Nobel Laureate's Talk Called Off Over His Racist Comments

U of Illinois research institute agreed to host James Watson. But it called off the event after faculty members cited his comments on race, intelligence and geography.

May 17, 2017
James Watson

A research institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign agreed to host James Watson, a Nobel laureate whose work is credited with discovering the structure of DNA, to give a lecture there. But the event was quickly called off amid faculty concerns about whether it was appropriate to host someone like Watson, whose statements have been widely condemned as racist.

Watson has made numerous controversial comments over the years and also has been condemned for sexist and homophobic statements.

But his comments on race have led many to say he should be shunned.

In a 2007 interview, he said that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours -- whereas all the testing says not really.” Further, he said that while people hope that all groups are equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” (He also said that some black people are smart, and has apologized, although many question the sincerity of his apology.)

Since then, many groups have stayed away from Watson.

The Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois, however, announced that it would host a talk by Watson next month.

Gene Robinson, director of the institute, told The News-Gazette that Watson had reached out to the center and then agreed to deliver a "narrowly focused scientific talk" about his cancer research, and that institute researchers reached out to colleagues because they were aware of Watson's reputation on issues of race.

But the institute backed away from the plans after a number of faculty members took to social media to condemn the plans to have Watson speak on campus.

Kate Clancy, an associate professor of anthropology at Illinois, was the most vocal, posting a series of tweets, some with links to articles with critiques of Watson's comments on race and other issues.

Robinson, talking to the News-Gazette, said, "In hearing the faculty's concerns, we decided that the right thing to do was not to have the lecture."

The institute announced its decision on Twitter.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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