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Clarifying the Issues at Ball State: Some Questions and Answers

FreedomUnderFire.jpgIn talking to reporters this week about Discovery Institute’s complaint filed with Ball State University (BSU), I’ve encountered a number of questions about the extent of Ball State’s ban on intelligent design, the impact of that ban on physicist Eric Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” seminar, the list of issues Discovery Institute wants investigated by Ball State, and why teaching atheism would pose a legal problem for the university. Because these questions might be of interest to the readers of ENV as well as other reporters, I thought I’d share my answers here.

1. What does Discovery Institute want Ball State University to do?

We want Ball State to guarantee genuine academic freedom for all faculty, including those who think there is evidence of intelligent design in nature. If Ball State is unwilling to do this, we want it to apply its new restrictions on faculty speech in a fair and consistent manner to all faculty.

2. Hasn’t Ball State merely banned faculty from speaking about intelligent design in science classes?

In a word, no. In her message to faculty and staff on July 31, BSU President Jo Ann Gora did indeed ban science faculty from covering intelligent design in science classes. But she also banned all BSU faculty from expressing support for intelligent design in any BSU class, whatever its discipline. Gora based this all-encompassing ban on her reading of the First Amendment. When dealing with the discussion of intelligent design in non-science classes, Gora asserted that

even in such contexts, faculty must avoid endorsing one point of view over others… As a public university, we have a constitutional obligation to maintain a clear separation between church and state. It is imperative that even when religious ideas are appropriately taught in humanities and social science courses, they must be discussed in comparison to each other, with no endorsement of one perspective over another.

As a matter of law, Gora is wrong that expressions by BSU faculty of their personal views violate the Establishment Clause. However, if this is now BSU’s position, its ban on faculty speech has to be applied equally to all faculty members, not just faculty supportive of intelligent design. Thus, if BSU faculty are banned from expressing support for intelligent design in the classroom, they must also be banned from attacking it, and they certainly must be banned from endorsing atheism.

3. Does Ball State University’s ban on intelligent design apply to physics professor Eric Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” seminar?

Good question. Recall that the whole controversy at Ball State began when atheist activists at the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a complaint against BSU physicist Eric Hedin for teaching an Honors 296 seminar titled “The Boundaries of Science,” which explores the debate over intelligent design during part of the course. A Ball State University spokesman has since claimed that Honors 296 is a “science” course. The clear implication is that BSU’s ban on even discussing intelligent design in science classes applies to Hedin’s course. However, there is a big problem here. Honors 296 and its parallel courses (Honors 297 and 298) are not accurately described simply as “science” courses. According to BSU’s official descriptions for all three courses, these seminars “emphasiz[e] the relationships of the sciences to human concerns and society.” Moreover, they are supposed to examine “social and ethical consequences of scientific discoveries and their applications to critical issues confronting contemporary society.” In short, BSU requires these courses to be broadly interdisciplinary and to explore the relationship between the sciences and human culture. Not surprisingly, all BSU faculty who teach these seminars include a significant amount of non-science content in their courses. Because Honors 296, 297, and 298 are in truth interdisciplinary courses, BSU should make clear that President Gora’s ban on discussing intelligent design does not apply to them. Alternatively, if BSU now insists that these courses are simply “science” courses, the university needs to remove the non-science content from all sections of these courses. What BSU cannot do consistent with the Constitution is to define Honors 296 as a science course solely for Professor Hedin while treating it as an interdisciplinary course for all other faculty. BSU has to apply the same standard to other faculty that it is applying to Professor Hedin.

4. What is wrong with BSU allowing professors to express their support for atheism and/or denounce intelligent design in the classroom?

Nothing — so long as BSU allows professors to express contrary views in the classroom. As a government institution, BSU is not permitted to allow some professors to express their views relating to atheism and/or intelligent design while banning other professors from expressing contrary views.
As discussed previously, BSU’s president claims that faculty are required by the Constitution to be completely neutral in the classroom on religious questions.

She further claims that intelligent design is a religious question. We think both claims are incorrect, and we further think all faculty should have academic freedom to express their views. However, to be consistent with the Constitution, if BSU bans some faculty speech based on the claim that faculty must be neutral on religious questions, then it must apply this ban equally to all faculty on all topics it deems religious. That is why we have asked Ball State University to investigate the “Dangerous Ideas” course whose sole textbook is an anthology edited by a prominent atheist that includes articles arguing (among other things) that “Science Must Destroy Religion.” If BSU is serious about its new neutrality standard for professors on religious questions, then the standard needs to be applied to atheist professors just as much as theistic ones. A university policy that forbids some faculty from offering their views on topics relating to religion, while banning other faculty from offering their views on the same question, most certainly violates the Establishment Clause.

That’s First Amendment 101.

5. Is Discovery Institute only asking Ball State University to investigate a single course for promoting atheism? Or are there other issues?
We are asking Ball State to investigate and respond to four areas of concern:

  1. BSU’s Inconsistent Treatment of Honors 296, 297, and 298 as “Science” Courses. BSU must decide whether these course are science courses or interdisciplinary courses, and its decision needs to be applied consistently across all faculty. BSU cannot define them as science courses for Professor Hedin, while treating them as interdisciplinary courses for other faculty.
  2. BSU’s Inconsistent Application of Standards of Professional Qualification to Faculty who Teach Honors 296, 297, and 298. BSU investigated whether physicist Eric Hedin was qualified to teach a course about the boundaries of science. However, faculty who teach other sections of Honors 296, 297, and 298 seem to regularly teach material outside their areas of expertise. BSU must apply the same standards of professional qualifications to all faculty who teach these courses.
  3. BSU’s Need to Apply Its New Speech Restrictions to All Faculty Equally. As stated previously, if BSU bans some faculty speech based on the claim that faculty must be neutral on religious questions, then it must apply this ban to all faculty speech on all topics it deems religious. Accordingly, we ask BSU to make clear that under the university’s new speech code no faculty member henceforward will be allowed to endorse in class any view, pro or con, relating to any religious idea. Since BSU has already singled out one idea that it thinks is religious (intelligent design), we demand that BSU provide a list of all of the topics regarded as religious by the administration and upon which BSU faculty can no longer offer their personal views. Furthermore, we request an immediate investigation of BSU English Professor Paul Ranieri and his Honors 390 seminar, “Dangerous Ideas,” which appears to violate BSU’s new mandate that faculty be netural on religious questions. Finally, we ask BSU to repeal or revise the academic freedom guarantees of its Faculty and Professional Personnel Handbook so that current and future BSU faculty, students, and the public are not misled into thinking that BSU provides more academic freedom than it actually does. If BSU is unwilling to apply its new speech code equally to all faculty, we ask that it repeal the speech code and guarantee academic freedom for all BSU professors.
  4. BSU’s Potential Violation of the Procedural and Due Process Rights of Professor Eric Hedin. BSU thus far has refused to answer nine important questions about the policies and procedures it followed in its investigation of Professor Hedin. If BSU has nothing to hide, it should not be afraid to provide this information.

If you would like to help defend academic freedom on intelligent design, please contact Ball State University’s Board of Trustees right away and ask them to overturn President Gora’s ban on faculty discussions of intelligent design.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.



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