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Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Ball State Controversy: The limits of accreditation

As Inside Higher Ed reports, there's been a lot of discussion of Assistant Professor Eric Hedin and Ball State University's approval of his Physics and Astronomy courses, "Inquiries in Physical Sciences," "The Boundaries of Science" and "The Universe and You."  (Jerry Coyne has written most extensively about them herehere and, most recently, here).  The courses apparently share the same basic syllabus, and if you read it you can see that Hedin has tailored the courses to promote the Intelligent Design movement (which is known for its intimate political and intellectual connections to Christian apologetics).  It is hard to imagine that these courses fairly represent the methods, values, findings and competences of contemporary science.

Many critics of Intelligent Design say it shouldn't be subject to discussion in science classes.  I disagree.  I think a science class is the perfect place to debunk ID propaganda.  And if you're going to let instructors debunk it in the science classroom, you can't very well censor those who lend it a more sympathetic voice.  If the courses were forcibly kept out of the university (or out of its science department), it could set a worrisome precedent for academic freedom.

However, I do think something should be done.  My concern is that two of these courses fulfill part of Ball State's science requirements.  ("Inquiries in Physical Sciences" is one of three courses that fulfill a special science requirement for the Honors Course; "The Universe and You" fulfills one of the university's Core Curriculum requirements in Natural Science.)  Students can graduate from Ball State with a major portion (if not the entirety) of their shot at university-level scientific literacy coming in the form of ID propaganda.  This might run afoul of acceptable standards for accreditation.

I think this concern should be brought to the attention of the institution responsible for Ball State's accreditation, the Higher Learning Commission.  They are currently in the middle of proceedings to determine whether or not Ball State will remain accredited for the next ten years.  (The evaluation process ends in October of this year, from what I understand.)  When I have time, I will draft a letter and post it on my blog, inviting others to copy or improve upon it as they see fit.  (Update:  My letter can be found here.)

I will also mention that, similar to PZ Myers and Laurence Moran, I don't see a good reason to think this is a First Amendment issue and I would not jump to the conclusion that we should try to get Ball State to curb Hedin's bias.  So I disagree with Jerry Coyne.  Since Ball State is a public institution, Coyne thinks that any use of its funds to promote religious belief is unconstitutional.  In addition to the posts by Myers and Moran, there are several good commenters on Coyne's blog who have spelled out several reasons why Coyne is wrong.  Universities, even public ones, should be places which nurture academic freedom.  University professors are bound to be biased in various religious and ideological ways.  Many of them are going to teach classes that focus on unpopular and even downright idiotic arguments, and sometimes those are going to have religious affiliations.  It comes with the territory of academic freedom.  Since no students are coerced into taking Hedin's classes or listening to his religious speech, there is no clear violation of the First Amendment.  However, as legally free as Hedin should be to teach Intelligent Design and pass it off as science, we should be very suspicious of any school that would let such a course fulfill a core science requirement.  We should question whether such a school deserves accreditation.

Edit: Upon reflection, the question of coercion might not be so simple.  Since only three classes satisfy the Honors Course science requirement at Ball State, it is quite possible that students in the Honors Course will be pressured into taking Hedin's course--e.g., if the other two courses are full, or if scheduling conflicts make his course the only option.  While the students are not coerced into attending Ball State to begin with, it is possible that many Honors students are forced to take his course because the alternative would be to either drop out of the Honors program or switch universities entirely, and those might not be fair options for a lot of students.  That could open the door to a First Amendment case.

Update:  A word about Hedin's qualifications.  He has published most extensively in the field of nanoscience, which is listed on the Ball State faculty Website as one of his research interests.  The Website states that his other research interests are Information Theory, Teleology and Cosmology.  Those are some of the areas he is drawing on in his ID-infused Physics/Astronomy courses.  Yet, Hedin has not published in any of those areas.  I cannot find a copy of his CV online, but it is reasonable to assume that he has no formal qualifications relating to information theory, teleology, cosmology, evolutionary theory, the philosophy of science, or any other area of research which directly bears on the content of these controversial courses.  Hedin is teaching bunk with a religious bias in areas that are far outside his competence.  In my mind, that is reason enough to conclude that these courses should not satisfy any of Ball State's core requirements.