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Student Claims Religious Discrimination at Texas Tech

Aired January 31, 2003 - 9:14   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The Justice Department is being asked to investigate a student's claim of religious discrimination at Texas Tech University. At issue -- a biology professor's refusal to give recommendations to students who do not believe in evolution. Now, one of the students, Micah Spradling, has filed a complaint accusing the professor of religious bigotry. Micah joins us this morning from Lubbock, Texas, his attorney...

PAULA ZAHN: Good morning. Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute joins us from Dallas as well. Also joining us this morning, Texas Tech chancellor, Dr. David Smith. Welcome all.

Micah, I'm going to start with you this morning. Why was it so important to you to get a recommendation from Professor Dini?

MICAH SPRADLING: Well, the school that I'm applying to requires three letters of recommendation and they would like at least one to be from a science-related course, and this class that Dini taught was one of the higher levels or a very important -- one of the only biology classes I was going to be able to take. It was very important to me that I get a letter of recommendation from him.

PAULA ZAHN: Weren't there any other professors in that same field you could have gotten a recommendation from?

MICAH SPRADLING: Yes, there could have been, but through my academic career, I planned, you know, in the future to attend this class, because Professor Dini is kind of well-known and I was looking forward to taking his class and receiving a letter of recommendation from him, because I thought it could be very valuable.

PAULA ZAHN: So you end up having to transfer to get the recommendation you needed after all?

MICAH SPRADLING: Yes, I winded up having to transfer to Lubbock Christian University.

PAULA ZAHN: All right. Dr. Smith, I want to read to you from Professor Dini's website, and he says, quote -- "if you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you, how do you think the human species originated. 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 -- Michael Dini, Professor, Texas Tech." Is this discrimination, Dr. Smith? DAVID SMITH, CHANCELLOR, TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY: No, we do not believe so. First of all, letters of recommendation are deeply personal. I'm a physician myself, I've been on all ends of that spectrum, as a student requesting those. And there are, of course, 36 other biology professors at Texas Tech and I don't know if Micah has taken other courses at Tech in sciences, but certainly that's open to him.

The other two criteria though, of course, as you know, to take the course and successfully complete it with an A. Those are, in fact, the first two criteria. And I don't believe that Micah was able to finish that course. He elected to discontinue that.

PAULA ZAHN: Professor Shackelford, of course there are a lot of different opinions on this one. Doesn't Professor Dini have the right to his convictions when it comes to students seeking his recommendation? You heard what Dr. Smith just had to say -- it's a highly personal thing.

KELLY SHACKELFORD, LIBERTY LEGAL INSTITUTE: He has every right to his own personal beliefs. He doesn't have a right as a university official, as a government official to force his beliefs on all of his students. He has a right to ask Micah, for instance, you know, you need to make sure and understand evolution. You need to be able to describe it to be able to write about it, etc. You don't have a right to tell him he has to have personal beliefs that match with those of the professor.

And this idea that it's personal, I mean, if Mr. Dini instead of discriminating on the basis of religious beliefs decided that he believed that African-Americans weren't entitled to letters of recommendation, I can't imagine the university would say, well, that's a personal decision of one of our professors and we're not going to interfere. Discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or religion is prohibited and you can't do that and that's what he's doing in this case.

PAULA ZAHN: Dr. Smith, your rejoinder to that?

DAVID SMITH: Well, he does not do that. In fact, religion is not mentioned at all in this. And first of all, letters are written by individuals, not by universities and that is a decision of that individual. If you look carefully at this, Dr. Dini goes on to define evolution and a specific example in his website has to do with the evolution of genetic resistance, bacterial resistance and microbes. In fact, he has two citations.

I think this is, in fact, blowing this way out of proportion and I think this is going to be an issue, by the way, that all universities will watch this particular case because it is relevant to the personal freedoms of faculty and of course to Micah and others. I understand the emotion in this issue. It is an important one to debate, and by the way, that's why we have universities to debate issues.

I would also make the critical point that we have processes in place where, in fact, students can either go to faculty, they can go to deans, chairs and to student government, and I don't believe in this case, those were exhausted. We, instead, of course, may end up in a court of law.

PAULA ZAHN: Gentlemen, we'll have to follow it from there. Dr. David Smith, Mr. Kelly Shackelford, and Micah Spradling, thank you all for your time. Thank you for helping us better understand all of your positions this morning.

I'm going to turn to a man now who has his own thoughts about this case -- Jeffrey Toobin, is this discrimination or academic freedom?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's a hard question. I struggled with this one. I think Mr. Shackelford is right that this is not purely personal. No professor, even though, you know, he has some discretion, could say, well, I'm not writing recommendations for black students or for Catholic students. So there has to be some standards. But I think what the professor did was he used a standard that was relevant to his field. He believes in science. He's a scientist. And so I think, ultimately, he's allowed to do this.

PAULA ZAHN: Well, so who -- I'm not sure I'm understanding this. So does someone have to set a clearer standard?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Well, I think he did set a clear standard. He says, look, if you want to be a scientist, if you want to go on and study in science, you have to believe in science when it comes to evolution. So those are the only students I'm going to write letters of recommendation for. I don't think you can tell the professor to change his standards. I think that is -- that really is a matter of academic.

PAULA ZAHN: What about the point Mr. Shackelford made, would it be different if Dr. Dini had said, made an issue of whether a student was black or Asian or whatever?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: I think it would be totally different and I think it would be totally impermissible. The difference is you can't make an argument that there is -- that being black relates to this professor's field, Professor Dini's field. That has nothing to do with it, but evolution really does have something to do with his field. It relates to the subject he's giving recommendations to and I think he has to have some freedom there.

PAULA ZAHN: So how do you think this should be resolved then?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: I think Dini should be allowed--

PAULA ZAHN: To write the recommendation he wants and to set his own standards on his website?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: But I know -- I hope I don't get thrown out of the legal analysts' council for this. But, you know, it seems like a little common sense, not law should be involved here. Maybe Professor Dini could say in his letters, look, we disagree about this issue, but the student has the following strengths. You know, the old phrase don't make a federal case out of it -- it seems like a common sense compromise might be in order here.

PAULA ZAHN: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you for your perspective. I think we got that all now.


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