Intelligent Design in Public University Science Departments: Academic Freedom or Establishment of Religion

By Ravitch, Frank S. | The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Intelligent Design in Public University Science Departments: Academic Freedom or Establishment of Religion


Ravitch, Frank S., The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal


INTRODUCTION

In recent years issues surrounding intelligent design theory in the public schools have come to the fore.1 Intelligent design theory (ID) devolved/evolved from the creation science movement,2 itself a descendent of creationism.3 Most of the cases involving creation science or ID concern either the direct teaching of the subject in public secondary school science courses4 or the use of disclaimers when evolution is taught which state that it is only a theory and often allude to creation science, creationism, or LD.5 Yet, a number of "experts" cited by ID proponents are professors at public universities.6 While some of these experts are in philosophy or religion departments, others are in science departments, including biology.7 The question naturally arises whether these universities can preclude such professors from teaching or researching ID as faculty members in a science department. There is also the question of whether allowing these individuals to teach ID in the science curriculum is an establishment of religion. Related to both of these questions is the query of whether ID theory can be considered science in regard to these issues.

In Part I, this Article suggests that universities may determine that ID is not science and thus preclude professors from teaching it in university science departments. Such a determination has significant doctrinal and philosophical implications. Science departments may also consider research by ID theorists under their general tenure policies, which usually require a tenure candidate to have been published in peer reviewed journals and the evaluation of a tenure candidate' s scholarship by outside evaluators in the relevant scientific field (i.e., biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, etc.). If the scholarship is deemed inadequate by such experts, the department, college, and/or university may take whatever action is normally taken where evaluators find scholarship lacking in quality or depth. This does not preclude the possibility that such work might be appropriate in a religion or philosophy department. In Part ?, this Article suggests that teaching ID in a public university science department may pose Establishment Clause problems depending on the specific facts involved. Questions of academic freedom and free speech generally are highly relevant in addressing these issues.

I. ACADEMIC FREEDOM, CURRICULAR NEEDS, AND DISCIPLINARY BOUNDARIES

The ability of public universities to preclude the teaching of ID in science classes might seem clear to some. Similarly, the ability of a science department at a public university to deny research support for, or deny tenure to, those whose research is primarily focused on ID might seem equally clear. Yet, the questions raised by these scenarios are not as easy to answer as they may appear to be at first glance. In order to answer these questions we must determine whether ID is science. If so, it might be hard to exclude ID from the curriculum, at least in upper level électives, although the courts do give significant deference to university curricular decisions.8 IfID is not determined to be science, the deference given by courts to departmental and university curricular decisions would enable university officials to keep ID out of science courses.9

This still leaves open the question of public university support for research on ID. Here, the courts tend to suggest more deference to the academic freedom of the faculty member.10 Of course, even this academic freedom is not boundless.11 For example, one would not expect that a geology department would have to credit, fund, or otherwise support research arguing that the earth is flat. Nor would an astronomy department have to credit or support research attempting to prove (but not disprove) that our solar system is the center of the universe. Yet, as a theoretical matter, one may argue that in precluding such work one is favoring a particular paradigm for science over other possible paradigms. …

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