21 February 2003

Molly Ivins on the Shrub's War

Molly Ivins, the journalist whose columns make life bearable for Texas liberals, has an excellent column today castigating the Bush administration for belittling Europeans and Americans who advocate a peaceful solution to the Iraq problem. Molly's right: calling people like me who are simultaneously anti-war and anti-Hussein names is counterproductive. Bush's refusal to admit that maybe the containment/more inspections before a war folks at home and abroad might have a point irritates allies and alienates voters.

11 February 2003

The Things We Say to Students...

Check out this link...updated daily with the wit and wisdom of academics across the nation. Enjoy!

Even Sillier

This event first came to my attention via Ellen Goodman's always excellent column.

Biology Professor Michael Dini of Texas Tech University has three requirements for a recommendation: 1) students have to get an A in one of his classes, 2) they have to cultivate a relationship with him (in other words he won't write a letter for someone who got an A showing up to lectures and exams--he's looking for someone who goes to office hours and is interested in biology extracurriculars), and 3) the student must affirm evolution as a scientific principle.

Enter Micah Spradling. Spradling was only in Dini's class for two days, and never got to know the professor. But he's enlisted the Liberty Legal Institute (yes, that's the same organization that fought to uphold Texas' anti-sodomy laws) to sue Dini, saying that Dini's third requirement for a letter amounts to religious discrimination.

I am truly appalled by this lawsuit. A recommendation is never a right (otherwise, what good are they?). Professors decide who they will recommend for graduate study in their respective fields based on students' abilities in the field. A biologist has got to understand evolution, otherwise his understanding of biology and his ability to teach it or use it professionally should be seriously called into question. I would not write a recommendation for someone who believed that history should not be based on primary sources. That defeats the purpose of history. It certainly isn't discrimination for me to refuse a recommendation for someone whom I don't believe is qualified.

The blogosphere is having a field day with this one. Clayton Cramer has (predictably) weighed in with this little gem: "I think a more accurate description of Professor Dini's prejudices is that he doesn't want fundamentalists to become doctors. That smells like religious discrimination to me."

Now let's think about this. Is Dini really engaging in discrimination? I don't think so.

First, recs are not mandatory; it is a generally recognized principle that professors set those parameters themselves. In fact, Dini has really done his students a favor by telling them up front what he requires.

Second, let's look at what Dini actually says on his website: "If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: "How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?" If you will not give a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation." What Dini wants his students to do is demonstrate understanding of evolution and scientific belief in it. He is not saying you cannot hold strict Biblical beliefs privately outside the professional arena. What he has done is set up a professional criterion.

Third, it is not discrimination to judge people on the basis of professional qualifications. Imagine if employers could be sued for not hiring an unqualified person. For example, I take my AM in American History and apply for a nursing job, and then sue when I am turned down for that job. If Spradling lawsuit is successful, it would set up an analogous situation. Professors would be risking a lawsuit every time they refused to write a recommendation for someone they thought was not professionally qualified to undertake whatever that student wanted to do. If we go back to my earlier example, I could then be sued for refusing to write a recommendation for the student who did not believe in using primary sources in history. I think Goodman said it best: "Needless - or maybe not needless - to say, Dini's refusal to recommend a creationist for a graduate degree in medicine or science is not like refusing to recommend an African-American. It's like refusing to recognize someone who doesn't believe in gravity for a PhD program in physics."

I think Spradling's case will probably fail. After all, he did not actually take Dini's class. And his lawsuit does not challenge the other two criteria Dini put forth: that students must get As and must get to know him personally. (I am waiting for someone to file a lawsuit against Dini in favor of all those poor people who got Bs from Dini). Implicitly, hen, the Liberty Legal Institute has already acknowledged professors' right to establish criteria for writing recs. I am eager to see how this plays out.

09 February 2003


A high school student in Michigan is suing to have his grade changed from an A to an A+.

His mother claims her son deserved A+ credit for a work/study program that involved the student working as a paralegal in her law firm.

Incidentally, the grade of A+ would keep him in line to become valedictorian. Yes, that right, on the judgment of a parent, not a teacher, a student is suing to get an A+ so he can remain valedictorian. I sure hope this kid isn't coming east, specifically to my institution, to go to college. I have enough problems with grade inflation and students whining about grades to have to start worrying about being sued when perfection isn't perfect enough.

05 February 2003

The Madness of George Dubya

That's the title of a satirical play currently showing in London's West End. I wish it would have a run in the states!

03 February 2003


I have vague memories of the Challenger disaster. I remember coming home from school (I was in the second grade) and finding my mother in tears. We hadn't watched it in class like many children, but I remember the excitement surrounding Challenger's mssion.

I wasn't even aware that Columbia was in space prior to its explosion. I guess space travel has become such a routine event these days that the media doesn't notice when a shuttle goes into space. We don't even know that names of astronauts until they die. I think that's a shame. The exploration of space is too important for the neglect it suffers both from media attention and from federal funding.

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is a photograph of Columbia's crew. My thoughts are with their friends and families as they go through the difficult days ahead. I only hope that the investigation into what caused Columbia to break up on reentry can give families some peace of mind.

Buzz Aldrin wrote a column for today's New York Times, stating his hope that this disaster actually reinvigorates the space program. I hope so too.