Lubbock Online January 30, 2003

Tech professor's evolution policy prompts federal inquiry

by Sebastian Kitchen

The U.S. Justice Department has opened an inquiry at Texas Tech in response to allegations of religious discrimination by the university and biology Professor Michael Dini.

Tech received a letter from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department on Jan. 21, stating it had received a written complaint against Dini.

A complaint was filed several months ago by the Liberty Legal Institute, which is a legal organization that specializes in the defense of religious freedoms, said institute staff attorney Hiram Sasser.

Sasser said the institute re ceived word Wednesday that the Justice Department had opened an investigation.

"Specifically, the complaint against Texas Tech and professor Dini alleges, among other things, that professor Dini discriminates against those with certain religious beliefs when determining for whom he will write a letter of recommendation, because he excludes from consideration those who will not affirm a personal belief in human evolution," the Justice Department letter states.

"There also have been allegations of professor Dini making disparaging remarks in class about certain religious groups."

Some students, medical pro fessionals and members of the Liberty Legal Institute, which is based in Plano, believe that Dini's letter of recommendation policy discriminates against students who do not accept the theory of evolution.

Sasser said Tech officials have not responded to requests to change Dini's policy.

"We see it (the Justice Department inquiry) as a sign of something we have known all along, which is there is unlawful discrimination. We are not just us out there crying in the wilderness," Sasser said. "The only people who don't seem to have gotten that message yet is Texas Tech."

The Justice Department letter warns that if the allegations are true, the attorney general is authorized by law to "initiate and maintain appropriate legal proceedings."

Justice Department lawyers have requested multiple items from Tech, including letters of recommendation policies, official faculty Web site policies, copies of complaints received against Dini, copies of responses by Tech and any other pertinent additional information, the Justice Department letter says.

The Justice Department wants the information in Washington, D.C., no later than Feb. 24.

Dini could not be reached Wednesday afternoon. He previously has declined comment.

His policy is outlined on his Web site.

"How can someone who does not accept the most important theory in biology expect to properly practice in a field that is so heavily based on biology?" Dini's site reads.

He adds that it is easy to imagine how physicians who ignore or neglect the "evolutionary origin of humans can make bad clinical decision."

Dini will not write a letter of recommendation for a student who "cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" to the question of how the human species originated, his Web site says.

Tech officials have defended Dini's policy on the basis of his personal and academic freedoms.

Others say Dini denies students their academic freedom.

The situation was first brought to light in an Avalanche-Journal story published Oct. 6, 2001.

Tech Chancellor David Smith and former Tech Pres ident David Schmidly have written letters in defense of Dini's right to decline a letter of recommendation. Tech released copies of the letters to The A-J on Wednesday.

In a letter dated Dec. 18, 2002, Schmidly pledged to "remain steadfast in my support of Professor Dini's right to set guidelines for writing letters of recommendation.

"But please let me assure you that his criteria are not discriminatory against Christians."

In the letter, Schmidly said he personally knew several devoutly Christian students for whom Dini wrote letters of recommendation. Dini has written letters for Christian students who demonstrated understanding of the scientific principle of evolution.

"No student felt his/her personal beliefs were ever in question or that his questions in any way discriminated against them," Schmidly wrote. "In other words, professor Dini, himself a devout Christian who studied for the priesthood be fore entering graduate school, is interested in a student's understanding of the scientific principles of evolution. I do not find this discriminatory."

Interim President Donald Haragan was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

Schmidly and Smith noted there are several professors from whom students can re ceive letters of recommendation for medical school.

In a letter dated Oct. 11, 2002, Smith said he knew of 38 other faculty members who can write letters of recommendation for medical school.

"A letter of recommendation is a personal matter between a professor and a student and is not subject to university control or regulation," Smith wrote.

Sasser contends that Dini is a state-paid official using a state-funded Web site to discriminate.

"We have completed all of our legal research, we have lined up a legal team and we are waiting," Sasser said. "We want to give Texas Tech the opportunity to do the right thing. ... We are hoping they will finally realize their position on this is unlawful and they have to stop Dr. Dini from this type of discrimination."

File Date: 02.02.03