By the 1920s, NC State had become an emerging state educational power. And with that newfound relevance came a higher visibility, which sometimes led to a culture war between progressive academics and traditionalists.
Such was the case on this day in 1922 when entomology professor Zeno P. Metcalf debated religious leader William B. Riley over evolution.
Alice Reagan outlines the events that led to the debate in North Carolina State: A Narrative History. In what she calls the “first public controversy to involve State College professors,” six members of NC State’s science faculty issued a public statement replying to lecture given by Jasper Massee, a fundamentalist who asked North Carolina to halt support of colleges or universities teaching evolution. The controversy was prevalent throughout the South and gained steam in North Carolina when religious leaders like Massee questioned the teachings of William Poteat, a Wake Forest College professor who taught evolution. “The State College professors believed themselves to be true Christians, as well as scientists, however, and decided that they could not allow Massee’s action to go unchallenged,” writes Reagan.
After the professors issued their reply, Riley, the leader of the Baptist Bible Conference, challenged them to a public debate, which took place at Pullen Hall. Two thousand students showed up for the hour-and-a-half event in which Metcalf read from prepared text and Riley used more of an evangelical persuasive style.
The controversy would again arise in 1925 when a bill was introduced in the state legislature that required state-supported institutions to stop teaching evolutionary theory. The bill was defeated, and the controversy went national when John Scopes was found in violation of a Tennessee statute that outlawed the teaching of evolution in state-supported schools.