Nobel Laureate James Watson, who co-discovered DNA, won’t be speaking at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Campus Reform reports.
After one professor threatened to organize a protest because of Watson’s past comments on race, the institution hosting the lecture quickly rescinded the invitation to the storied scientist.
Watson and Francis Crick are considered the fathers of DNA research and he was scheduled to speak at the university’s Institute for Genomic Biology about his current research on cancer.
The institute’s director, Gene Robinson, told The News-Gazette that he had to “carefully” assess the opportunity before he agreed to it. Watson has made comments in the past about ethnicity and DNA that many classified as racist but has apologized for his words.
Robinson was prepared for the faculty backlash against Watson’s lecture and even sent out a preemptive email explaining that Watson was only coming to the university on the basis of his scientific standing and the speaking engagement did not constitute endorsement of Watson’s controversial remarks from the past.
“We tried to consider this very carefully in going forward, and different perspectives on the possibilities of him giving a science-based lecture,” Robinson reasoned. “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,” Robinson continued, “but the IGB’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.”
Despite the director’s best efforts, he was unsuccessful in ameliorating the strong resistance from some professors, especially Kate Clancy, who teaches biological anthropology at the school. Clancy reacted to Robinson’s email by attempting to organize a protest to Watson’s visit to the university.
Clancy only had to tweet out her protest and indignation for just under one hour before the institute caved and announced that the lecture had been cancelled in response to her threatened demonstration.
Robinson explained that he had decided not to go through with the lecture because “I really respect the perspectives of the faculty who raised the concern.” No other faculty, other than Clancy, has been cited by name as a source of protest in any report.
But Robinson thought his “tough call” would be left undisturbed, he was mistaken. A Chicago Tribune editorial questioned the validity of refusing to listen to a renowned scientist like Watson simply because he has uttered “tasteless, sexless comments.” They writer even suggested that the decision was indicative of the “reflex on college campuses to shut down offensive or controversial speech as an affront to the community.”
In cancelling Watson’s lecture, the Tribune had a lecture of its own for Robinson, reminding him that the had already been clear that Watson was coming to the university to deliver “a narrowly focused science talk…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.”