Biology professors statewide react to science scandal

Biology professors statewide react to science scandal
More than 100 college professors say state education officials shouldn't have to take neutral stance on evolution.

By Laura Heinauer - AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF - 12/11/2007 - original
More than 100 biology faculty members from universities across Texas signed a letter sent Monday to state Education Commissioner Robert Scott saying Texas Education Agency employees should not have to remain neutral on evolution.

The letter is in response to the departure of science curriculum director Chris Comer, who says she was forced to resign days after forwarding an e-mail that her superiors said made the agency appear biased against the idea that life is a result of intelligent design.

"I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I and many others simply feel that good evolution education is key to understanding biology as a whole," said Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas, who has been collecting signatures since last week.

In addition to UT faculty, the signers include professors from Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas State, Rice and Baylor universities and the universities of North Texas and Houston.

"As educators, we simply feel strongly that scientifically sound information be taught in public schools, and certainly having people sympathetic to quality evolution education at the TEA is important," Bolnick said. Having students in his classes without a basic grounding in evolutionary theory is comparable to having students in college-level math courses who haven't learned algebra, he said.

David Hillis, a UT professor of integrative biology who also signed the letter, said, "I think it is a clear sign of how far we have slipped into scientific illiteracy in this country when a science director at the Texas Education Agency is fired for merely forwarding an e-mail about a talk related to science education. It is extraordinarily unfortunate and inappropriate that religious views are dictating hiring and firing decisions at the Texas Education Agency.

"This is an enormous black eye in terms of our competitiveness and ability to attract researchers and technologies," Hillis said.

The concept of intelligent design holds that life is so complex that it must have been created by a higher authority.

State officials, meanwhile, maintain that Comer's resignation was due to a pattern of not following agency policies.

In a November memorandum recommending that she be terminated, Comer's superiors cited comments she made about leadership at the agency and a failure to get approval before making speeches and presenting slideshows.

It also cited her decision to forward an e-mail sent to her by a pro-evolution group that announced a speech about the intelligent design movement in schools. The deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs, Lizzette Reynolds, showed the e-mail to Comer's supervisors, calling it an "offense that calls for termination."

Days later, Comer resigned.

Personnel documents released Monday under the Texas Public Information Act offer further insight into her career at the agency. In 2003, Comer was put on disciplinary probation for one year after she accepted travel reimbursement from grants that she was responsible for administering. The issue was not brought up in the termination memorandum.

In separate reviews, she was chastised for spending too much time at conferences; however, she was also given several merit raises and got high marks in other areas.

Although Comer's failure to consistently follow professional standards has been cited as an issue, Scott and other officials declined to be specific, saying they fear being sued.

"I am really frustrated with the issue, knowing the truth and not being able to talk about it," Scott said.

Comer, who said Monday that she is considering a defamation suit, added that the only time she was reprimanded recently was in February, after she attended a meeting of science educators without getting prior approval.

"Did I question them when they said things that I thought were wrong? Yes, I did that," Comer said. "I did speak up for myself. I was not a shrinking violet. But then, as the director of science, I thought it was important to hear my expert opinions of what is going on."; 445-3694. Additional material from staff writer Alberta Brooks.