OSU takes closer look at graduate student's dissertation
Published: Thursday, June 23, 2005
Updated: Saturday, June 16, 2012 00:06
Ohio State doctoral candidate Bryan Leonard's dissertation is being investigated by the School of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education as a result of controversies surrounding Leonard's views on evolution, his use of human subjects for testing and his public association of his beliefs with OSU.
On May 6, Leonard testified before the Science Committee of the Kansas Board of Education. In describing to the committee his teaching in the 10th grade classes at Hilliard Davidson High School in Hilliard, Ohio, he said, "And the way in which I teach evolution in my high school biology class is that I teach the scientific information, or in other words, the scientific interpretations both supporting and challenging macroevolution."
In response to questioning by Kansas officials, Leonard testified that he neither believed "that all of life was biologically related to the beginning of life," nor "that human beings are related by common descent to prehominid ancestors."
Upon learning of Leonard's testimony early this month, three OSU professors - Brian W. McEnnis, a mathematics professor, Jeffrey K. McKee, an anthropology professor, and Steve Rissing, an evolution, ecology and organismal biology professor - signed a letter to Carole Anderson, graduate school interim dean, that said, "There is evidence that Mr. Leonard's dissertation committee has been improperly constituted and that his research may have involved unethical human subject experimentation."
Leonard's main dissertation research question is, "When students are taught the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution, do they maintain or change their beliefs over time? What empirical, cognitive and/or social factors influence students' beliefs?"
The three professors, in their letter to Anderson, said, "We note a fundamental flaw: There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution. Mr. Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise. His dissertation presents evidence that he has succeeded in persuading high school students to reject this fundamental principle of biology. As such, it involves deliberate miseducation of these students, a practice we regard as unethical."
Leonard, who did not return phone messages or e-mails left by The Lantern last week, conducted his graduate work as a biology teacher at Hilliard Davidson.
The three professors also complained that, although Leonard's dissertation deals with the teaching of evolution, "no member of his dissertation committee is a science educator or an evolutionary biologist."
Robert DiSilvestro, OSU professor of human nutrition in the College of Human Ecology and a member of Leonard's dissertation committee, said he had heard nothing outside of the media about an investigation. "I'm waiting for the university to talk to us directly rather than through the media. I'm trying to give them a chance to do this the right way."
Anderson responded to the professors' letter by sending a letter to Peter V. Paul, chairman of the School of Teaching and Learning, that said the letter from the professors, "does raise some reasonable concerns about the composition of the (dissertation) Committee, and the likelihood that Mr. Leonard's dissertation will receive the kind of objective evaluation that the degree of Ph. D. requires." It continued by asking that Paul conduct an investigation of the qualifications of the dissertation committee and the other "reservations" expressed in the OSU professors' letter.
In an e-mail to The Lantern, Paul said that the Teaching and Learning Graduate Studies Committee is investigating these issues and will have no further comment until "we have submitted our letter to the Graduate School by the end of (this) week."
This is not the first time Leonard's views have aroused controversy.
He helped prepare a life science curriculum for 10th graders adopted on a 13-5 vote by the Ohio Board of Education last year. The lesson plan was entitled, "A Critical Analysis of Evolution."
"This lesson plan has been condemned by several organizations, including (but not limited to) the National Academy of Sciences, The Ohio Academy of Science, the Science Education Council of Ohio and the Faculty Council and Senate of The Ohio State University," the three professors said in their letter to Anderson.
J.C. Benton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said that the department will continue to allow, but not require, the teaching of the lesson plan regardless of the ultimate disposition of Leonard's dissertation.
Leonard's defense of his dissertation, which was scheduled for June 6, has been postponed and has yet to be rescheduled. OSU's Graduate School has recently added Joan Huber, dean of the School of Biological Sciences, to the dissertation committee.
It is unknown whether the dissertation defense will be in a public or private venue, said Earle Holland, director of research communications at OSU.
In an editorial last week, the Columbus Dispatch said, "Questions about Leonard's dissertation defense should trouble anyone who values the integrity of a doctoral degree from OSU...because there are no scientific data challenging the fundamental concepts of evolution, (Leonard's) very question is flawed. And it suggests that Leonard offered evolution and intelligent design to his students as equally valid alternatives, which they are not."