Ball State University seals records of review panel on Eric Hedin (and bonus anti-ID letter)

A piece in today’s Muncie Star-Press reports that Ball State University (BSU) has turned down freedom-of-information requests to release the report of the professorial panel investigating Eric Hedin’s teaching of intelligent design (ID) and Christianity in his science class.  Here’s the official refusal of the Star-Press‘s request:

bilde

The refusal (photo by Seth Slabaugh)

I suspect the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) will pursue this refusal, whose grounds appear to be, well, a bit flimsy. As the paper reports:

The FFRF and The Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think tank that is supporting physicist Hedin, are criticizing Ball State’s decision to keep the records secret.

There is nothing in the law to prevent the university from disclosing the records, according to Indiana’s Public Access Counselor.

While it is the policy of the state of Indiana that the public is entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public employees, the university is citing two exceptions to that policy.

First, the personnel files of public employees are excluded from Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), except in certain situations such as when an employee is suspended, demoted or discharged.

Ball State is also denying access to the records on grounds they are “deliberative materials” that are “expressions of opinion” and are “communicated for the purpose of decision making,” another exception to APRA.

“The (student) evaluations are used in the promotion, tenure and salary review processes,” Sali Falling, Ball State’s general counsel, said.

My own take in the paper:

Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, told The Star Press the student evaluations “bear critically on whether the university knew of student complaints about Hedin, which they claim they didn’t, and if so, how long they’ve known about them.” It was Coyne who called FFRF’s attention to a complaint about Hedin’s class.

He doesn’t understand why the review panel’s entire report is closed. What if the panel commented on intelligent design? How does that part of the report violate Hedin’s privacy?

Well, they should have quoted me rather than characterized what I said in the second paragraph, but never mind.  We will see what kind of report, if any, Ball State produces. My guess is that they’ll just make a brief announcement of what they’ve done about Hedin’s course.  If they don’t make a more general and public statement decrying the teaching of ID, they’ll look bad.

And here’s a conundrum:

Based on his knowledge of the records, Joe Hoage, the Indiana Public Access Counselor, believes the university complied with the law when it denied The Star Press access to the documents.On the other hand, the university would not be breaking the law if it released the records, Hoage said.

I’m betting that the final decision will come down in two weeks, and that Hedin will no longer be allowed to teach the course as a science course. If that happens, you can expect howls of protest from both the Discovery Institute and the benighted folks at BSU who actually seem to like intelligent design, but masquerade their affection as a love of academic freedom.

******

And, at last, a sensible letter at last to the Star-Press from James Bradley, an actual employee of BSU, the head of Metadata and Digital Initiatives at the School of Art. For some reason known only to the Star-Press, this letter appeared only in the paper version and was omitted from the online version, which surely gets more readers. Given the crazy pro-Hedin and pro-Jesus letters published online, one gets a piscine odor about all this.  But at any rate, good for you, Dr. Bradley; you’re an oasis of rationality in a desert of nescience. And it takes a bit of bravery to come forward in this way at a place like BSU.  The following is a scan of Bradley’s letter in the paper:

bradley-op-ed

39 Comments

  1. alexandra moffat
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Mr Bradley said a lot in just a few words. What a pleasure to read – not just for superior, informative, convincing content but also for clear, crisp, articulate, simple style -

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      I literary felt how the “piscine odor” of how BS-U is handling the affair wafted out of my brain.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        At first I thought it was to do with swimming pools since the French for swimming pool is la piscine :)

  2. Posted July 23, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    “whom I believe has been shortchanged in his education”

    Brilliant!

    /@

    • Don
      Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Yep–except it’s “who,” not “whom.” ;-)

      • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        Maybe the author was being hyper-correct, and making it agree with “by Malachi W. Randolph” … ;-)

        /@

        • Don
          Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, it’s a hyper-correction. And it refers to Randolph, but in the subjective, not the objective. “Who” is the subject of the clause “has been shortchanged.” He [I believe] has been shortchanged.

      • E Reff
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

        “Who I believe” is correct. Eliminate I believe as parenthetical and leave who as the subject of the clause.
        Retired Eng. teacher

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Oh finally a well written, coherent and sensible letter from someone at BSU! I’m glad James Bradley is there to counteract some of the poison coming out of the English & Music departments. Poor man to be surrounded by such cretinous opinions!

    I suspect BSU knows their refusal is weak & they are just hoping to stall things.

  4. Jeff D
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    From the photo of the denial document, I assume that BSU is relying on the personnel records exception (5-14-3-4(b)(8)) as well as on the “deliberative materials / opinions” exception in 5-14-3-4(b)(6):

    “Records that are intra-agency or interagency advisory or deliberative material, including material developed by a private contractor under a contract with a public agency, that are expressions of opinion or are of a speculative nature, and that are communicated for the purpose of decision making.”

    Unfortunately, there is a rich history in Indiana of agency decisions (and, IIRC, some reported court decisions) in which the “internal deliberative materials” exception has been forcefully upheld, lest agency staffers and members of investigative committees feel reluctant to do a thorough job and to be candid in their discussions.

  5. Posted July 23, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I would have a lot more respect for the BSU administration had they, for example, announced that they’d produce a public version of the commission’s findings at the same time that they’ll be announcing their decision.

    A legitimate case can be made for protecting personnel records and the like. But that doesn’t automatically mean that “no comment” is the proper answer. BSU is a public institution, and the public has a right and a responsibility to know what’s going on there.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • gbjames
      Posted July 23, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      yes

    • eric
      Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Or even just give the gist when they make the decision. Something as simple as, “the panel recommended X but we chose to do Y” or (alternately) “the panel recommended X, we find their report to be sound, and are doing X.”

    • poxyhowzes
      Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      A point is that Ball State University commissioned the investigative committee, in the full meaning of the word “commission.”

      It could easily, in the commissioning documents, have required the Committee to produce a report, or a public summary, or a précis, or some such that was in compliance with Indiana’s Freedom-of-Information statute, and to confine all private information to an appendix or appendices.

      But Ball State U. DID NOT require a report-to-the-public or a report that could be made public.

      FFRF should request, under FOIA, the committee’s “charge” from the University.

      –pH

      • Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Without exactly disagreeing with you, I’d just suggest that BSU is still (barely) within the legitimate bounds of due process and due diligence.

        Let’s wait a little while longer for the official resolution of the matter before escalating the legal unpleasantries.

        If Hedin’s course is nuked from orbit, we can graciously forget about the panel’s findings and let it go as an internal matter. If the course stands as is, the panel members will be called to testify in court.

        Not all battles need be fought….

        b&

      • eric
        Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        pH I’ve had experience with similar/analogous panels. Its typically not the panelists that need to be pushed to public release – they’re generally fine with it. It more typically the people who have commissioned the report who want to sit on it. Sometimes for legitimate reasons (they want to think about it, make their own decision about what to do, and then make that decision public rather than the report.), sometimes not (oh crap this makes us look bad).

        So I doubt very much that your suggestion would’ve helped. I’m guessing the major sticking point is not that the panel created a report in which they included lots of sensitive, unreleasable observations, but rather that BSU wants to sit on the fully releasable findings until they figure out what decision they want to make.

  6. kevinj
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Have to admire them to a degree. It takes special talent to annoy both the FFRF and the Discovery institute

  7. Ed Venegas
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    “Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, told The Star Press the student evaluations…”

    Wow, they didn’t refer to you as a strident militant atheist, that was nice of them.

  8. Lauryn Anna
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    It’s really awful they didn’t post this excellent letter online. Censorship by omission.

    I wonder what the Discovery Institute will say about this letter, if anything. They seem pretty busy telling you to be ashamed of any and all association with the FFRF, so they just might continue on that line for a bit since they love pushing ‘controversy.’

  9. Larry Gay
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I just read Malachi Randolph’s letter defending the intrusion of religion into the science curriculum. It is fuzzy, oblique, and generally weak. I think he could learn a lot from studying Mr. Bradley’s content and style.

  10. ladyatheist
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Student evaluations should be confidential because otherwise students will stop being honest in them. They could still release a summary of what they found, though.

    YAY for the letter. I suspect there are plenty of Ball State employees who feel the same way and are keeping their heads down.

    • Posted July 23, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      No, evaluations should be anonymized to ensure honesty. And they should be administered by an independent entity, and not in the context of the classroom. And student participation should not be optional.

      And they should be made public.

      In cases where there are too few students in a class to ensure anonymity, it would be reasonable to either pool the evaluations with sufficient other instances of the same class by the same teacher or to have the auditors further anonymize the results by summarizing and paraphrasing them, but that should only be reserved for well-defined circumstances.

      Of course, it would take time and money (and foresight) to conduct proper audits such as this. But tuition has gone through the roof, and it would seem quite reasonable to have solid empirical means to demonstrate that society is getting what it’s paying for.

      Cheers,

      b&

  11. RFW
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I continue to suspect that somewhere in the upper echelons of the BSU administration, there’s at least one, maybe more, deep-dyed fundie responsible for both Hedin’s and that other guy’s appointments. It would be really interesting to see what was said during the interview and hiring processes for these two and just who worked to hire them.

    What would really put the cat among the pigeons: BSU loses its accreditation.

    • Posted July 23, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      I can’t see BSU losing its accreditation. I mean, sure, it’s theoretically possible, but I rather suspect the Indiana Board of Regents would step in and fix the problems before it got that bad.

      The worst case scenario with the Hedin case is that he keeps teaching the class exactly as is, after which the courts will settle the matter (and not in BSU’s favor).

      For the school to lose accreditation, there’d have to be problems with a lot more than just a single professor’s single class, and as yet there’s no sign that that’s the case.

      Granted, a lot of eyes are focussing on BSU right now — which is good, because it means that any other problems can now be exposed and fixed. But, aside from some ill-advised letters to the editor from BSU saxophonists and the like, there’s nothing indicating either widespread intellectual corruption or administrative reluctance to clean house.

      Though the story could certainly get more interesting (in a bad way) in the next few weeks….

      Cheers,

      b&

      • ladyatheist
        Posted July 23, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        A court case wouldn’t just be expensive and embarrassing. It would be a test case for ID at the university level, beyond the cases mentioned by the FFRF. Ball State would become the Dover of higher education.

        • Matt G
          Posted July 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

          Intriguing possibility!

        • Posted July 23, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

          Honestly, at this point, I’d almost be surprised if such a case made it past the preliminary injunction phase. BSU would have to argue that Indiana is significantly different from Pennsylvania or that colleges are different from high schools; that’s all that differentiates Hedin’s case from the Dover trial. And other courts have decided that colleges aren’t different from high school in First Amendment cases and that the First Amendment is the same across the whole country, so I’d expect the judge to get very, very upset with BSU if they drag it into court.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Jeff D
            Posted July 24, 2013 at 2:03 am | Permalink

            Despite (1) the difficulty of winning a preliminary injunction in most federal court cases of any type, (2) the difficulty of extending existing Establishment Clause law into a case involving elective course content at a public university, (3) the generally disappointing and inconsistent track record of federal judges in Indianapolis in First Amendment cases, and (4) the terrible track record of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in Establishment Clause cases, I agree that a lawsuit against BSU is not likely to progress very far before it is settled by the University.

            Even here in the Hoosier State, appearances matter. A federal court case involving Hedin and his course — already an embarrassment to some BSU alumni who don’t write moronic, clumsy letters to the Muncie Star Press or to the Indianapolis Star — could become a significant problem for the University’s fundraising and planned giving people. It could be even worse for BSU if the lawsuit included a BSU student plaintiff who took Hedin’s course and a non-constitutional “count” for the University’s blatant misrepresentation or concealment of the course’s actual content.

  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Intelligent Design puts the cart in front of the horse
    and Eric Hedin puts the f_rt in front of his course.

  13. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The FFRF and The Discovery Institute, an intelligent design think tank that is supporting physicist Hedin, are criticizing Ball State’s decision to keep the records secret.
    .
    Strange bedfellows.

  14. Harry
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    James Bradley’s letter is brilliant. I hope we’ll hear more from him.

  15. Steve Bracker
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Yes, James Bradley’s letter is a wonderful improvement over most of the blather coming from the BSU community, but it still gives Hedin’s course too much credit. Clearly that course is not science, and does not belong in a science department. Equally clearly, it is neither acceptable philosophy nor religious studies curriculum; its inadequacies cannot be mitigated by moving it to a department down the hall.

    I can certainly imagine how one might craft a Religious Studies course comparing the relationship between various religious traditions and various flavors of creationism/intelligent design, but in view of Hedin’s past performance, it is hard for me to imagine him doing this with fairness and objectivity. I have no idea what is taught at BSU as religious studies, but I shudder to think that a Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies might provide safe harbor for a course anything like Hedin’s.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted July 23, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      Consider how many famous atheists have been philosophers!

      • Matt G
        Posted July 23, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

        Certainly many atheists have occupied that Nietzsche!

        • ladyatheist
          Posted July 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

          *groan*

  16. A. Scientist
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I agree that ID does not have scientific backing and should not be taught in a science class as an equal alternative to evolution. However, there are two factors that I don’t think have yet been brought into this debate. 1) Dr. Hedin may be a physics prof, but ‘Boundaries of Science’ was a colloquium, offered through the Honors College. 2) Although the “official” student evaluations have not been released, in RateMyProffessor.com he is very popular.

    • Posted July 24, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      1) It was offered for science credits, iirc.
      2) Hedin’s popularity is neither here nor there.

      /@

  17. James
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Very informative blog. Great content. i like it. Check David Ala. Chalfin on http://radaris.com/p/Alan/Chalfin/

  18. BigBang
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    One issue with Bradley’s letter. The department of Philosophy and Religious Studies is a secular one. It teaches facts about religion and its history, it does not and should not endorse it. Many people in scientific disciplines are utterly ignorant about this. If a religious studies professor endorsed a religion or intelligent design he will be in as much trouble as Hedin. This holds true even if the professorIis religious. What Bradley is referring to is what is usually refered to as a department of theology, which grants degrees in ministry.

    Look up the recent controversy around Reza Aslan, a Muslim religions scholar who wrote a historical account of Jesus from a purely academic perspective that is in disagreement not only with the Christian version but also the Islamic one. Fox news was unhappy.


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