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Intelligent design advocate asserts reconciliation with Baylor faculty

WACO, Texas (BP)–A prominent intelligent design advocate said July 23 that reconciliation with the faculty and administration of Baylor University could lead to positive dialogue on the relationship of science and religion.

Associate research professor William Dembski’s July 23 statement, released through the university’s public relations office, praised the support he has received from Baylor President Robert Sloan and expressions of goodwill following a year of conflict ignited by Dembski’s demotion as director of the Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information and Design.

Rejecting allegations that intelligent design had suffered a setback at Baylor, Dembski stated that his own research on intelligent design “continues unimpeded and with the full support of the Baylor administration,” and cited a growing interest in such study. “Despite the tensions of last fall, I have experienced a substantial reconciliation with Baylor faculty and administration,” he said, noting that he used the term reconciliation deliberately. “I am not referring merely to a cessation of hostilities or truce. I have experienced genuine goodwill on the part of the Baylor faculty and administration, and in particular from President Robert Sloan.”

Dembski’s desire to clarify misunderstandings about his continued status with the school came on the heels of sweeping criticism about Baylor by the man who has been called “the father of the intelligent design movement.” Phillip Johnson, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and author of “Darwin on Trial,” spoke at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., June 27, calling the Baylor center as currently administered a “toothless program.”

Johnson argued that intelligent design — the belief that the universe was created by an outside, intelligent force (God) — will win in the end, if given a fair hearing. Johnson stated that the majority of Baylor’s faculty opposed the establishment of the Polanyi Center in 1999 under Dembski’s direction, referencing the 26-2 vote by Baylor’s faculty senate in April 2000 seeking to dissolve the center. Johnson said the lack of a political movement on the Baylor campus to counter faculty claims contributed to the eventual removal of Dembski as director.

As the one who called for establishment of the Polanyi Center, Sloan opposed faculty pressure to close it, defending the appropriateness of asking whether “patterns of design, information and purpose in the universe” can be detected by scientific processes. The effect of dissolving the center, he said at the time, would be a form of censorship on such academic inquiries.

Instead, Sloan named a peer review committee of academics from across the country to evaluate Dembski’s work. That panel affirmed the academic work of the center while calling for the appointment of an advisory committee drawn from Baylor faculty members from disciplines related to the center’s work. Reference to the Polanyi name was dropped and the center’s work continues within the Institute for Faith and Learning which was founded in September 1997 to integrate “academic excellence and Christian commitment.”

Two days after the panel’s report, Dembski was relieved of his duties as the center’s director when he refused to rescind a statement he circulated by e-mail in which he called the report “a triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry.” His praise of Baylor for remaining strong in the face of “intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression” prompted charges that Dembski failed to act in a collegial manner with other members of the faculty. The associate director of the center, Bruce Gordon, was named interim director. Dembski’s role changed from administrative to advisory.

“With the events surrounding the Michael Polanyi Center last year, several misunderstandings about my status at Baylor have emerged,” Dembski said in his July 23 statement. Seeking to set the record straight, Dembski reiterated that he was not fired and continues to serve as an associate research professor and in an advisory capacity with the center rather than administrative.

The April 2000 Faculty Senate minutes indicate that “the University engaged in serious negotiations with Dembski about early termination” of his contract and he “refused to settle.”

However, in his recent statement, Dembski insisted, “That position has never been in jeopardy and is not in jeopardy now.” The first 18 months of the five-year contract were funded by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle research institute that promotes intelligent design through its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. Dembski is a senior fellow at the institute, having received a grant from the John Templeton Fund via the Seattle institute.

With the funding from the Discovery Institute drawing to an end, Baylor remains obligated to covering the remaining three and one-half years of Dembski’s contact. Whether he will be employed beyond 2005 is yet to be decided.

Larry Brumley, Baylor’s associate vice president for communications, said, “The open criticism has gone away and there is evidence of very positive development” regarding Dembski’s relationship with faculty and administration. “A lot of the positive reconciliation was initiated by Dembski himself,” Brumley said, adding that he has “realized the benefit to his work in trying to connect with faculty.”

Bill Cooper, chairman of the external review committee, clarified in the April Faculty Senate meeting last year that “Dembski and Gordon are not faculty, and thus do not have the academic freedom accorded faculty.” Rather, Cooper said, “They serve at the behest of the administration.” Asked in the meeting if faculty who are critical of the agenda and goals of the Institute for Faith and Learning reserve the academic freedom to present their criticism publicly, Cooper said, “This clearly falls within the academic freedom of the faculty.”

Dembski said the aims of the Polanyi Center continue through the Institute for Faith and Learning, with the center being reconstituted under a new name with full faculty involvement. “The involvement of Baylor faculty with the center is a healthy development and promises to make the interaction between science and religion part of a constructive dialogue at Baylor rather than part of an ongoing controversy.”

The possibility of Dembski participating in a local PBS response to evolution was cited by Brumley as evidence of his continuing influence at Baylor. Brumley said the university is looking into the possibility of working with local PBS affiliate KWBU of Waco to produce a program with input from Dembski, Sloan and other philosophy and science faculty following the mid-September airing of “Evolution” by PBS. The last segment, titled “What About God?” would serve as an opportunity for Baylor faculty to discuss the intersection of science and religion.

With the appointment of the advisory committee, Brumley anticipates increased faculty involvement in the center’s work as opposed to it being “transplanted and operated independently.” Facutly members serving on the advisory committee include co-chairmen William F. Cooper and Benjamin A. Pierce, as well as David M. Arnold, William H. Brackney, Melissa A. Essary, Barry G. Hankins, Keith Hartberg, Truell W. Hyde II, Kevin G. Pinney, M. David Rudd and Tina L. Thurston. They represent studies in philosophy, mathematics, religion, law, church-state studies, biology, physics, chemistry, psychology and sociology.

Gordon, whose contract was renewed for the coming year, affirmed Dembski’s portrayal of improved relations with faculty and indicated that continued research had not been hampered by a lack of academic freedom. “While it’s true that those who are functioning in administrative roles by virtue of their responsibilities do have to be more circumspect in some of the things that they say because they’re representing the university, certainly the whole controversy did not affect any of Bill’s scholarship in terms of his writing.”

Praising Dembski for developing “friendly relationships with a couple of biologists” on the faculty, Gordon explained, “These were not necessarily the ones who had been outspokenly critical to start with, but some who are involved with the advisory committee.” Gordon added that Dembski “continues to pursue his work on design theory with every bit as much vigor” as he did in the past.

Gordon, who deals with the broader area of the history and philosophy of religion and its interaction with theistic metaphysics, said he is hopeful that Baylor will sponsor more conferences related to his and Dembski’s work in the next few years.

“The past is the past,” Dembski concluded in his July 23 statement. “Rather than dwelling on the past, we are focusing on how to make the science-religion dialogue a positive feature of Baylor academic life.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter