Creationist at a community college

This is a report by Gaythia Weis, a member of the board of Colorado Citizens for Science, about the enlightened position taken by Aims Community College, Greeley, Colorado, when confronted with a talk by a creationist and, more specifically, concern about the publicity for that talk. The talk, which was sponsored by a recognized student organization, was originally and incorrectly advertised as if it were a college-sponsored event. Briefly, Aims (and Ms. Weis) recognized that the speaker had a legal right to speak, but the college wisely dissociated itself from the speech. In short, according to Ms. Weis, the college administration “got it.” Herewith, Ms. Weis’s essay:

I’d like to encourage other Panda’s Thumb readers to tune up their eyes and ears and be watchful for the following sort of situation, in which creationists are apparently trying to insert their views into our public community college education system. Besides protecting the teaching of science, we need to be mindful of our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion. Still, a firm line can be drawn between the rights of a student group to meet on campus, and the presentation of that group’s views as if the viewpoint is supported by the public institution itself. The following example shows how a small bit of constructive intervention can have positive effects.

This strategy takes a certain stomach for having one’s breakfast occasionally ruined by in-depth reading of the local newspaper, in my case the beyond-conservative Loveland (Colorado) Reporter Herald. Wherein I recently read the following announcement:

Greeley Zoologist will present alternative viewpoint on origin of life

Aims Community College is offering a free presentation about the origin of life from noon to 1:30 p.m. Oct. 14 in Ed Beaty Hall’s theater.

Zoologist Frank Sherwin from the Institute of Creation Research will present an alternative viewpoint to the theory of evolution. The nature of science, genetics, and the fossil record will be addressed.

Online, on the college website, the public information announcement originally was:

Aims Community College invites the public to a free program on the origin of life

After I alerted the Aims Community College administration of the problem and engaged the help of local forces, such as the Colorado Citizens for Science (CCFS) and the Colorado Evolutionary Response Team (CERT), as well as the National Center for Science Education, Aims wisely modified their announcement header and added a disclaimer:

ASSAC and the Aims Cru Club invites [sic] the public to a free program on the origin of life

The views presented during this presentation are those of the speaker and not those of Aims Community College.

CRU is the organization formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ. See here for details of their name change. ASSAC is the student body organization.

I attended the talk, as did a number of people apparently encouraged by an announcement from Mile High Skeptics. It was clear that in the day or two before the talk, the Aims Community College administration had put considerable thought into how this meeting was now going to be handled. They presented an excellent introduction and apparently made the speaker aware that discussion of religion would not be tolerated. The talk itself consisted of a series of slides, many containing one-sentence quotes from mainstream scientists, intended to make it appear as if these scientists thought that the underpinnings of cosmology and evolutionary biology were seriously in doubt.

The questions asked in the question-and-answer period that followed the talk added considerable enlightenment to any audience members who may have not been diehard supporters of the speaker. My own question had to do with getting the speaker to acknowledge the fact that, despite the quotes used, the scientists quoted were all still firm supporters of evolution. I further pointed out that there was no such thing as a Darwinist, since Darwin had died in 1882 and considerable progress in biology, such as the discovery of DNA, had taken place since then. Other questioners zeroed in on identifications that the speaker apparently had wanted to keep under wraps, such as the fact that he and the Institute of Creation Research, with which he is connected, are young-earth creationists and believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. As pointed out by other members of the audience, the speaker never even attempted to explain how that position could be supported by science. None of us had to be an expert in every field used in the slides, nor argue each position point by point.

There are a lot of community colleges in this country, probably one near most people reading this report. Is evolutionary biology taught to health science students as crucial to our understanding of medicine? Are standards in place to ensure appropriate limitations on the presentation of creationist views? These are important questions for all institutions of higher education, not just community colleges.