Montana Tech Faculty: Conservatism YES, Creationism NO


Can a science-oriented public museum welcome creationists as commencement speakers? No way, says a faculty group at Montana Tech.

According to an article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, the controversy at Montana Tech revolves around the coming commencement address by Greg and Susan Gianforte. No matter which way we slice it, this discussion raises crucial questions about the values of diversity, the politics of creationism, and the nature of science.

According to the university’s Chancellor, Don Blackketter, the Gianfortes are the perfect choice. After all, Montana Tech is a science-oriented subunit of the University of Montana. Ms. Gianforte has engineering degrees from fancy schools including Cornell and Berkeley and the couple together has a long record of success in software entrepreneurship. As Blackketter gushed on the school’s website,

Greg and Susan are a great example of passionate individuals and entrepreneurs who have had much success and have given back in so many ways. Their messages will resonate well with our students who will be leaving Montana Tech to make their mark out in the world. We are honored they will be a part of our event.

If you ask some of the faculty, however, you’ll likely get a different story. In addition to supporting conservative causes such as the Milton Friedman Foundation and the Association of Classical Christian Schools, the Gianfortes have donated to the creationist Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum. The museum endorses a vigorously creationist vision of the origins of the earth and of humanity.

According to journalist Scott Jaschik, faculty protesters insist they do not have a beef with the conservative politics of the Gianfortes. But the faculty faction DOES object to the Gianfortes’ support for creationism. Pat Munday, department chair for technical communication and a professor of science and technology studies, told Jaschik that a “publicly funded, science-based institution” like MT could not seem to condone such anti-scientific beliefs. More provocatively, Henry Gonshak of the English Department told Jaschik that the Gianfortes could not cut the mustard. Though they promised not to discuss their political activism, Gonshak was not convinced. “If Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden promised not to mention their own political and religious beliefs,” Gonshak asked, “would we pick them as commencement speakers?”

Though I find Gonshak’s comparison excessive and counterproductive, I agree with him that inviting creationist-supporters to speak at a public science school’s commencement raises some difficult questions. First of all, are the Gianfortes automatically “anti-science” for their support of a creationist museum? Chancellor Blackketter doesn’t think so. He told Jaschik the Gianfortes were “great supporters of science and . . . science and math have been part of their successful business ventures.” As we’ve argued time and time again, the notion among some mainstream scientists that creationists are incapable of learning or using “real” science just doesn’t hold water. The Gianfortes seem like an example of successful creationist engineers.

Second, does it suppress the university’s mission of intellectual diversity to ban commencement speakers of any kind? What if the university wanted to ban prominent science pundit Jerry Coyne due to Coyne’s in-your-face atheism and unapologetic dismissal of religious beliefs? Wouldn’t that seem outrageous? How can we ban one sort of speaker and not another?

Third, should we think about this as a political question? That is, must we who want more evolution taught in our nation’s public schools fight against any event that lends scientific credibility to evolution deniers? If so, the faculty’s move at Montana Tech seems appropriate. Hosting the Gianfortes as commencement speakers at a public science university sends a message. If science does not include creationism, the Gianfortes should not be invited to speak.

Fourth, does it matter that the Gianfortes are charged with supporting a creationist institution, rather than promoting creationism directly? It seems an illegitimate McCarthyite tactic to dig through the record of public figures to denounce them by association. Do we know if the Gianfortes themselves are creationists? I’ve given money to the Catholic Church, for example. But I would not consider it fair to label my politics as anti-contraception because of that. People should be judged on their own merits, not smeared by tenuous affiliations.

The ultimate question, I suppose, is this: Would you sign a faculty petition to oust the Gianfortes as commencement speakers?