Five years into his PhD studies in sociology at Texas A&M University, Don McDonald found himself in unexpected hot water. He had been called to answer questions before his dissertation committee. In passing, he happened to mention that he thought survival-of-the-fittest scenarios worked better in sociology than in biology.
The committee was aghast.
“Next thing I knew, I’m watching my committee discuss what’s going to happen to my life, that I’ve been investing in all this time. Finally one of them says, ‘Let me meet with him separately. I’m sure we can work this out,” McDonald noted. “So I met with the professor, and while we were together, he begins with something like, ‘Now, you know that Darwin didn’t just make up the theory of evolution.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Are you referring particularly to Erasmus Darwin his grandfather, or Jean Baptiste de Lamarck in the previous century?’”
“It took me just a very short time to figure out that I knew more than my professor did. It took a little bit longer for me to figure out that it didn’t matter how much I knew. It didn’t matter how much I understood. It didn’t matter how much I thought. All that mattered was what I believed,” said McDonald. “Now, once I figured that out, I set my logic aside, and I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much for explaining it to me.’ At which time my dissertation was allowed to continue. I finished my PhD program, and was able to become a member of the scientific community.”
McDonald did not forget that episode. In 2004, he contacted his legislator and they wrote and introduced the first academic freedom bill, which was designed to protect students and instructors at public schools and universities.