The dean of Johns Hopkins Medicine sought to distance the institution from famed neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who has made headlines for his opposition to same-sex marriage, and also promised to meet with students opposed to Carson's planned role in commencement proceedings.
In his first statements about the incident, Dr. Paul B. Rothman described Carson's comments on the issue as "hurtful." Rothman also chastised Carson, who linked same-sex marriage to bestiality, for using offensive language.
"It is clear that the fundamental principle of freedom of expression has been placed in conflict with our core values of diversity, inclusion and respect," Rothman wrote in a letter to colleagues and posted on the Hopkins website.
Carson simultaneously sent a letter of apology to the Hopkins community, after previously apologizing in media interviews. He expressed regret that what he said had "unfortunately dragged our institution into the spotlight as well."
The renowned medical institution and the beloved doctor who used to make headlines for his medical prowess — not his political stances — have been endeavoring to tamp down the controversy since finding themselves at the center of one of the country's most volatile issues.
One crisis management expert questioned whether Hopkins' open denouncement of Carson would help to defuse the situation. Hopkins would have been better served if officials had handled the issue internally, said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president at Levick, a Washington-based communications firm.
"I don't think their strategic objective is to get into a debate over race, gender and politics, but that is what they have done," Grabowski said.
However, Grabowski said, releasing Carson's apology may ease some of the backlash. "If he had … been adamant, that would have been far more damaging," Grabowski said.
Neither Rothman nor Carson were available for interviews Friday, spokeswomen for both men said.
As Carson prepares to retire from medicine in June, he has become more outspoken about his political and social views. He attracted national attention when he criticized President Barack Obama's health care reform law at the National Prayer Breakfast in February.
But his comments about same-sex marriage during a recent appearance on Fox News caused the greatest controversy and drew complaints from Hopkins students and faculty.
"Marriage is between a man and a woman," Carson said during the television appearance. "No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn't matter what they are. They don't get to change the definition."
The comparison of homosexuals to members of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a pedophile advocacy group, and those who engage in bestiality prompted Hopkins medical students to ask that Carson be removed as commencement speaker.
Carson has said he would step down as speaker, but Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said a decision has not been made.
Rothman said in his letter that he plans to meet with students next week to discuss their concerns.
"We are trying to thoughtfully work through these issues, and as part of that process, we will be meeting with graduating students on Monday," Rothman wrote.
In his apology, Carson said he is still against same-sex marriage but apologized for the rhetoric he used.
"I am sorry for any embarrassment this has caused," he wrote. "But what really saddens me is that my poorly chosen words caused pain for some members of our community, and for that I offer a most sincere and heartfelt apology.
"Although I do believe marriage is between a man and a woman, there are much less offensive ways to make that point," he continued. "I hope all will look at a lifetime of service over some poorly chosen words."
Baltimore labor attorney F.J. Collins said that, in general, private employers like Hopkins can take disciplinary action against an employee for espousing political views if there is no contract or employment agreement that protects the worker.
"A private employer can fire you at any time for any reason as long as it is not an illegal reason," he said.
But he said it would not look good in the public's eye for Hopkins to discipline Carson.
"It would be really bad form for Hopkins to try to put controls on public debate over something like this," said Collins, a partner at Kahn, Smith & Collins.
Hopkins has not said it would discipline Carson. In his letter, Rothman acknowledged Carson has a right to his opinions.
"Dr. Carson has the right to participate in public debates and media interviews and express his personal opinions on political, social and religious issues," Rothman wrote. "We strongly value freedom of expression and affirm Dr. Carson's right, as a private citizen, to state his personal views."
The Rev. Jamal Bryant of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple said Carson shouldn't be faulted for his views simply because they are not popular with some in society. Bryant was among several African Methodist Episcopal Church leaders in Maryland who met this week and passed a resolution reaffirming their stance that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
"The wings of society at this point are moving in a supportive direction of same-sex marriage, and that it is a sensitive issue," Bryant said. "But I think he has the right as a private citizen to express that view."