article from The Scientist: letters of recommendation

From: Ted Davis (
Date: Thu Mar 20 2003 - 08:22:45 EST

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    My colleague, Gene Chase, sent me the attached editorial about evolution and
    letters of recommendation. We've talked about this before, here's a
    provocative editorial that even claims Dr Dini is a Christian. Can anyone
    confirm that?

    ted davis

    attached mail follows:

    Ted ... this was forwarded to me by my Cornell University colleagues.

    Letters of Recommendation: From God or Darwin?
    By Barry A. Palevitz
    (From the March 10th issue of The Scientist Vol 17, p.16. It can be found

    If you teach introductory biology, you've probably heard this refrain at
    least once: 'I had to learn it, but I don't believe it.' The 'it,' of
    course, is evolution. The admission usually comes at the end of the
    semester, when grades are safely in. Invariably, when you ask why, the
    student cites religious belief.

    Somebody once said, if you're not prepared to have your basic ideas
    challenged, you don't belong in college. I don't expect students to accept
    everything they learn, but in this case, I'd like to think the logic of
    evolution is as simple as apples falling from trees. Yet, despite my best
    efforts at marshalling mountains of hard data and explaining the consistency
    in scientific reasoning between disciplines--be it chemistry, biology, or
    geology--some students simply won't accept Darwin. The germ theory of
    disease and the cell theory are okay, but evolution is still "just a

    Evolution deniers are frustrating, even maddening, especially when they're
    so young and should be open to new ideas. But what should I do when one of
    them asks for a letter of recommendation to medical school, graduate school,
    or worse--a preparatory program in science education? Sure she got an A in
    the course, but by denying evolution in the face of all the evidence, the
    student fails a much more important test--a fundamental understanding of the
    nature of science and the standards by which it operates.

    Michael Dini, Texas Tech University biologist and reportedly devout
    Christian, agrees, so he refuses to write letters in behalf of such
    students. Dini isn't sneaky about his policy, by waiting to decline after
    students finish the course. No, Dini posts it on his Web site, so students
    can decide not to take intro biology or drop the course after the first

    Dini's reasons are as much philosophical as they are scientific. "How can
    someone who does not accept the most important theory in biology expect to
    properly practice in a field that is so heavily based on biology?" he asks
    on his Web site. "Such an individual has committed malpractice regarding the
    method of science, for good scientists would never throw out data that do
    not conform to their expectations or beliefs."

    Dini actually sets three criteria for writing recommendations: his charges
    must also get an A in one of his courses, and they have to get to know him.
    Dini's teaching philosophy--also on the web--states that students "will base
    their actions on what they know to be true, rather than what they wish to be

    Now Dini's in trouble with the Plano, Texas-based Liberty Legal Institute,
    which complained to the US Justice Department that the professor's
    policy--and therefore the publicly funded Texas Tech--is denying students'
    First Amendment right to religious freedom. "No professor has the academic
    freedom to discriminate against students on the basis of their race, sex or
    religious beliefs," says Kelly Shackelford of Liberty Legal in a press

    The Justice Department has launched an inquiry, asking Texas Tech to
    clarify its policy on letters of recommendation. Texas Tech says it doesn't
    have a policy--recommendations are a matter of personal discretion.

    What would you do in Dini's place? So far, Texas Tech is standing by their
    man, and Dini refuses to give in. Does he have the right to deny students
    his imprimatur if they don't accept evolution? The Lubbock chapter of
    American Association of University Professors (AAUP) unanimously backs Dini.
    According to chapter president Marc Giaccardo, the group voted to petition
    the university administration in Dini's behalf "based on academic freedom
    and his right to write recommendations according to personal criteria."
    Giaccardo also applauded Dini for being upfront about the policy: "Here's a
    faculty member who's communicating with his students. We should stand right
    by him in that regard." Dini wouldn't comment directly to The Scientist on
    advice of his department head.

    B. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of academic freedom in AAUP's
    national office, has a different take on the issue. Dini's decision "is
    difficult to justify," he says. While a professor can determine criteria for
    recommendations, Kreiser insists it's not an absolute right. If a student
    gets an A in the course, he clearly understands the material, so he "has to
    expect that the faculty member would attest to his performance," Kreiser
    maintains. In other words, Dini should stick to the subject matter and
    forget other considerations. One of my colleagues at the University of
    Georgia would agree. When interviewing students before writing
    recommendations, professors should limit the conversation to things like
    career goals, he insists. Personal opinions about sensitive subjects related
    to religion are off limits.

    Kreiser makes another point: a lot of Dini's students are probably premeds.
    What difference does evolution make to a physician? On the other hand, he
    admits that Dini would be right to deny a recommendation for an anti-Darwin
    student applying to graduate school, say, in evolutionary biology.

    But is the line between med school and grad school that distinct? Dini
    asks, "Can a physician ignore data that he or she does not like and remain a
    physician for long?" He thinks not, and supplies a list of articles to show
    how modern medicine depends on evolutionary principles, including the origin
    of infectious agents like HIV.

    For me, much of the argument comes down to our profession as biologists. Do
    we as scientists and educators have a responsibility to society beyond
    transmitting facts and awarding grades? I think we do. Should we knowingly
    support the advancement of students who, when in a position of
    authority--whether as physicians or research chemists--will ignore the
    weight of evidence undergirding evolution just because of subjective belief,
    thereby undermining our profession and the standards of science? Should we
    support teachers in training who, despite their college education and our
    best efforts, will pass along personal biases instead of an accurate,
    objective reading of biology to a new generation of students? The answer to
    these questions is clear, at least to me. A lot more is at stake than a
    semester's worth of lectures.

    Barry A. Palevitz ( is a contributing

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