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“Background Checks” for Criminal History, Bad Credit Record, Drug Abuse…and Doubts about Darwin

David Klinghoffer

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In the Ben Carson story, the most appalling thing I’ve seen so far is an email I might have missed were it not for the careful eyes of Center for Science & Culture fellow Cornelius Hunter, who blogs at Darwin’s God.
What got this whole Carson controversy started, you remember, is the letter written by four Emory University professors and signed by close to 500 Emory faculty, staff and student, published in the Emory student paper. They were protesting against (and distorting) Carson’s thoughts on evolution. Well, in the comments under the article, Hunter found that a reader had reproduced an email that one of the four professors, Jacobus de Roode, addressed apparently to signers of the original protest letter. It was a follow-up.
Dr. de Roode reports that Emory president James Wagner met with the university’s Faculty Science Council and discussed, among other things, the matter of how Ben Carson, famed pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University who has admitted to being a Darwin doubter, came to be invited as Emory’s Commencement speaker where he would also receive an honorary degree. There’s no indication that Dr. Wagner directly apologized for honoring Dr. Carson but he came very close:

President Wagner explained that the committee who had invited Dr. Carson and recommended him for an honorary degree (in Humane Letters, not Science) had not explored fully Dr. Carson’s views on evolution. He explained that the University has already implemented an additional background checking step in the procedures that will lead to commencement speaker invitations and the awarding of honorary degrees in the future. Overall, President Wagner thanked all those who signed the letter for bringing up this important issue, and for starting a valuable discussion among the Emory community. He expressed his hopes that this discussion can be followed up in the fall, with a College-wide discussion on truth and systems of belief.

A “background checking step“? Wow. Wow. So they are going to screen future Commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients for doubts on Darwinian evolution — along with, presumably, other unsavory views, arrest record, bad credit rating, drug use, and so on. You don’t do “background checks” for things that are innocuous, even merely eccentric, or otherwise up for debate. Obviously, you screen for illegal or unethical associations or behavior, anything that would entail shame, reproach, or danger.
I assume that Professor de Roode’s account is authentic and accurate. I wrote him an email to check and will let you know. (UPDATE: Yes, it’s authentic.)
Again, think what this means for Dr. Carson. Professor de Roode wrote the email, according to his heading, on April 30. The meeting with President Wagner happened, according to the email, on April 26. So more than two weeks before Commencement, faculty and administration together allowed it be known, on the website of the student newspaper, that if Emory had it to do over again they would have “background checked” Dr. Carson for dissenting evolutionary views. Even though he was never going to breath a word in his speech about evolution!
By clear implication, had his views come to light before Emory issued the invitation to Dr. Carson to be honored at Commencement, the university would have not have invited him to speak.
Otherwise, what point would there be in a background check? You find something suspect, and you go ahead and invite the guy anyway? I don’t think so.
I imagine that Ben Carson is a man of the world and doesn’t get his feelings hurt too easily. But this is a heck of a thing to know about your hosts as you’re flying down to Atlanta from Baltimore to receive an honorary degree and speak at Commencement: that the university president who will hand you the degree and introduce you as Commencement speaker regrets having invited you and has told the science faculty as much? That the president and faculty allowed this to get out, in the student paper, is almost unbelievably shoddy.
Talk about Southern hospitality!
But as we’ve said all along, the main point to take away from this whole business is the message it sends to scientists and scholars who are more professionally vulnerable than Ben Carson. It says that you should regard any doubts you have about Darwinian evolution as a mark of poor character, a stain on your intellectual record, that will hinder you in any academic associations you seek to forge or maintain for yourself.
Want to get a job in academia, and keep it once you get it? Better hope your heterodox thoughts on evolutionary theory don’t get out. Better still, much better if you are at all risk averse, just go ahead and adjust your opinions in line with evolutionary orthodoxy. Even if you don’t intend to teach about evolution. Say what everyone else says, think what they think, and you stand a chance of getting ahead in university life.
Photo credit: TranceMist/Flickr.