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Should college presidents take a stand on evolution?

In response to a previous post, Becky posted an interesting comment that I responded to briefly but which requires a more extended reply. (One of the unexpected pleasures of starting this blog is that it has put me in touch again with former students like Becky who was in my course about eight years ago and is now doing a PhD in Astronomy. Her own very lively blog is well worth a visit.)

Becky pointed me to an interesting article that was posted on the blog of the editors of Scientific American, entitled Cowardice, Creationism and Science Education: An Open Letter to the Universities.

At a dinner with the presidents of about a dozen private and state universities, John Rennie (one of the editors of Scientific American) and Steve Jaschik (editor of Inside Higher Education) asked the assembled presidents the following:

Suppose we have a petition here that says, “As university presidents, we affirm that evolution by means of natural selection is a demonstrated fact of science. We also assert that any failure to teach evolution, or to teach ‘intellectual design’ as an alternative theory, harms students’ educational standing.� Who here would not sign, and why?

Rennie continues: “Disappointingly, not one of the presidents in attendance was willing to go on the record as supporting such a petition. When they could finally be drawn out on why, their answers were equally unsatisfying.”

He concludes: “Let’s not tiptoe around the truth. University presidents are afraid to speak out in favor of evolution because they know that they will antagonize anti-evolution Christians.”

I think he is being too harsh. It may well be that the presidents were trying to duck the issue, knowing full well that they have to deal with a whole slew of constituencies ranging from current students and faculty, alumni, donors, legislators, etc. and any stand that they take on such an issue would be bound to cause them some grief.

But I think that there also exists a principled reason for them not taking a stand on issues such as evolution, and I was surprised that none of the college presidents present had made it.

I do not think it is the role of college presidents to take stands on this kind of specific issue. College presidents should not have to take positions on the pressing issues of the day, however clear cut they might seem to us. If they take a stand on the issue of evolution, then they would be expected to take stands on a whole range of other political and social issues and the process would never end. They would be just churning out press releases all day.

Where they should take stands is in support of the basic mission of the university, which is to provide a place for scholars and students to seek, create and disseminate knowledge, in an atmosphere of collegiality, and free from coercion or political pressure. Their goal should be to protect the right of their students and faculty to pursue knowledge in as unfettered an atmosphere as is possible, so that the university’s mission can be realized.

Thus they can, and should, be expected to take a stand on those issues that directly affect the health of universities. So for example, taking a stand on Ohio’s Senate Bill 24 is fine. Taking a stand on affirmative action in admissions is also fine. Taking a stand on issues of discrimination and harassment in universities is fine. All these issues go to the core of what universities stand for. There may be tactical reasons for not always staking out a public position on some of these, but it would be quite appropriate to do so.

But I cannot see anything special about the evolution/creationist split that requires a college president to articulate a position. While I find it bizarre that 45% of Americans can still, in this day and age (according to a Gallup poll in November 2004), believe that “God created man in present form within the last 10,000 years,” I don’t see why that should trigger a specific comment from college presidents, any more than the equally disturbing fact that 44% believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis. (Here’s a question for a sociological study: Are the two groups of people actually one and the same?)

Taking a stand on specific issues that affect particular scientific or other academic struggles should be left to individual faculty members and students or their representative bodies. What college presidents should do is protect those faculty and students who do take stands on evolution or other similar issues (whichever side they support) from retribution from politicians and interest groups who try to limit the exercise of free inquiry or try to prevent the members of academic from making scholarly judgments.

So I think we should give college presidents a break on this one.

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