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Drawing a Line in the Academic Sand

October 6, 2005

In case any faculty members in the natural sciences at the University of Idaho were not sure whether "intelligent design" was fair fare in the classroom, a letter from the president to all employees and students Tuesday put an end to that question.

"Because of the recent national media attention on the issue,” reads President Timothy P. White’s letter, “I write to articulate the University of Idaho’s position with respect to evolution: this is the only curriculum that is appropriate to be taught in our bio-physical sciences.” The short letter goes on to allow for the teaching of "views that differ from evolution" in other courses, like religion and philosophy, but not as a scientific principle, which is “testable and anchored in evidence.”

The president's letter noted that this view is consistent with the views of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and dozens of scientific societies.

Harold Gibson, an Idaho spokesman said that White was traveling and unavailable for comment. Gibson said that  Eugenia Scott,   executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which says it wants to keep "’scientific creationism’ out" of the classroom, is speaking on campus soon, and White wanted the university’s stance to be clear. Gibson said that if he were a faculty member interested in "intelligent design," he would actually feel better because of the letter. "It clearly states there is a place for teaching of views that differ from evolution, as long as they’re in faculty approved curricula," he said.

The pro-"intelligent design" Discovery Institute, in Seattle, did not share his enthusiasm, saying that White is infringing on faculty members’ rights to make decisions in their own fields of expertise. David DeWolf, a law professor at Gonzaga University and a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, said he is used to faculty members disavowing "intelligent design," but that “it’s something quite different when the administrator who pays the salaries of the faculty members says in effect, ‘You may not do this.’”

White is not the first university head to speak out in favor of evolution. Last week, Bob Hemenway, chancellor of the University of Kansas, distributed a similar letter to employees highlighting “the attack on evolution … across America.” He added that evolution, "the central unifying principle of modern biology," must stand as the prevailing scientific idea in order to "raise the level of scientific literacy among our citizenry because we face a critical shortage of scientists in the next two decades."

DeWolf called White’s letter "naked viewpoint discrimination," and said the letter seems like a threat to any faculty member who goes against the grain of the scientific community. “I would hope that places like the [American Association of University Professors] would recognize this as an assault on academic freedom."

Jonathan Knight, director of the Office of Academic Freedom and Tenure at AAUP, isn’t worried. "Academic freedom is not a license to teach anything you like," Knight said, noting that the letter says "views that differ from evolution may occur in faculty-approved curricula" outside the physical sciences. Knight said that the way to determine if something is scientifically grounded is "by what the community of scholars determines by decades of testing." He added that if a professor “wants to teach that the Holocaust did not occur following writing of David Irving folks in the history community would say that’s not well grounded in historic facts.”

Scott Minnich, an associate professor of microbiology at Idaho, will testify in coming months in a trial in Pennsylvania where 11 parents sued the Dover Area School District for instituting rules that encourage students to consider "intelligent design." Minnich will testify that the theory is legitimate science. Minnich said he thinks the university has “a right to oversight,” and that “the president has a right to show the public that we haven’t gone off the reservation here,” he said. Minnich said he already adheres “to the rules” in his classroom, and only talks about "intelligent design" if a student raises a question. His concern about the letter is that it might be saying he can’t even address questions. Minnich is meeting with White next week to get clarification. "I want to assure him that even if I am a proponent of 'intelligent design,' I’m not using this as part of my curriculum,” Minnich said. “A few times students have raised questions, and I respond, and I state my viewpoint, and make it clear it is my viewpoint and not the consensus.”

Patricia Hartzell, head of the Microbiology, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Department said she was a little surprised by the letter, because there didn’t seem to be any debate among faculty members. She did note that a student evaluation last year said a lecturer who was just filling in for a semester “might have said something not quite in keeping with strictly an evolutionary background,” but that it normally is not an issue.

Hartzell said that Minnich is “an excellent scientist, and he doesn’t proselytize.” She added that some faculty members might feel a sense of relief just to have the university’s position outwardly stated, especially with what could be an impending media storm around Minnich when he testifies. “We’ve been careful to make sure people aren’t going into the classroom saying, you’ve gotta’ think about 'intelligent design.'” 

 

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