Texas is fast becoming a key state not only in debates over evolution but over what kind of government scrutiny is important and legitimate when reviewing colleges with particular ideologies.
On Friday, an advisory committee to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended that the state allow the Institute for Creation Research to start offering online master's degrees in science education. The institute, which has been based in California, where it operates a museum and many programs for people who don't believe in evolution, is relocating to Dallas, where it hopes to expand its online education offerings.
In Texas, the institute needs either regional accreditation (for which is applying, but which will take some time) or state approval to offer degrees. Some science groups are aghast by the idea that Texas would authorize master's degrees in science education that are based on complete opposition to evolution and literal acceptance of the Bible. And these groups are particularly concerned because the students in these programs would be people who are or want to be school teachers.
Complicating matters, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will be taking up the issue in the wake of an August ruling by the Texas Supreme Court questioning the grounds on which the board had evaluated seminaries and warning the board not to impose secular values on seminaries. The ruling was seen at the time as making it harder for the state to deny licenses to religious institutions.
Raymund A. Paredes, commissioner of higher education for Texas, stressed in an interview Sunday that the advisory panel's vote was just that: advisory. But he noted that the board's decision next month would be "sensitive" and said he would be asking the board's general counsel to study the impact of the August Supreme Court decision on the issue.
Officials of the Institute for Creation Research could not be reached for comment, but there is extensive information about the institute's programs on its Web site. The list of courses required for the master of science education includes a number that are fairly standard ("Advanced Educational Psychology" and "Instructional Design," for example), but also some that are not.
"Advanced Studies in Creationism" features this description: "Scientific study of the creationist and evolutionist cosmologies; origin and history of the universe, of the solar systems, of life, of the various forms of life, and of man and his cultures. Critical analysis of both creation and evolutionary theory using data from paleontology, astronomy, biochemistry, genetics, thermodynamics, statistics, and other sciences. Study of geologic principles and earth history in the light of Creation and the Flood; scientific comparative studies of recent creation; application of principles of Biblical creationism in various fields."
That language, and other comments made by institute officials, suggest that students would be exposed to the science of evolution. But other material on the institute's Web site suggests that one could not teach or study at the institute while accepting the overwhelmingly broad scientific consensus about evolution.
The statement of faith for everyone at the institute requires support for both "scientific creationism" and "Biblical creationism." The former includes the belief that humans were created "in fully human form from the start" and that the universe was created "perfect" by the "creator." The latter includes the beliefs that the Bible is literally true and "free from error of any sort, scientific and historical as well as moral and theological." Specifically, the statement requires belief in the literal creation of the earth in six days, that Adam and Eve were the first humans, and in the virgin birth of Jesus.
Paredes, the commissioner of higher education, said it was "way too early to get worked up" about the prospect of creationism degrees being awarded. He said he would be making a recommendation to the coordinating board based ultimately on "what is in the best interests of college students in Texas" and that since this program would train teachers, he would take an even broader perspective of what is best for all students.
Asked for his views on evolution, Paredes said "I accept the conventions of science' and "I believe evolution has a legitimate place in the teaching of science." But he declined to say that evolution should be taught as the science.
"A lot of people believe creationism is a legitimate point of view. I respect them," Paredes said. "I'm an advocate of the principle that when there is a controversy and there are legitimate arguments on both sides of the conflict, my pedagogical principle is 'teach the conflict.' Maybe that's a possibility here."
In taking that view, Paredes is following the lead of many successful Texas politicians, including one in the White House, who have argued that anti-evolution theories that have been discredited should be taught alongside evolution.
Paredes also raised the possibility that the board might approve the program with a name other than "science education." If there isn't "sufficient conventional content," he said, "maybe it's a matter of locating this program in its proper disciplinary realm." For now, Paredes stressed that no final decisions have been made.
Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as a "mainstream voice to counter the religious right," said he was worried that Texas statutes may not give the coordinating board enough power to block the awarding of creationist science education degrees.
Quinn said that the issue should not be framed around religious freedom, but protecting students and their parents. "The state is going to end up licensing degrees as science that aren't science. What makes it worse is that the degrees are advanced degrees to teach science," he said. "We don't want anybody to be fooled that someone is getting a degree in real science when it's not what would be happening."