Views on race put FSU, professor in spotlight

Published March 25, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

For years, psychology professor Glayde Whitney's beliefs that blacks are genetically inferior to whites have frustrated his colleagues and infuriated students at Florida State University.

But the university, wary of hindering Whitney's academic freedom, seethed in silence.

Now, the FSU professor has written a glowing foreword to David Duke's new autobiography, and school officials are speaking out. But rather than calling for Whitney's head, they are defending his right to hold views that his own colleagues find repugnant.

"It seems to be within his rights to take this position," said FSU President Sandy D'Alemberte. "I disagree with this position. These kinds of disagreements are common on college campuses and represent the very essence of what universities are all about."

Whitney has not responded to requests for comment on his views or on his decision to write the foreword to Duke's book, My Awakening.

Still, his decision to align himself with the former Ku Klux Klan leader did not surprise Na'im Akbar, an FSU research associate in clinical psychology who also teaches a course called the Psychology of the African American.

For years, Akbar said, black and Hispanic students who have taken Whitney's class have complained that he presents only one side of the debate on genetics and race _ his own.

"They are concerned that he raises those issues without presenting the balancing information," Akbar said. "He's presenting just the negative viewpoint."

Akbar said he forwarded those complaints to Psychology Department chairman Robert Contreras.

Contreras said he has spoken to Whitney about his own concerns but did not push the matter further because he was concerned about violating Whitney's rights.

Whitney attempts in his foreword to place Duke on par with historical luminaries such as Voltaire, Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Galileo and Isaac Newton.

Duke's contribution? He has the courage, Whitney writes, to acknowledge that the races are not equal and that Jews are orchestrating a conspiracy with blacks to preserve their perceived superiority over non-Jewish whites.

Contreras said Whitney's foreword is a painful object lesson on free speech.

"I wish he hadn't done it," he said. "A lot of people are hurt by it. It's not good for the department."

A larger question, however, is what Whitney's views mean for students, particularly black students. Can a teacher fairly grade students he believes are more prone to violence and inherently less intelligent? Does he have the same expectations for black students as he does for white students?

FSU officials are struggling to answer those questions.

"I do worry about that," D'Alemberte said. "But the university has to come up with something more creative than saying you can't say those things. I think that is constitutionally forbidden."

Word of Whitney's views and writings are slowly spreading across FSU. Ewan Michel, president of the school's Black Student Union, said minority students won't like what they hear.

"It makes me feel uncomfortable being at this university and being a minority," said Michel. "It's no telling how many other teachers feel that way about black students. I would like to see the university get rid of this guy."

Whitney, 59, joined FSU in 1970 after getting zoology and psychology degrees from the University of Minnesota and serving as a postdoctoral fellow in behavioral genetics at the University of Colorado.

He makes $56,026 a year, and his specific area of expertise is the genetic taste preferences of mice. His list of professional affiliations and awards is extensive, but many in behavioral genetics are not impressed with Whitney's switch from mice to men.

Several walked out in protest during a conference of the Behavior Genetics Association in 1995 when Whitney, then president of the organization, said America's murder rates are tied to race and genetics.

"Like it or not," he said, "it is a reasonable scientific hypothesis that some, perhaps much, of the race difference in murder rate is caused by genetic differences in contributory variables such as low intelligence, lack of empathy, aggressive acting out and impulsive lack of foresight."

Norman Henderson, president of the Behavior Genetics Association, said many in the organization wanted to oust Whitney after he made that speech.

But the organization, like FSU, decided Whitney's right of free speech would be hindered.

Barry Mehler, director of the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism, said firing Whitney would only make him a martyr. Universities, however, can and should rebuke professors with such views, he said.

"Institutions can say while we respect his freedom of speech, he does not speak for this university. We do not agree with what he is saying. We believe what he is saying is wrong," Mehler said.

Akbar is willing to go further than that.

"The man is a racist," he said. "I personally don't appreciate people using academic garb to shield their racism. And that's what he's doing."