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Saturday, September 16, 2006

ID-friendly law prof: Tenure hangs in balance

Recall Frank Beckwith, that gifted prof at Baylor, who specializes in church-state issues, who was mysteriously denied tenure recently?

Beckwith appealed, was turned down again* - by a narrower margin, it is said - and a decision is expected shortly. What's come out since the first denial is that his former department chair, who is believed to have undermined Beckwith's tenure chances, recently resigned amid allegations that he plagiarized the work of Ronald Numbers , a well-known American scholar, best known for his studies of creationism.

As World's Mark Bergin notes,
Beckwith is among academia's foremost pro-life advocates and has written articles supporting the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design. The tenure committee accused him of inappropriately focusing on such areas of expertise in his courses on church-state relations. In his appeal of tenure denial, Beckwith responded that "because these ethical issues are central to the most important and disputed questions in church-state studies today, it seems to me to be not only permissible, but obligatory, for a professor in this area of study to address these issues."

Well, um, yes. Anyone in the news business knows that stories about abortion or intelligent design lead over the mast. Should Beckwith have asked students to wade through tomes on interstate trucking rules instead? How about "Proper venting for turnips in transit - a federal or state responsibility?" or "Bovine-produced methane gas in re current environment regulations"?
The tenure committee further charged Beckwith with assigning only his published works for a class on religion and society. In fact, Beckwith's writings amounted to only 15 percent of the course's required reading.

Given that Beckwith has authored a fair whack of stuff on the subjects in question, it's surprising he didn't assign more of his own.

Bergin also notes that the chair was friends with the Dawsons, a powerful Texas clan. Seems the church-state center at Baylor, where Beckwith worked as associate director, was named after granddaddy Dawson, and the clan notables think that grandaddy would not have seen eye to eye with Beckwith. As a result, a whole heap of Dawsons has been campaigning against Beckwith for years, making Baylor sound like Hayseed U.

The whole story leaves me wondering why Beckwith even wants tenure at Baylor. But maybe if he gets it, he can help them recover the original vision to be a "Protestant Notre Dame."

Some have wondered whether Beckwith’s association with the Discovery Institute and with ID mathematician Bill Dembski, whose ill-fated Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor, was holding conferences on intelligent design issues a few years ago, cooked his goose. Beckwith has defended the constitutionality of teaching about intelligent design in publicly funded schools (but that's not the same thing as thinking it is a good idea). But sources I trusted said no, it was mainly because he is pro life.

More generally, controversy has dogged Beckwith throughout his career, not because he is especially flamboyant but principally because he is a talented cultural conservative. Baylor is a Baptist university desperately seeking acceptance in a liberal environment; the last thing it needs is a prof who comes up with good arguments for cultural conservatism.

When the decision to deny tenure was first announced in March, a Baylor student lamented:
When I first heard the news I experienced for the first time what is known as cognitive dissonance. I couldn't hold the two ideas in my mind. Professor Beckwith. Denied tenure. It was impossible to believe. There were people who told me it could happen, but I discounted the notion. After all, even political enemies have consciences, right? They have some commitment to integrity, don't they?

No clear reason that makes any sense ever emerged for denying Beckwith tenure, though a lack of "collegiality" was mooted. The "collegiality" claim has become notorious, actually, as a way of getting rid of people who do not march in lockstep.

(Studying Beckwith’s case, I get the impression that it’s okay at Baylor to yay-hoo for Jesus as long as you make a fool of yourself and no one takes you seriously. Well, we’ll see.)

*Beckwith has written me to say, "The University Tenure Committee only recommends to the Provost. So, technically, I was not "turned down again."
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being denied tenure at Baylor.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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