E-Mails Kill a Course

December 2, 2005

Facing a flood of criticism over his comments on religion, a University of Kansas professor announced Thursday that he was withdrawing a new course for the spring semester on intelligent design.

The course -- announced last month -- was originally seen by many as a responsible way for the university to examine the controversies over intelligent design, which have been particularly intense in Kansas. But newspapers obtained a series of comments posted by Paul Mirecki, the chair of the religious studies department at Kansas and the creator of the new course, about the class and his feelings about religion.

In a statement released by the university, Mirecki apologized for the latest comments that have surfaced and said that they made it impossible for the course to proceed as planned.

"My concern is that students with a serious interest in this important subject matter would not be well served by the learning environment my e-mails and the public distribution of them have created. It would not be fair to the students,” Mirecki said. “It was not my intent when I wrote the e-mails, but I understand now that these words have offended many on this campus and beyond, and for that I take full responsibility. I made a mistake in not leading by example, in this student organization e-mail forum, the importance of discussing differing viewpoints in a civil and respectful manner.”

The most recent of Mirecki's e-mail comments to become public mocked beliefs and traditions of Roman Catholics.

In one of the comments -- first published in The Topeka Capital-Journal (free registration required) -- Mirecki described his views on Catholicism as a reflection of his experience growing up in the church:

"I had my first Catholic 'holy communion' when I was a kid in Chicago, and when I took the bread-wafer the first time, it stuck to the roof of my mouth, and as I was secretly trying to pry it off with my tongue as I was walking back to my pew with white clothes and with my hands folded, all I could think was that it was Jesus' skin, and I started to puke, but I sucked it in and drank my own puke. That's a big part of the Catholic experience. I don't think most Catholics really know what they are supposed to believe, they just go home and use condoms, and some of them beat their wives and husbands."

Mirecki made that and other comments in a listserv of a student group, the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas. In the last week, Mirecki had already apologized for comments on the listserv in which he described his new course as something "fundies" would see as "a nice slap in their big fat face."

As the comments have leaked out, some religious leaders in Kansas have been calling for legislative investigations of the university, for firings, and for courses on intelligent design to be blocked.

Robert Hemenway, chancellor at Kansas, issued a statement Thursday in which he said that the course should still be taught -- but that Mirecki had been correct to call it off for now.

“I personally find Professor Mirecki’s e-mail comments repugnant and vile. They do not represent my views nor the views of this university. People of all faiths are valued at KU, and campus ministries are an important part of life at the university," he said. Mirecki, he added, "insulted both our students and the university’s public."

But Hemenway went on to say of the course: “This unfortunate episode does not in any way diminish our belief that the course should be taught. It is the role of the university to take on such topics and to provide the civil, academic environment in which they can be honestly examined and discussed.”

The Faculty Senate at Kansas on Thursday afternoon adopted a resolution affirming the right of professors to teach and do research on controversial subjects, but also noting their responsibility to speak in respectful, civil ways.

"Our values are that we're not going to flinch from examining controversial issues. That's part of what you do," said Joe Heppert, a chemistry professor who is chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee.

"But we also wanted to recognize that along with freedom comes responsibility to recognize that the way we speak, the attitudes we express, can result in the public reaching certain conclusions about ourselves as scholars and as an institution," Heppert said. "We have the responsibility, even when we speak privately, to do so with respect for the attitudes of others."

Heppert rejected criticism that some have leveled on the university this week as an institution intolerant of religion. "There are many people of faith on the faculty," he said, and discussions of issues of faith -- and issues such as intelligent design -- "have been entirely respectful," even when people disagree or don't share all of the same values.

Several professors said privately that they feared that the controversy would damage the university's support in the state, and that the comments would end up giving a boost to supporters of intelligent design, who can portray themselves as victims of elite intellectuals.

On the Kansas campus, students have expressed a range of views in comments in The Daily Kansan. Amy Leochner, a graduate student in religious studies, said that the controversy has "made me as a Christian feel very unwelcome here."

"What religion is the department going to attack next? Will there be a class next semester titled 'Why Hitler Was Right: Anti-Semitism for All' or 'Resurrecting the Crusades: Ridding the Middle East of Islam,' " she wrote in a letter to the editor.

One defender of Mirecki was Andrew Stangl, a junior who is president of the atheist group on whose listserv Mirecki made the controversial remarks.

In a column, Stangl wrote of the criticism of Mirecki: "It’s hypocritical, it’s wrong and it’s horribly unethical to focus on Mirecki’s statements and then call him a bigot. How many preachers will claim on Sunday that all secularists are immoral, terrible people? How many qualified, aspiring politicians will lose elections because they are secularists?"

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