Science & Faith
9/12/13 at 10:33 PM 89 Comments

Academic Freedom Violation at Ball State University: What You Can Do

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Jo Ann Gora, President of Ball State University

The president of Ball State University (BSU) has had a week to contemplate a 10-page letter from Discovery Institute that documents a serious violation of academic freedom regarding classroom discussion of intelligent design. We have heard no BSU response yet. What's all the fuss about, and what can you do to help promote academic free speech at BSU and beyond?

In a message to faculty and staff on July 31, BSU President Jo Ann Gora declared that science faculty can't discuss intelligent design in science classes. She even banned all BSU faculty from expressing support for intelligent design in any BSU class, even in a comparative religion course. This gag order on those who think there is evidence of intelligent design in nature assumes two things:

  1. Intelligent design is merely a religious idea.
  2. Evidence that supports certain religious views (e.g., theism) over other competing views may not be discussed as such in a public educational institution. Professors are obligated to make it seem that all religious ideas are on equal footing.

The second assumption is obviously antithetical to academic freedom. For example, historians who teach about the founding documents of various religions should be free to discuss both the evidence for and against the historical reliability of those documents. We shall not discuss this issue further in this blog.

President Gora's executive action was spurred by outside pressure regarding BSU physicist Eric Hedin's "Boundaries of Science" section of Honors 296 (Inquiries in Physical Sciences), which includes discussion of the arguments for and against intelligent design. We shall focus on BSU interdisciplinary science courses that are in the same series of honors classes as Dr. Hedin's.

Let's grant for the sake of discussion that intelligent design (ID) is a religious idea that interacts with scientific evidence. I've explained earlier how ID counts as a legitimate scientific theory, but let's put all that aside for now. Even if ID is what President Gora claims (a religious idea popularly associated with the study of nature), there are still good grounds for allowing discussion of ID in a science course, especially in course that is designed to offer an interdisciplinary introduction to science in relation to non-scientific components of culture.

BSU's website describes Honors 296 (Inquiries in Physical Sciences) as follows:

Study of introductory principles within the physical sciences, emphasizing the relationships of the sciences to human concerns and society. Study of social and ethical consequences of scientific discoveries and their applications to critical issues confronting contemporary society.

So, professors who teach Honors 296 at BSU are supposed to teach physical science in cultural context, including conversation with other academic disciplines beyond science. Calls for this approach to science education include the influential Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action published in 1990 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This study reports that students can learn science effectively in historical and cultural context. This includes the relationship of science to ethical, religious, and other cultural phenomena both now and in the past.

I have been teaching such AAAS-recommended interdisciplinary science courses since 1993 (soon after the AAAS study was published in 1990). This has been an immensely rewarding way to teach about science to college students. Most of my students over the last two decades have benefitted greatly from this educational approach. So what's the problem at BSU in regard to Eric Hedin's offering of Honors 296? Why has his course triggered such a sweeping executive action--a presidential order that inconsistent with academic freedom?

Let's take a look at other recent BSU sections of Honors 296 (and Honors 297 and 298 which are supposed to be interdisciplinary courses about earth and life sciences, respectively). We will compare these other Honors courses with the one offered by BSU physicist Eric Hedin (the Honors 296 course that includes arguments pro and con for ID). Each offering of Honors 296 or 297 or 298 takes a different interdisciplinary approach to science that is captured by a specific course name and appropriate assignments listed on the course syllabus.

For example, one Honors 296 course is called "Old" and "New" Science. The syllabus indicates that one week of this course covers “Science and Religion.” The following week focuses on “Science and the Individual,” which also seems to focus on spiritual topics.

Or how about Honors 297 and 298 offerings such as these two (as summarized in Discovery Institute's letter to BSU President Gora):

Honors 297, “The SustainABLES: Air, Biodiversity, Land, Energy, & the Seas (Water),” is just as much about public policy as it is about ecology. The syllabus explicitly states that the course will cover “social, economic, political, [and] cultural... issues facing modern society” in addition to ecological issues, and one of the course objectives is having students “Examine and discuss the political and legal issues behind sustainable or ‘green’ guidelines.”

Honors 298, “The Biology of Life,” promises to address “the numerous ethical and societal issues surrounding such topics” as “aging, cancer, cloning, euthanasia, genetic engineering, gene therapy, the Human Genome Project and recombinant DNA biotechnology.” The syllabus further states that students in the course will “Openly discuss the moral and ethical issues within modern biology.” Indeed, the course requires students to write seven papers on ethical case studies assigned during the course.

Both BSU's official description of Honors 296/297/298 and particular offerings of these courses show that these courses are supposed to include how science is related to non-science domains of human experience, which include religion, ethics, and politics. So even if ID were merely a "religious" concept that many people think is related to science, it would be still be appropriate to explore design theory in a BSU honors course in this interdisciplinary 296/297/298 series.

What can you do to help resist BSU's presidential attack on academic freedom?

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