America’s Pastime

By Martin D. Snyder

We Americans are an argumentative lot. There’s nothing we enjoy more than a good debate, especially if the “debate” actually consists of little more than the vociferous expression of contrary opinions with little supporting evidence. Radio and television careers are made of such stuff! Arguing about religion, particularly about religion and science, seems to hold perennial fascination for our compatriots. It’s my candidate for America’s favorite pastime.

Earlier this year the religionscience debate popped up at Ball State University, not once but twice. In May, the Freedom from Religion Foundation accused Eric Hedin, an assistant professor of physics, of teaching an honors course that, it contended, was actually religion disguised as science. University officials and some fellow faculty members defended Hedin, invoking the right of faculty members to control their own course content. The university later appointed a review panel to investigate allegations of possible proselytizing and to determine next steps.

In June, Ball State offered Guillermo Gonzalez a position as a tenure-track assistant professor of astronomy. Gonzalez gained notoriety several years ago for his 2004 book about intelligent design, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery. He was later denied tenure at Iowa State University, a decision sustained at the highest levels of the university. The Freedom from Religion Foundation characterized the appointment of Gonzalez as “a serious blow to the science curriculum at Ball State.”

There are probably about forty thousand AAUP members who would be willing to weigh in on the question whether religion has any appropriate place in a science course, but that is not the Association’s essential concern in situations like the two at Ball State. At issue for us are fundamental faculty rights and responsibilities.

In Hedin’s case, the contention of the administration and some members of the faculty that he had the right to control his own course content was correct. As the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure makes clear, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.” The Statement, however, continues with the caution that faculty members “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” The “1970 Interpretive Comments” on the 1940 Statement offer further clarification: “The passage [in the 1940 Statement] serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.”

What’s to be done then? Does a faculty member’s individual academic freedom trump every other consideration? The answer is no. When faculty members persistently include extraneous material in their teaching, their faculty colleagues have the responsibility to assess such questionable course content according to the norms of the profession. The assessment must be accomplished, due process assured, for the faculty member whose course is under scrutiny. But ultimately, in such circumstances the welfare of the students, the institution, the profession, and society as a whole must trump asserted claims to academic freedom. Academic freedom has never meant the right of faculty members to teach or do whatever they please in courses for which they are responsible.

Gonzalez’s case raises another set of issues. A spokesperson for Ball State stated that Gonzalez was appointed by normal hiring standards. As the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities makes clear, “Faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility; this area includes appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint, promotions, the granting of tenure, and dismissal.” It is vitally important that the integrity of the appointment process was maintained, that faculty participation was promoted and respected, and that the decision to appoint Gonzalez was essentially the faculty’s.

In addition, it remains the faculty’s responsibility to play a decisive role in considering Gonzalez for reappointment and possible tenure. Iowa State University’s decision to deny tenure to Gonzalez rested on the principle, articulated in the Statement on Government, that “scholars in a particular field or activity have the chief competence for judging the work of their colleagues; in such competence it is implicit that responsibility exists for both adverse and favorable judgments.” This principle needs to be adhered to at Ball State. And about this, there should be no debate.

Martin D. Snyder is senior associate general secretary of the AAUP.