From: Ted Davis (TDavis@messiah.edu)
Date: Thu Mar 20 2003 - 08:22:45 EST
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
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 (email@example.com) is a contributing
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