Inside Higher Education reports today that the letter written to Ball State University (BSU) by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), calling attention to Dr. Eric Hedin’s “science” courses that are infused with Christianity and intelligent design, has had an effect.
An excerpt from the report:
Ball State University has agreed to investigate complaints that a course taught by a physics and astronomy professor has crossed a line from being about science to being about Christianity.
The letter was sent to Ball State’s president, Jo Ann Gora, on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the university issued this statement: “The university received a complaint from a third party late yesterday afternoon about content in a specific course offered at Ball State. We take academic rigor and academic integrity very seriously. Having just received these concerns, it is impossible to comment on them at this point. We will explore in depth the issues and concerns raised and take the appropriate actions through our established processes and procedures.”
The university’s statement did not identify the faculty member — Eric Hedin — but his course has been much discussed in recent weeks on science blogs.
Coyne said that he wrote to the chair of the physics and astronomy department at Ball State, Thomas Robertson. Coyne wrote that Robertson responded, but had not granted permission for his response to be published. But Coyne said that Robertson confirmed the accuracy of the syllabus and said that the course helped students challenge the ideas they had upon enrolling in college. Coyne said that the course must be stopped because it is a violation of the separation of church and state.
Robertson did not respond to requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed. (UPDATE: On Friday morning, after this article was posted, Robertson responded to the questions with an e-mail saying: “The information provided to me by Jerry Coyne contains nothing in addition to information that has been in my possession for some time. The syllabus published was approved by our department Curriculum and Assessment Committee. We review faculty performance regularly through student and peer/chair evaluations. I receive complaints and concerns from students familiar with faculty performance in their classes and investigate when appropriate. Given the totality of information available to me at this time, I do not share the opinions expressed on the web sites cited below. We will continue to monitor our faculty and their course materials and practices and take appropriate action when deemed necessary.”)
That’s a lame and bureaucratic response.
Surprisingly, the National Center for Science Education is lukewarm on the issue:
Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said he has been watching the emerging debate with interest. Branch said he doesn’t think enough facts are clear to know whether the course has crossed a line. Via e-mail, he called the syllabus and reading list “suggestive but hardly dispositive.” While Branch said that there are academic freedom issues when discussing what professors say in the classroom, “it is possible for a professor’s religious advocacy, even if not breaching the separation of church and state, to go so far as not to be protected by academic freedom considerations.”
At any rate, I can see how there might be some disagreement about whether this issue should be resolved by the courts, but I still fail to understand those who maintain that this is not a violation of the First Amendment. Hedin is a government employee, teaching at a government school, using taxpayer money to push his Christian viewpoint in a science class. How is that not unconscionable entanglement of government with religion? Does the fact that the class is optional, or at a public university instead of a public high school, make it okay? What about those students who sign up for the class and then, as some have experienced, found themselves misled?
I know we all agree that Hedin’s class is a bad idea, a bit deceptive, and certainly not accepted “science.” But on what grounds should we allow him to fill students’ minds with Christianity, and at taxpayer expense?
“Academic freedom” is not a license to teach whatever you want. Or does someone disagree? Never in a million years would I think of telling my students that learning evolution may lead to atheism, or that I don’t think there’s a God. Those may be my private views, but even at a private university I don’t promulgate them, for my business is to teach science, not, as an authority figure, to intimidate an audience of students.
At any rate, I’ll be happy if this doesn’t go to court but is simply resolved by BSU telling Hedin that he can’t shove Jesus down the throats of his students. If they don’t do that, then I have no problem with saying that the BSU administration is simply cowardly and unwilling to stand up for good science. And it would make a lie out of the university’s statement that they “take academic rigor and academic integrity very seriously.” They haven’t done that with Hedin.