendation for Flat-Earth Society members; astronomers would have to recommend for literalists who insist that the stars are fixed in a metal canopy over the sky; physicists would have to recommend creationists who claim the speed of light has rapidly fallen; and law professors would have to write letters of recommendation for reconstructionists who disbelieve in civil law. The integrity of pedagogy would be demolished.

I said at the outset that there was both more and less to this case than meets the eye.  There is less in the sense that Micah Spradling appears never to have confronted Michael Dini.  According to Liberty Legal Institute’s staff attorney, on reading Dini’s requirements Spradling responded, “I’ll never be able to affirm that I believe human evolution is true.  My faith prohibits that.”

Evidently, rather than make his feelings known to Professor Dini, Spradling dropped out of Texas Tech altogether, transferred to Lubbock Christian University, a private institution in the same city, and began planning his lawsuit.

We can only speculate on what would have happened had Spradling gone in to explain why he could not adopt Dini’s views on human evolution.  Who knows?  Perhaps, the student, finding inspiration, would have offered a persuasive counterargument.

Dini says that as a scientist he remains open to new interpretations.  “If a student were able to discredit the scientific theory of evolution to my satisfaction,” he said, “that might be another thing.  But I haven’t heard any such arguments.”

In any event, a policy unchallenged is a policy untested.  It seems unlikely therefore that a court will find that Dini did Spradling any harm.

There is more to the story in its context.  The sparks of outrage at Dini’s policy only add to the firestorm over science education in America.  Many conservative Christians sincerely regard evolution as a threat to their faith and to the moral order of society.  Many conservative religious organizations seek to capitalize on those fears for fundraising and political gain.  The big question, then, concerns how educational institutions are to deal with the conflicting worldviews presented by science and fundamentalist religions.

Good will alone will not suffice.  Science simply cannot compromise with religion if it is to preserve its integrity.  When political pressures distort the scientific conclusions drawn from evidence, disaster frequently follows.

The Kremlin learned this at a bitter cost after Stalin made a maverick scientist the arbiter of evolution in the Soviet Union.  Trofim Lysenko, echoing Lamarck, claimed that environment determined heredity.  He believed, for example, that if seeds were soaked in cold water, they would grow in cold climates.  Such advice contributed to mass starvation in the Soviet famines of the 1930s.  In these days of genetic research and evolutionary medicine, the potential for disaster from political manipulation of science is at least as great.

On the other hand, a democratic society must respect the principles of freedom of conscience, and more particularly, of academic freedom.  Here, whatever one may think of Professor Dini’s criteria or his method of conveying them, he has done a service in helping to clarify the appropriate line.  It runs, straight and narrow, through the divide between grading and recommending.

Michael Dini’s conscience tells him that people entering careers in the biomedical fields should both understand and accept evolution.  Micah Spradling’s conscience tells him that it’s best to respond by entering a Christian academy.  So be it.

But what of all the other students who feel a conflict between science and their religion?  Can we offer them something more than the right of conscientious dissent?  We can and we must.

We can point out that, although science cannot compromise with religion, neither can it stamp out faith.  Francis Collins, joint leader of the human genome project and a practicing Christian, stands as proof of that.  And he is far from alone.

Science does, however, undermine dogma.  The advocates of science-religion dialogue can point out that when faith depends on a body of ancient claims about history and nature, it rests on a frail foundation.  We can show how the torrent of scientific discovery is rapidly eroding that base.  We can attempt to persuade that, however much political power religious literalists may gain, they cannot legislate science to their liking.  To do so would be to introduce Lysenkoism in a clerical collar.  And down that road lies intellectual famine, or worse.