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Baylor denies tenure to highly regarded Beckwith

WACO, Texas (BP)–Controversy continues at Baylor University as the Baptist-affiliated school has denied tenure to a faculty member who is president-elect of the 4,000-member Evangelical Theological Society.

Francis Beckwith, associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and associate professor of church-state studies, was notified March 24 he would not be granted tenure.

The move prompted an extensive article by the editor of First Things, a noted journal published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life led by Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus.

Whereas Baylor had been “serious about trying to become the premier Christian research university in America,” First Things editor Joseph Bottum wrote March 27, “Today, the plan is in tatters, and Baylor has apparently decided to sink back into its diminished role as a not terribly distinguished regional school.

“President [Robert] Sloan is gone, the new high-profile faculty are demoralized and sniffing around for positions at better-known schools, energetic programs like the Intelligent Design institute have been chased away, and the bright young professors are having their academic careers ruined by a school that lured them to campus with the promises of the 2012 plan and now is simply embarrassed by them,” Bottum wrote.

In a statement issued to Baptist Press April 1, Beckwith stated:

“My case is currently in appeal, and I am cautiously optimistic about my prospects. Thus, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the tenure process at this time.

“My hope, of course, is that the appeal will be successful and that I will remain at Baylor, an institution at which my wife and I have forged life-long friendships with colleagues, students and their families,” Beckwith continued.

“I have such a wonderful life, with a terrific family, a beautiful and loving wife, wonderful friends, and a support group of brothers and sisters both inside and outside the church that would be the envy of anyone,” Beckwith said. “I have been remarkably blessed. So, last week’s [tenure] news pales in comparison to the grace and gifts that have animated my life and will continue to do so long after the memory of this time has faded.”

Beckwith holds Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in philosophy from Fordham University and a master of Juridical Studies degree from the Washington University School of Law.

The author of numerous published articles and books, his “Law, Darwinism, and Public Education” presents a case as to why it is not unconstitutional to teach Intelligent Design in public schools, though his personal belief is that as a matter of policy it should not be taught in public schools. Beckwith’s latest book has been accepted for publication by Cambridge University Press.

Beckwith was a featured speaker at a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary forum in February, where he addressed the issue of Intelligent Design in public schools and said the striking down of a policy based solely on the religious motives of its adherents is “logically fallacious and constitutionally suspect.”

“Religious belief is one of the few rights absolutely protected under the Constitution,” Beckwith stated. “The government may penalize actions, not beliefs. Beliefs that propel a citizen to embrace particular policies may not be used by the government to limit a citizen’s legitimate liberties or powers.”

A Baylor student came to Beckwith’s defense in a letter to the editor of the school’s newspaper, The Lariat, saying the professor should not be denied tenure.

“This is an outrageous decision on the part of [newly elected] President [John Mark] Lilley. The opposition which Beckwith has encountered is certainly not due to any shortcomings in scholarship; the reasons for his denial of tenure are far more political,” Brian Fuller, a philosophy and religion major, wrote in the March 31 issue.

“As an outspoken proponent of pro-life, conservatism and [the Sloan initiative] Baylor 2012, Dr. Beckwith’s ideology has somehow offended a few of Baylor’s more influential alumni,” Fuller added. “It is outrageous that financial gain should ever overshadow intellectual openness and Christian conviction. If the love of money is the root of all evil, censorship is the trunk of the tree. Beckwith, a man of genius and integrity, is an asset that Baylor cannot afford to lose.”

Lilley, a Baylor alum and Presbyterian church member, was named Baylor’s president last November, 10 months after Sloan resigned after a 10-year tenure regarded as visionary to conservative academicians across the country and controversial among Baylor traditionalists.

Lori Fogleman, director of media relations at the Waco, Texas, campus, told Baptist Press tenure decisions are confidential personnel matters and it is the university’s policy not to discuss them publicly. She also responded to Bottum’s assessment of Baylor as an academic institution on a downward spiral.

“As far as the First Things article goes, we’re aware of it but obviously we don’t agree with the writer’s conclusion,” Fogleman said. “Baylor 2012 is still very much on track, and while the writer has a right obviously to express his own opinion, we don’t agree with his conclusions.”

John West, a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, said he regards Beckwith as “a gentleman in the classic sense of the term, someone who is liked and respected even by his fair-minded opponents.” But the professor’s views “are out of sync with the left-wing ideologues who control much of American academia.”

“That a scholar of Beckwith’s stature should be denied tenure at Baylor raises serious questions about the university’s commitment to fairness and academic freedom,” West wrote March 28 at discovery.org. “This is especially the case since it has been reported that Beckwith’s annual evaluations leading up to the tenure denial were glowing. He is said to have received the rating ‘exceeds expectations’ each year. Apparently he exceeded expectations too much for some members of Baylor’s faculty.

“Given Beckwith’s exemplary record as a scholar, it seems entirely likely that he was rejected by Baylor because of his viewpoint,” West added. “If so, it wouldn’t be the first time thought-police on Baylor’s faculty tried to suppress a scholar for harboring views they despised.”

A couple of years ago, Baylor let go of mathematician William Dembski, who since 1999 had served as associate research professor at Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning. Dembski, a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, has worked on mathematical algorithms that examine the difference between objects that were designed and those that occurred naturally.

An anonymous Baylor graduate student wrote an opinion piece for The American Spectator regarding Baylor’s denial of tenure to Beckwith, saying everyone he spoke with on campus the day the news broke was shocked.

The student said those at Baylor who cared most about seeing Sloan’s vision fulfilled expected to see a crucial indicator of its future when Beckwith’s tenure came up for review.

“Out of the class of faculty members under consideration, he was the best-known and the most public symbol of Sloan’s vision,” the student wrote March 27. “Either the university would allow those who pushed Robert Sloan out to take further revenge on one of his prize academic recruits or it would ensure that the decision was made objectively and fairly based on job performance. Regrettably, we now know which path Baylor chose.”

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  • Erin Roach