Thanks to Ball State University’s (BSU) recent document disclosure to Discovery Institute, new evidence has come to light on the academic freedom case of Dr. Eric Hedin. A new kind of voice has finally spoken, that of a witness to the events in question: one of Dr. Hedin’s students.
Recall that BSU is investigating the “academic integrity” of Dr. Eric Hedin’s interdisciplinary honors course, “The Boundaries of Science.” BSU’s student paper, The Daily, reported that BSU formed an investigative committee to determine, more specifically, “if [Hedin’s course] content is appropriate, if the professor is qualified and if the teaching is appropriate.”
This “ad hoc” investigative committee (read: probably non-compliant with Faculty Handbook procedure) is comprised of members who suffer from one conflict of interest or another, suggesting the committee’s inability to perform as charged, as we’ve earlier reported. Also troubling is the committee’s stated mission, between quote marks above, which could hardly be squishier or more unbounded.
An additional concern, not yet raised, is that the committee is apparently not required to actually investigate the key facts at issue: the conduct of the course itself. Because Dr. Hedin is an astronomer and physicist with solid publishing and teaching credentials, as evinced by his CV, the only real question of fact before the committee is whether Dr. Hedin uses course materials for non-pedagogical purposes, such as urging on students political action or sectarian religious commitment.
Although the committee is apparently not required to examine witnesses to or take statements on the conduct of Dr. Hedin’s course, some of Dr. Hedin’s students have privately and voluntarily offered such statements to BSU’s president, Jo Ann Gora. This we discovered through public documents requests to BSU.
What we’ve learned so far is that student testimony — testimony from folks in the best possible position to testify on class conduct — rebuts any claim of “inappropriate” course conduct on the part of Dr. Hedin. One student letter is particularly illuminating.
BSU redacted the writer’s name in the letter, though not in the email to which the letter was attached. That is to say that the testifier is not anonymous. She is a real student who really took Dr. Hedin’s honors course and really knows “what actually took place in the classroom,” unlike outside provocateurs such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
When reading the letter, excerpted below, ask yourself whether Dr. Hedin appears to be doing his job, not doing anyone else’s job, and not letting anyone else do his job for him, as academic freedom law requires of those it would protect. Academic freedom law protects the teacher who performs in class as a teacher, and not like, say, an evangelist or political campaigner.
Unlike the evangelist and campaigner, the teacher introduces students to materials as objects of inquiry, objects to be interrogated, taken apart and put back together to reveal how the text works, ultimately for the development of scholarly skills. The teacher does not hold materials out as subjects to be revered, embraced, or followed. If he does that, then he’s not doing his job, and is not within the protection of academic freedom law.
This is the law, roughly stated. Like a juror, apply the law to the facts. On the facts, the student writes:
The vast majority of class time was spent in discussion with small groups. Dr. Hedin would start the class by writing a question on the board (typically one that was philosophical or scientific in nature) and then give us time to talk about it with each other, sharing our thoughts and ideas on the topic. Sometimes these discussions would take up the majority of the class. Dr. Hedin would then bring us together as a whole class and ask what ideas had been brought up.
No sermons or stump speeches? This behavior seems … teacherly.
Students were encouraged to share any and all thoughts we had, especially if it was a different perspective than one already shared. Discussions included a wide variety of topics, such as the nature of time and reality, the definition of truth, whether there were categories of life, and the fine-tuning of universal parameters for life to exist. These conversations were fascinating, engaging, and challenging in the best of ways. Never once did I personally hear any complaints from my fellow students; on the contrary, the mood was always positive — we enjoyed stretching our minds. Dr. Hedin was always respectful and kind.
Still a teacher.
He only lectured a few times. The sole content of these lectures involved the life cycle of stellar bodies and the Big Bang theory. During these times, he asked for questions and encouraged our thoughts and ideas.
Still a teacher doing teacherly things.
A good teacher like Dr. Hedin can become news only if people who know nothing of his teaching practices loudly speak ill of him, as the student aptly observes.
I have two main concerns. The first is that, simply on the words of people who did not actually attend Hedin’s class (and can therefore not make a reliable assessment of his methods), Hedin’s credibility will be trashed and he will continue to be portrayed as a professor who did nothing but decry evolutionary theory and criticize non-Christians (neither of which, of course, are true). This is already happening — someone in the IndyStar.com article compared him to a Holocaust denier.
Despite what the crazies on the Internet say, Dr. Hedin has stuck to his job, as the student makes clear. I’d admonish BSU’s investigative committee to do the same, but no one seems to know what that job is, exactly, which puts the school in danger of violating academic freedom law.
If a runaway committee convinces BSU leadership to discipline Dr. Hedin for doing his job, then the institution wouldn’t just break the law, it would also break the heart of its mission. On that the student writes:
My second concern is that what is in many aspects the Honors College’s most precious commodity — its willingness to introduce new and sometimes challenging ideas to its students — will be undermined because of this issue. I have read and studied ideas while in my Honors classes with which I vehemently disagree (some of which made me very uncomfortable). However, I consider these to be deeply valuable experiences. They were opportunities to explore views of my fellow students that I would not have considered otherwise. They forced me to examine my own beliefs, to defend them to myself. Most importantly, they have provided understanding of the perspectives of those that are different from me. The Honors College has always been about the spreading of ideas. To punish Dr. Hedin for doing this would be an insult to his character and skill as an instructor; it would also serve to weaken the foundations of not merely the Honors College, but the university as a whole.
Dr. Hedin must be doing something right because his student, this student, has become the teacher.