The University of Illinois has capitulated to faculty complaints and rescinded a speaking invitation to Nobel Laureate James Watson, who has ruffled feathers with past comments about race.
Watson is famous for co-discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, but even a preemptive email stating that he would be giving a "narrowly focused scientific talk" failed to assuage faculty concerns.
The issue is that outside of the research lab, Watson isn't the same admirable figure: He has made all manner of offensive and racist comments. In a 2007 interview he said he was "gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really." He also said he hopes everyone is equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." He apologized but has made other tasteless, sexist comments that call into question his character and judgment — but not his scientific expertise.
As CampusReform.org's Adam Sabes reports, Watson is known primarily for co-discovering the double-helix structure of DNA along with Francis Crick, but had offered to give a “narrowly focused scientific talk” at the school’s Institute for Genomic Biology about his recent cancer research, Institute Director Gene Robinson told The News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana, adding that he considered the offer “carefully” before deciding to accept.
Robinson said he had anticipated potential objections to Watson’s lecture, and attempted to head them off with an email making explicitly clear that the invitation was not an endorsement of Watson’s past comments.
"We tried to consider this very carefully in going forward, and different perspectives on the possibilities of him giving a science-based lecture,” Robinson explained. "With respect to his past, the email that I sent out stated very clearly that we didn't condone any of his past comments, racist comments and sexist comments. And we noted that he had apologized and thought about all those very carefully.”
"We support Dr. Watson for his discovery and work, and believe that his remorse and subsequent apology to those groups he spoke against are genuine,” the email stated, “but the IGP's stance is unchanged—we do not condone discrimination of any form, and the respect that we give to each individual in our community is paramount."
Robinson’s outreach did not assuage the concerns of many faculty members, however, particularly biological anthropology professor Kate Clancy, who drew the Institute’s attention with a series of tweets proposing to organize a protest against Watson’s talk. Less than an hour after she began tweeting, the Institute replied announcing that it had decided to cancel the lecture in response to her complaints.
"In hearing the faculty's concerns, we decided that the right thing to do was not to have the lecture," Robinson said, adding that while he respects the principle of free speech, "I really respect the perspectives of the faculty who raised the concern. It was a tough call either way."
The Chicago Tribune, however, questioned Robinson’s judgment on that front in an editorial, arguing that Watson’s “tasteless, sexist comments” do not detract from his “scientific expertise,” and that cancelling the talk is an example of the “reflex on college campuses to shut down offensive or controversial speech as an affront to the community.”
:Watson's nixed appearance at the U. of I., not intended as a venue for his repugnant opinions, could have been acceptable as a narrowly focused science talk, since the research institute was clear in repudiating his personal views,” the editorial concluded.
“Watson isn't the only expert in some specific field who otherwise fails tests of decency. Attendees would have come away enlightened by his science lecture.”
Student Jacqueline Moffat, conversely, told Campus Reform that she supports the decision to cancel the speech, saying the Institute can just find another “smart” person who has not engendered past controversy.
“The school should not be promoting someone like that,” she asserted. “There are plenty of other smart people that we can hear from.”