Kansas Professor Fights Back

Controversial scholar -- who has been contrite about his comments -- says he was forced from chairmanship and threatens a suit.
December 12, 2005

As a growing controversy has swirled around Paul Mirecki in the last few weeks, he has been relatively quiet, releasing statements through the University of Kansas. He has twice apologized for anti-religious comments he made in online discussions he thought were private, said he was calling off plans for a new course on intelligent design, and announced that he was giving up the chairmanship of the religious studies department at Kansas (while staying on as a tenured professor).

On Friday, however, he took off the gloves, and released a statement to the local newspaper in which he said that he was forced out of the chairmanship, that the university was failing to back his academic freedom, that local law enforcement officials were failing to adequately investigate an attack on him, and that he had hired a lawyer to consider possible lawsuits.

Mirecki did not respond to messages over the weekend, but in his statement, which was released by The Lawrence Journal-World, his frustration was evident. "I've become radioactive and the university's administrators won't support me," he said.

Just before Thanksgiving, Mirecki announced that he would be teaching a new course about intelligent design, with the idea of placing the idea -- which is widely derided by scientists -- in the context of myths. But the university announced plans to review the course after comments from a private listserv were released in which Mirecki said that the course would be "a nice slap" at "fundies." Mirecki then withdrew the course after additional comments of his from the listserv -- in which he appeared to mock Roman Catholics -- were published. And a week ago, he reported being attacked while driving on a rural road by two men who were aware of his statements on intelligent design.

Mirecki's statement on Friday contradicted earlier statements by the university. For instance, Kansas had announced last week that Mirecki "thought it appropriate" that he leave the department chairmanship, and the university released a letter from Mirecki in which he used similar language. But in his statement on Friday, Mirecki said he was "fired" because "he had the timerity to challenge the power of the religious right in Kansas and the university capitulated to demands of the conservative minority."

He noted that the resignation letter as chair was written on the dean's stationery, and he said that he was given "no choice' about signing it.

"The university penalized me and denied me my constitutionally protected right to speak and express my mind," he said. Mirecki said that he has hired a lawyer to explore the possibility of suing the university.

Kansas released a statement Saturday in which it denied that it had forced Mirecki from his chairmanship. "Paul Mirecki remains a tenured professor at the University of Kansas. The university stands unequivocally in support of his First Amendment rights and his rights to academic freedom." The statement added that Mirecki had resigned as chairman after consulting his colleagues and that he had made the choice to cancel the course.

Mirecki also said that the university -- by sharply criticizing his views -- endangered him.

Robert Hemenway, chancellor at Kansas, has repeatedly defended Mirecki's right to free speech and has strongly defended evolution, which has been attacked by many in the state. But Hemenway has also used strong language to criticize Mirecki's comments abouty religion, calling them "repugnant and vile."

In his statement, Mirecki said the volume of "threatening" letters and e-mail messages increased after the chancellor "attacked" him. "If the university doesn't support me, I could be in more physical danger because the university is not standing up to the religious extremists," he said. By criticizing Mirecki's comments, he said, the chancellor "has given strength and validity to the religious right's position. Now those on the right are emboldened and feel they can take this a step higher."

He also said that investigators for the Douglas County sheriff's office were treating him "more like a criminal than a victim," and that they had taken his car and computer, and interviewed him several times, once for five hours straight. Mirecki also posed for a photograph with The Lawrence World-Journal so that people could see his injuries from the attack.

Douglas County officials said that they were in fact investigating the attack, and that they couldn't discuss specifics of the case.

The university statement said that Kansas officials had offered assistance to Mirecki as soon as he reported the attack, and added: "We deplore violence against Professor Mirecki or any other member of the university community."

Mirecki's statement said that the controversy has had a serious impact on him, with the injuries from the attack, harassing calls, and institutions calling off his speaking engagements. "My career has been ruined over this," he said.


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