UPDATE: There was a letter in yesterday’s Muncie Star-Press by one David Perkins criticizing the bizarre letter from music professor George Wolfe that I highlighted the other day. Perkins’s is a remarkably sane letter (I’m getting used to craziness coming out of BSU) that criticizes Wolfe for saying, among other things, that we evolutionary biologists should be decrying Nazi eugenics instead of sticking our noses into Ball State’s affairs.
I’m not sure who David Perkins is, but there’s somebody with that name who is a professor of psychology at Ball State.
Marjorie Heins has written about Ball State University (BSU) and Hedingate in a May 30 article in Inside Higher Ed, one I apparently missed: “Is teaching ‘junk science’ protected by academic freedom?” It’s basically an ok piece—particularly when compared to similar reportage in other places—but its purpose seems to be to warn carpetbaggers like me and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) from interfering in the internal affairs of a public university.
The question Heins poses is familiar:
Academic freedom protects professors’ scholarship and teaching — within limits. It certainly protects the ability to broach controversial ideas in class. But it isn’t an absolute right. Professors have to teach the subjects assigned, and can’t engage in racial or sexual harassment, to mention just a few limits. There is also the matter of professional competence. A Holocaust denier may be competent to teach math or Spanish, but is unqualified to teach European history. A believer in “creation science” may be competent to teach medieval literature, but not biology. If the course is junk science, the professor has no academic-freedom right to teach it, and his department should have enough professional integrity to remove it from the catalog.
So far so good, and contra the views of Larry Moran and P. Z. Myers that a professor has the right to teach any kind of junk science he/she wants. Hey, it’s academic freedom!
But what if the department decides not to? Does teaching the course at a public university violate the constitutional mandate prohibiting an “establishment of religion,” as it indisputably would if offered at a public high school? There’s little case law on this question — probably because there aren’t many public universities that offer courses proselytizing religion under the guise of science.
Heins goes on to review case law about situations in which professors proselytize for religion in a public university, and concludes, correctly, that it’s confusing, “probably because there aren’t many public univerisities that offer courses proselytizing religion under the guise of science.”
Nevertheless, she concludes that the Hedin case probably doesn’t violate the Lemon Test for First-Amendment compliance. According to that widely used test, the law is said to be in harmony with the First Amendment if it meets three criteria (this paragraph is from the decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman):
Three … tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.
Heins concludes that the Hedin issue wouldn’t fail these tests because (quotes are from Heins):
a) “There’s no coercion brcause nobody has to attend Ball State or enroll in the course.” That’s bogus because coercion isn’t part of the Lemon test, because nobody has to attend a public high school either (you always have the alternative of home-schooling), and because there are only a handful of courses that BSU honors students can take for science credit. Finally, once a student is in the course, and realizes that it involves a religious message (it doesn’t appear at the start), their options for withdrawing are limited.
b) “There’s little likelihood that reasonable observers would think the administration endorses the professor’s religious message. On the contrary, a basic tenet of academic freedom is that professors don’t necessarily speak for the university. . .”. Again, bogus. High-school teachers can’t teach creationism regardless of whether the administration endorses the professor’s religious message. A professor at a public university, like a teacher in a public school, is an agent of the government (their salaries come from the state), and so is prohibited from endorsing religion. Whether the administration knew (or should have known) what Hedin was teaching in the last six years is unclear, and, at any rate, when I brought the issue of religious proselytizing to the attention of Hedin’s chair, he said the syllabus had been approved by the department and higher administration. In that respect, Hedin is speaking with university approval.
c). “There’s little chance of entanglement with religion, and although it might be difficult to discern a secular purpose, and the primary effect might be religious, on balance the courts would probably not find this dubious course to violate the Establishment clause.” This is not an argument but an opinion. Clearly Hedin’s course was entangled with religion. Heins’s opinion that despite this the course (though “dubious,”—she doesn’t say why) wouldn’t violate the Establishment clause is bizarre.
d) “Academic freedom, as a matter of First Amendment right at public universities, protects both the institution and the individual professor.” Note to Heins: there is no First Amendment provision for “academic freedom.” The provisions are for freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but, as the judge ruled in the Alabama case of Bishop v. Aronov, “academic freedom” does not give one the right to violate the First Amendment by talking about Jesus in a University of Alabama course.
We don’t now what would happen were BSU taken to court about this course, something that certainly won’t happen, but my own doubt rests more on the present composition of the U.S. Supreme court than on the legal merits of the case.
But what galls me the most about Heins’s piece is her conclusion:
In the case of “The Boundaries of Science,” the right of the Ball State administration to decide on the course’s overall scientific validity is even stronger than the University of Alabama’s claim of authority to restrict a professor’s occasional in-class proselytizing. The point is that these are educational decisions for the university to make, and absent a violation of the Establishment Clause, outside political interference is dangerous, no matter how well-intentioned.
And what if the University decides to allow its professor to violate the First Amendment, or to teach junk science, as Hedin was apparently doing? Are the rest of us supposed to keep quiet? If so, why? Perhaps only BSU can approve or disapprove courses, but we have the freedom of speech to point out what kind of courses they’re teaching. In fact, had not a student, the FFRF, and I pointed out the course contents to the University, they wouldn’t be investigating it. Would Heins be happier if this “dubious course’ (her words) weren’t investigated at all? And what, exactly, are the dangers of outsiders simply weighing in on a course at a university? I don’t see any.
Finally, let me show you what I believe to be Eric Hedin’s proposal to BSU about the course at issue: Honors 296, or “The Boundaries of Science”. Unlike the syllabus given to students (see here), this says nothing about religion, God, monkey Gods, or Jesus. In other words, if this is the proposal I think it is, one presented to the faculty for their approval of the course, Ball State University did approve the course without knowing what it really would include. If Hedin planned to include the religion and God stuff, this document could be seen as duplicitous: