PART OF A PROFESSOR'S LIFE IS WRITING RECOMmendations for students who want to go to graduate school. At the University of Texas I've often recommended students with views antithetical to my own, and have assumed that other professors do the same. Refusing to recommend students who have done good work goes against basic professorial ethics.
So I was surprised by a Jan. 30 Associated Press report about a biology professor at Texas Tech who does not write letters of recommendation for his students if they don't believe in evolution. Astoundingly, Texas Tech chancellor David Smith went on CNN on Jan. 31 to support Professor Michael Dini's bigoted decision. Texas legislators who fund Texas Tech, were you listening?
I looked at Prof. Dini's website after reading the AP story and saw his statement that students seeking recommendations should be prepared to answer the question: "How do you think the human species originated?" Next comes this forthright sentence: "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."
Prof. Dini explains himself in this way: "The central, unifying principle of biology is the theory of evolution, which includes both micro- and macro-evolution, and which extends to ALL species." He writes that an opponent of evolution has a questionable "understanding of science and of the method of science. Such an individual has committed malpractice regarding the method of science." He wonders, "How can someone who denies the theory of evolution-the very pinnacle of modern biological science-ask to be recommended into a scientific profession by a professional scientist?"
Prof. Dini displays both his arrogance and his ignorance. I'm writing this across from a bookshelf stacked with critiques of evolution by professional scientists. Besides, someone who thinks science can prove how things began has a questionable understanding of the scientific method. When Job (in chapter 38 of the Bible book named after him) almost overreaches, God asks, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" Any scientist who jumps beyond the scientific method to issue decrees on things not subject to observation or testing is overreaching.
Prof. Dini believes that evolution is the pinnacle of modern biological science. Good for him. Others believe that Mount Sinai or Mount Zion are pinnacles for greater understanding. Since Prof. Dini is denying others the right to believe differently than he does, on a question that the scientific method is helpless to answer, it is right that the Liberty Legal Institute is bringing a lawsuit against him and Texas Tech, and also approaching the federal Department of Justice. As chief counsel Kelly Shackelford notes, "Students are being denied recommendations not because of their competence in understanding evolution, but solely because of their personal religious beliefs."
Prof. Dini's attempt to stop careers before they get started reminds me of my experience many years ago. Since I was a Communist when I entered graduate school in 1973, my professors were impressed by the Marxist dialectic I spun in seminars. They penned enthusiastic recommendations for me; I still have one from the chairman of my program at the University of Michigan, Marvin Felheim, who wrote in 1975, "Marvin Olasky has made the most distinguished record of any of our graduate students in recent years."
That recommendation sits in a folder along with angry letters that Prof. Felheim sent me in 1976, when he was chairman of my dissertation committee but-since he hadn't taught me since my first year in graduate school-did not at first realize that my views had changed, through God's grace. He was angry when he read a draft of my dissertation and saw that I was no longer a Marxist. He wrote plaintively, "I thought you were one of our most intelligent students."
Apparently, moving from atheistic left to biblical right causes brains to fall out. Like Prof. Dini this year, Prof. Felheim 27 years ago tried to abort an academic career: He refused to write any further recommendations and, crucially, resigned from my dissertation committee two weeks before I was scheduled to take my final Ph.D. examination. My university prospects were saved only by the support of the one conservative at that time in the Michigan history department, Stephen Tonsor, who saw Prof. Felheim's bigotry and came on to chair my dissertation committee.
One of my tasks is to remember Prof. Tonsor's boldness so that I will go and do likewise.