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La Jolla’s Salk Institute in uproar over email critical of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter

The courtyard of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
( File)

A computer programmer at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla has sparked an uproar by using the center’s email system to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd, the Minneapolis man whose recent death in police custody ignited nationwide protests.

The protests have included many civil-rights demonstrations in San Diego County and wide-ranging discussions about changing the way police operate.

Bob Kuczewski, who has worked at the elite biomedical research institute for about eight years, sent an email to the Salk community on June 2 that said in part: “At the risk of losing a job that I love very much ... Black lives matter? White lives matter? All lives matter?

“How about ... Good lives matter ... most.

“The notions of good and bad are being undermined by the superficial colors of black and white. Rodney King was not a particularly good man. From what I have read, George Floyd was also not a particularly good man. Certainly Derek Chauvin is not a very good man either. Their skin color doesn’t matter.”

Chauvin is the fired Minneapolis police officer who has been charged with second-degree murder for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd died.

The message quickly spread to social media, where Kuczewski’s words drew criticism from scientists, including Rusty Gage, president of the Salk Institute.

He said Kuczewski’s email was inflammatory and some people regarded it as racist.

“I want to be very clear that the remarks included in the email in question do not reflect the values or position of the Salk Institute,” Gage said in a public statement June 3.

Gage said subsequent emails were shifted to Slack, a conversation platform that is widely used by companies.

The May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, has been at the forefront of renewed outcry, anger and debate over race relations in the United States, both in regard to police and society in general.

Kuczewski was still employed by the institute on June 8, but Salk has the authority to take disciplinary action.

Kuczewski, 63, confirmed to The San Diego Union-Tribune that he sent the email. He declined to comment further.

He works as a programmer in the laboratory of Terry Sejnowski, one of the nation’s most highly regarded computational neurobiologists. In 2013, Sejnowski helped persuade then-President Obama to create the BRAIN initiative, a national program meant to develop quicker and more effective ways to study the brain.

Sejnowski could not be reached for comment.

Kuczewski is a political activist who has appeared before the San Diego City Council many times. In 2017, he urged the council not to join a legal battle that sought to prevent the Trump administration from preventing refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. He also talks about policing and social-justice issues on US Hawks, a hang gliding website that has a free-speech zone.

In his email to the Salk community, Kuczewski objected to the title Black Lives Matter, saying: “It’s not about black and white. It’s about good and bad. That’s what matters and that’s what we should hold up as our ideals. The deification of people based on the color of their skin is extremely flawed and does not lead us to a better society.

“Holding people accountable for being better human beings ... does.”

Salk neurobiologist Ed Calloway responded on Twitter, saying, “The remarks in the email are repulsive and contrary to the values of the Salk Institute.”

Megan Kirchgessner, a graduate student in Calloway’s lab, also spoke up on Twitter, saying, “Hey, @salkinstitute, when an email this toxic gets sent out to the whole institute, asking people to kindly take their conversations elsewhere is NOT an appropriate response.”

The Twitter discussion also led to a question from Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, a biology professor at the University of Pennsylvania: “What if these great institutions commit to hiring some talented and qualified black faculty?”

The Salk website says the institute has more than 50 main faculty members, none of whom are black. Salk officials did not respond June 8 to requests for comment as to whether the directory is up to date. ◆