Thousands of people have signed a petition urging officials at Ball State University to defend the academic freedom of an assistant professor of physics who introduced evidence of intelligent design to his students.
Eric Hedin has been targeted by the special-interest group Freedom from Religion Foundation, which claims his teachings should not be allowed at a public university.
The petition by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute was sent to Ball State President Jo Ann Gora and the school’s board of trustees.
The controversy erupted when FFRF objected to Hedin’s elective seminar called “The Boundaries of Science,” which according to the syllabus explores evidence of intelligent design in nature as well as the limits of scientific knowledge.
Officials at the school have confirmed the bibliography for the course includes distinguished scholars such as Oxford University mathematician John Lennox, Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, Oxford mathematical physicist Roger Penrose and physicist and Anglican priest John Pokinghorne.
“Questions about the evidence for design in the universe and the boundaries of science are perfectly legitimate topics for a university seminar,” the Discovery Institute said in support of the professor. “Indeed, these topics have provoked scholarly interest and discussion during much of the history of Western civilization, and the scholars cited in Hedin’s bibliography are some of the leading voices in these discussions.”
The school responded to FFRF’s demands by launching a review.
The Discovery Institute noted that among the review team members are three people “publicly connected to groups explicitly opposed to [intelligent design].”
The members were Catherine Pilachowski, who is part of a group that denounced ID in 2005; Gary Dodson, who signed an anti-creationism petition by a pro-evolution organization; and Richard Fluegeman, who has spoken at “Darwin Day” conferences organized by anti-Christian freethought groups.
“Can panelists publicly connected with groups like the National Center for Science Education, the Clergy Letter Project, and the Ball State Freethought Alliance really be fair or impartial when investigating?” Discovery Institute experts asked.
The petition has been signed by more than 7,000 people, including more than 1,200 residents of Indiana.
“Academic freedom means nothing if it does not protect professors from all sides of the intellectual and ideological spectrum,” said John West, Discovery’s vice president.
The institute, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education organization, has a Center for Science and Culture that supports scientists and scholars who believe nature supplies evidence that the universe is the product of intelligent design rather than a blind and undirected process.
The organization pointed out that previously, when a conservative challenged the “ideological indoctrination” being imposed in class by a “peace studies” professor, the university rose to the professor’s defense immediately, and no review panel was formed.
The petition states: “We, the undersigned, urge the administration of Ball State University to support Prof. Eric Hedin’s academic freedom to discuss intelligent design and related issues in the classroom. We call on you to reject demands by the Freedom from Religion Foundation to censor or punish Dr. Hedin for exercising his right to free speech.”
Academic groups in general insist that professors must have freedom to work with their own curriculum but largely have remained silent on the Hedin case. Hedin’s critics have accused him of violating the so-called separation of church and state and claim that his teachings are illegal.
In a report by Inside Higher Ed, Hedin’s immediate supervisor, Thomas Robertson, the chief of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, dismissed the Freedom From Religion Foundation concerns.
“The syllabus published was approved by our department Curriculum and Assessment Committee,” he said. “We review faculty performance regularly through student and peer/chair evaluations. I receive complaints and concerns from students familiar with faculty performance in their classes and investigate when appropriate. Given the totality of information available to me at this time, I do not share the opinions expressed on the websites cited below. We will continue to monitor our faculty and their course materials and practices and take appropriate action when deemed necessary.”
The Inside Higher Ed publication said that even a prominent pro-evolution activist, blogger PZ Myers, said while he thinks discussion the concept of intelligent design is bad science, the core issue is academic freedom.
“Professors have to have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective,” he said in the report. “The First Amendment does not apply; this is not a course students are required to take,and it’s at a university, which students are not required to attend.”