The University of Illinois is being widely criticized after students and faculty forced the school to disinvite James Watson, the scientist who, along with Francis Crick, discovered DNA.
The Nobel Prize winner was set to give a “narrowly tailored” speech to the University’s Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology on the use of DNA in cancer research, and meet students working in the school’s labs.
Watson, however, has made a series of racially insensitive comments about the role of geography in evolution, claiming that separated populations developed differently, leading to certain intellectual and physical differences between races. He’s also claimed that women scientist exist to make science “more fun” for men, and that genetic screening could be a “cure for stupidity.”
Watson claims he did not mean to be racist or sexist, but his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health were shocked, and Watson was asked to resign from his position at the head of New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
The University of Illinois says it took Watson’s strange history into account, but determined that, if Watson were willing to keep his opinions to himself and talk strictly about his genetic research, that students would benefit immeasurably from his expertise.
The science departments agreed and began the process of accommodating Watson, even sending an email to faculty that “stated very clearly that we didn’t condone any of his past comments,” noting that they do not, in any way, agree with his personal beliefs on the subjects of race and gender.
But then they ran into the social science departments, who expressed deep social justice-related concerns over Watson’s mere presence on campus, which one professor, Kate Clancy, claimed made the campus unsafe.
She then threatened to disrupt Watson’s speech if he were allowed to give it.
Clancy was only at it an hour before she had whipped up such a frenzy among students and faculty that Watson’s speech was cancelled, according to local media.
The social science faculty were very pleased with themselves. The Chicago Tribune, however, which caught wind of the controversy almost immediately, was less than pleased with their behavior and excoriated Clancy and her colleagues in an editorial on Wednesday—telling them that they’d robbed the University’s students of a once in a lifetime, “life-shaping” opportunity by censoring a speaker over his random musings.
“There’s a reflex on college campuses to shut down offensive or controversial speech as an affront to the community,” the Trib‘s editorial board wrote. “Harmony may be restored but at a cost, because universities should be places of discovery and dialogue. The wrong lesson is taught when disagreeable thoughts and people are banned.”
The University of Illinois did not respond to Heat Street‘s request for comment, but all accounts seem to indicate Watson’s talk is permanently off the calendar.