11 February 2003

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.


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