Dialogue on Crow’s Writings

Documenting the Wisconsin Evolution community dialogue on J. F. Crow’s writings on race

Since its founding, our Institute has been dedicated to advancing evolutionary research and education in Wisconsin and beyond. We also share an increasingly passionate commitment to enhancing our field’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, as illustrated by the founding of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee in 2020 and the March 2021 statement that accompanied that action.

In creating this digital record, our Evolution Coordinating Committee (ECC) and our DEI committee strive to document transparently the process by which our community has discussed and responded to writings on race, genetics, and ability by our Institute’s namesake. As we presented this issue in the introductory paragraph of a “Call for Dialogue” e-mail sent to our mailing list in January 2022:

“At the time of its founding, our Institute was named in honor of James F. Crow, who was regarded as an exceptional evolutionary geneticist, a beloved colleague, and a renowned teacher and mentor. At a recent Crow Institute Director’s Lecture, Professor Joseph Graves pointed out that there are excerpts from Crow’s less well known writings on race that do not reflect the social consciousness and prioritization of diversity that the Crow Institute strives to embody today.”

That “Call for Dialogue”, which is presented in full here, cited specific quotes of concern, highlighted our Institute’s values and commitment with regard to diversity, and announced a town hall discussion and a subsequent survey to facilitate the community dialogue and input that we considered essential in responding to this important issue.

The town hall discussion occurred on January 24, 2022. Faculty, students, and other community members respectfully offered a range of reactions to Crow’s quotes and views on what should be done in response. Over the following weeks, we distributed and received responses to a survey designed to clarify how a broad spectrum of community members viewed the quotes in question and what response they would favor. Survey results are presented in this PDF. The survey confirmed that a breadth of views exists within our community, with clear contrasts between the responses of faculty and students (the latter group being more likely to support renaming the Institute). Overall, a modest majority of respondents favored keeping the Crow name, and these results made it clear that formally renaming the Institute would not have the required 2/3 majority support of institute members. However, the community survey revealed fairly strong support for a specific action plan that aimed to reconcile the different priorities of our members, while advancing the broader dialogue around diversity to which these quotes connect.

Specifically, the framework supported by the community survey, the ECC, and the DEI committee involves the following:

(1) The Institute will continue to be formally named the “J. F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution”. However, the Institute will reduce emphasis on this full name in its own official communications, including the web site. For example, references to the Crow name on the homepage itself will be reduced from six mentions to one. Instead, the Institute will primarily refer to itself by the informal, short-form designation “Wisconsin Evolution”. Of course, individual community members will be free to refer to the Institute by either its formal or short-form name in their own communications. This change may help the Institute feel more welcoming for some, but factors beyond our recent discussion of Crow’s writings helped to motivate this shift in emphasis. “Wisconsin Evolution” provides a more immediately clear description of our Institute’s mission for newcomers, and it also reflects the broader desire of some community members to reduce our emphasis on the honoring of individuals.

(2) New pages are now being added to the Institute’s web site. The page you are now reading documents the process of community engagement that our Institute has pursued in grappling with Crow’s quotes on race and ability, and it links to related materials. Another new page explains more clearly why the Institute was originally named after Crow. These pages allow us to more clearly communicate both the history of our Institute and our ongoing community dialogue.

(3) The Institute will orchestrate further opportunities for education and dialogue with regard to not only Crow’s writings, but also the broader diversity issues to which they relate. The first objective is to convene a symposium on the historical relationship between evolutionary biology and marginalized groups, including historical UW-Madison connections to the eugenics movement. The ECC has also committed to continue prioritizing events that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in evolutionary biology.

This plan was communicated to the Institute’s mailing list and posted on its web site on April 7, 2022.