Creationists at Commencement

March 31, 2014

Montana Tech is a science-oriented unit of the University of Montana, offering a range of degrees in science and technology fields. So Montana-based technology entrepreneurs might seem like logical choices for commencement speakers. This year's speakers will be Greg and Susan Gianforte, engineers who started several technology companies and have been donors to computer science programs at several Montana colleges.

Does it matter that they also support a creationist museum that seeks to convince people that evolution is incorrect? Is there anything inconsistent with a science university honoring people who back creationism?

Some faculty members and students are organizing a graduation boycott (an unprecedented level of protest for Montana Tech) because they think the university should not give a platform to people who argue against science. The university says that since they won't be talking about creationism at graduation, the issue doesn't matter.

The Gianfortes, through their foundation, were major donors to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, an institution that frustrates scientists and academics in Montana for promoting ideas that are widely seen as religious belief, not science. The museum does not in any way hide its views that natural history, as taught by science professors and museums nationally, should be fought.

"When you visit a major natural history museum today, you will see wide-eyed elementary and preschool children (not to mention their parents and teachers) being funneled into an abyss of scientific deception. No matter whether it’s the study of animals, earth science, or astronomy, the wonders of God’s creation are prostituted for evolutionism," the museum's website says. The museum endorses the idea that the Bible is a literally true history of the world, and that every single person is descended from Adam and Eve.

The Gianfortes have been involved in efforts on behalf of a range of conservative social causes and Susan Gianforte has been prominent recently in opposing efforts in Bozeman, Mont., to enact a city ordinance that would ban discrimination against gay people.

Critics of the commencement invitation stressed that they were not trying to bar conservative speakers, and noted that conservative political figures have appeared on the campus without any protest from anyone.

But they said that the university should not be honoring people who fight against science.

"The Gianfortes made significant contributions to a creationist, young-earth museum that presents early humans as living with dinosaurs. This museum is highly critical of what it calls the evolutionary conspiracy promoted by most paleontological exhibits," Pat Munday, department chair for technical communication and a professor of science and technology studies at Montana Tech, said via email. "The Gianfortes are a poor choice as graduation speakers at Montana Tech -- a publicly funded, science-based institution. Their choice as graduation speakers legitimizes their radical social-political agenda."

Munday said that he has missed only two graduations in 24 years at Montana Tech -- one because he was in China and the other because his daughter was graduating the same day from another university. But he said he is staying away from this year's. Some on campus are talking about creating an alternative graduation, and he said she would go to that one.

The Gianfortes have told Montana reporters that they will talk about their engineering careers and will not touch on social issues at commencement. (Greg Gianforte did not respond to an email request for comment on the controversy.)

Donald M. Blackketter, chancellor at Montana Tech, said via email that it was unfair to call the Gianfortes "anti-science" because they are "great supporters of science and ... science and math have been part of their very successful business ventures."

He added that they were selected as graduation speakers "for their compelling stories of business success, for being successful entrepreneurs, and their efforts to create jobs in Montana. Because they have worked as engineers, scientists, and business people they have a background many of our graduates will experience." His statement did not reference the Gianfortes's support for organizations that promote creationism.

Henry Gonshak, a professor of English at Montana Tech, said that the chancellor and supporters of the Gianfortes are trying to frame critics as intolerant -- and have suggested that promoting creationism is irrelevant to a graduation speaker as long as that's not the subject of the speech.

"Our chancellor, Donald Blackketter, has repeatedly defended the choice of the Gianfortes as graduation speakers on the grounds that, so long as the Gianfortes don't speak about their political and religious beliefs in their speeches, those beliefs are irrelevant in determining whether they're good choices as speakers," said Gonshak via email. "I think this is a very weak argument. If Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden promised not to mention their own political and religious beliefs, would we pick them as commencement speakers?"

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