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Dean Kenyon and Academic Freedom — A Case in Point

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At the Center for Science & Culture, our mission includes advancing the scientific case for intelligent design and protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech.

In case after case, we have seen that the right of scholars to research and teach is vulnerable to dogmatism and intimidation. No one better illustrates this than Dean Kenyon, a San Francisco State University biologist whose story inspired a pivotal 1993 Wall Street Journal article by Stephen Meyer. This article, as John West recounts in a recent video conversation, brought Meyer to Discovery Institute’s attention and led directly to the founding of the CSC in 1996.

With that 20th anniversary in the air, let’s take a moment to review Kenyon’s case in light of the legal principles that define academic freedom, and specifically how those principles affect scientists at public universities who have an interest in design evidence.

The National Education Association’s Office of General Counsel offers the following points analyzing faculty academic freedom:

  • The government has far greater authority to restrict the free speech rights of its employees than to restrict the free speech rights of (nonemployee) citizens. (Pickering 1968)
  • The speech of public employees, including college professors, is constitutionally protected only if they are speaking as citizens on matters of public concern. (Connick 1983)
  • If they are speaking as employees on matters of merely personal concern (e.g., workplace gripes), then their speech is not constitutionally protected and can be the basis for permissible employer retaliation. (Connick 1983)
  • In addition, under the Pickering balancing test, if college or university officials reasonably believe that the professor’s speech might be disruptive of the workplace, impair harmony among co-workers, strain relationships with supervisors, or interfere with a student’s ability to get an education, then it is not constitutionally protected, even if it touches on a matter of public concern. (Waters 1994 and Pickering 1968)
  • Where the facts show that a professor has been punished just because he/she has voiced controversial or unpopular ideas and there is no evidence that the professor’s speech has been disruptive of the school environment, the courts have found a First Amendment violation. (Compare Levin (1992) with Jefferies (1995))
  • When a public employee is speaking as a part of his “official duties,” i.e., is just doing his job, then the employee’s speech is entitled to no First Amendment protection at all and can be the basis for discipline or discharge. The Court added, however, that this rule may not necessarily apply to teachers performing their official duties of “classroom instruction” and “academic scholarship” and explicitly reserved that question for a later date. (Garcetti 2006) [Emphasis added.]

I realize that some of these cases were decided after the Kenyon conflict, which, as Dr. Meyer recounted in his Journal article, nevertheless serves as a memorable case in point.

Dr. Kenyon, Meyer wrote, co-authored “a seminal theoretical work titled Biochemical Predestination (1969),” published by McGraw-Hill. In this book, he argued that “we should not look upon the appearance and development of the living cell as an improbable phenomenon but rather as one which followed a definite course governed and promoted by the properties of the simple compounds from which the process began.” In other words, life got its start with no guidance or direction by an intelligent agent: none was needed.

In the years that followed, however, Kenyon began to question his views. During the 1970s, partly due to his own lab experiments, he became increasingly skeptical of evolutionary accounts for the origin of life. By 1992:

Mr. Kenyon, who included three lectures in biological origins in his introductory [biology] course, had for many years made a practice of exposing students to both evolutionary theory and evidence uncongenial to it. He also discussed the philosophical controversies raised by the issue and his own view that living systems display evidence of intelligent design — a view not incompatible with some forms of evolutionary thinking.

Soon, the chair of the biology department told him to cease presenting “creationism”:

Mr. Hafernik accused Mr. Kenyon of teaching what he characterized as biblical creationism and ordered him to stop.

After Mr. Hafernik’s decree, Mr. Kenyon asked for clarification. He wrote the dean, Jim Kelley, asking what exactly he could not discuss. Was he “forbidden to mention to students that there are important disputes among scientists about whether or not chemical evolution could have taken place on the ancient earth?”

Mr. Kelley replied by insisting that Mr. Kenyon “teach the dominant scientific view,” not the religious view of “special creation on a young earth.” Mr. Kenyon replied again (I paraphrase): I do teach the dominant view. But I also discuss problems with the dominant view and that some biologists see evidence of intelligent design.

He received no reply. Instead, he was yanked from teaching introductory biology and reassigned to labs.

This removal was temporary, but unreasonable. As Meyer noted during the ordeal, “[A]s SFSU considers its response, a world class scientist waits — yet another casualty of America’s peculiar academic fundamentalism.” Kenyon was eventually reinstated, but faced strained relationships with other faculty members for the duration of his career.

SFSU had the right to define its own curriculum. However, something is wrong when a university objects to any probing of the textbook view, on evolution or in any other field, by a scientist with experience and relevant knowledge.

This moves out of proper scholastic and institutional concerns and into the realm of viewpoint discrimination.

Advancing science is incompatible with suppression of dissent. An understanding and appreciation of gaining knowledge underlies the principle of freedom of inquiry.

It is this vital understanding of academic freedom and free speech that the Center for Science & Culture, twenty years on, continues to articulate and defend.

San Francisco State University campus, by Webbi1987 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.