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The Saga of Bill Dembski at Baylor
by Angus J. L. Menuge
William Dembski, a leader in the intelligent design movement, was demoted last fall from his position as director of the newly founded Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. This action followed concerted efforts earlier in the year by members of Baylor’s faculty to close the center.
An external review committee had been appointed to evaluate the credentials of the center’s work. Despite the hostility of many of its members, the committee eventually found in favor of the legitimacy of Dembski’s research. With reporters on his heels just after the committee report became public, Dembski issued a press release celebrating the vindication of his research and of the center—and the victory gained over his academic adversaries. This enraged many of his critics. It was claimed that Dembski’s action “severely compromised his ability to perform his central administrative duties,” hence his removal from the directorship.
How is it that a highly respected author and leader of the intelligent design movement became persona non grata at the very Christian university that hired him to carry on research in his field in the first place?
From Favor to Furor
William Dembski was already a research fellow for the Seattle-based Discovery Institute when he was approached by Baylor University President Robert Sloan in 1996. Sloan had read some of Dembski’s work and thought that Dembski could help with his project of promoting the integration of faith and learning on campus.
Sloan’s approach to integration was not heavy-handed. He had “resisted the urging of fundamentalists to ‘throw the evolutionists out’ of the biology department, vowing never to bar anyone at Baylor from teaching evolution.”1 In 1999, Sloan was able to establish a center named for Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian chemist who had denied that biological information could be reduced to physics and chemistry.
Dembski and Bruce Gordon were hired and appointed to the center, and they enjoyed a favorable reception. But the honeymoon ended when the Polanyi Center established its website in January 2000. When “other groups with evolution-bashing agendas began linking up their Websites . . . [m]any on the biology faculty flashed back to old culture battles, when such groups had publicly questioned the professors’ integrity.”2
An e-mail frenzy at Baylor spread to other schools. Dembski “was subject to dismissive comments that he was a ‘stealth creationist.’”3 As Gordon has often pointed out, the Michael Polanyi Center never endorsed the connections from other websites. Sadly, many faculty were quite unable (or unwilling) to distinguish work on intelligent design (ID) from old-style creationism. ID merely looks for empirical evidence of design in nature and does not presume to settle the identity of the designer, and it does not start from Scripture or a dogmatic position about the age of the earth.
Despite this setback, the Polanyi Center went ahead and hosted the Nature of Nature conference in April 2000. This conference examined the adequacy of naturalism as a foundation for work in the natural sciences and philosophy. The conference drew a cast of top scholars and scientists from around the world, the majority of whom were critical of ID, favoring either full naturalism or some form of methodological naturalism. Genuine civility was demonstrated as people openly debated deeply held presuppositions. Probably all sides were surprised to learn that the sophistication and intellectual muscle of their opponents far surpassed the stereotypes they feared.
Tragically, many at Baylor had already made up their minds and “not only boycotted the event, but . . . took to the press and the Internet to publicly excoriate Dembski.”4 During the conference, both the local Waco newspaper and the Baylor newspaper published stories about the controversy, with comments about “pseudo-science” emanating from some Baylor faculty. One would have thought that any open-minded person would have at least listened to some of the debate, especially given the presence of so many erudite critics of ID.
Yet worse was to come. “Just days after the naturalism conference, the faculty senate voted 27–2 to dismantle Dembski’s center.”5 Faculty complained that they should have been involved in creating the center. Sloan courageously refused to close the center, but the administration “essentially put Dembski under a gag order. Dembski was pressured not to attend a meeting in Washington, where intelligent design advocates met some members of Congress and their staff; and he was restricted in what he put on his Website and in how he could reply to his critics, no matter how public or vocal they became. Freedom of speech at Baylor, it seems, only works one way.”6 In addition, Sloan agreed to create an external review committee to evaluate the Polanyi Center’s academic credentials.
Waterloo in Waco
Dembski’s extensively peer-reviewed publication of The Design Inference with Cambridge University Press (1998) should have made such a review unnecessary. Yet, not being a person to shy away from criticism, Dembski initially welcomed the review: “I always learn more from my critics than from the people who think I am wonderful.”7 It seems that the committee selection was far from fair, including a majority of hostile critics and no one with the background to understand Dembski’s mathematical arguments.
Even so, in October the committee upheld the importance and legitimacy of Dembski’s work—yet called for the center to be renamed and broadened in its scope. Vindication by a largely hostile source is about the highest form of endorsement one can hope for. So one would think that the matter was over. Yet one short e-mail changed everything. On the same day the report was released, Dembski broadcast the following comment by e-mail:
The report marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry. This is a great day for academic freedom. I’m deeply grateful to President Sloan and Baylor University for making this possible, as well as to the peer review committee for its unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design. The scope of the Center will be expanded to embrace a broader set of conceptual issues at the intersection of science and religion, and the Center will therefore receive a new name to reflect this expanded vision. My work on intelligent design will continue unabated. Dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo. Baylor University is to be commended for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression.
Only the last two statements could be called “offensive,” and even so they seem to be accurate. Dembski’s opponents had acted in a dogmatic and intolerant way, and their hope that the review committee would find against ID had been dashed.
This short e-mail, it was claimed, provoked a firestorm of protest across Baylor’s campus. The administration asked Dembski to retract or contextualize his e-mail. He refused on the grounds that his remarks accurately reflected the nature of the controversy. As a result, Dembski was removed from his directorship, and the Polanyi Center lost its name and identity, being absorbed into the larger Institute for Faith and Learning. It was stated that Dembski was removed on “administrative grounds,” because his comments (and refusal to retract them) were lacking in collegiality and “severely compromised his ability to perform his central administrative duties.”8
If lack of collegiality is grounds for demotion, the Baylor administration owes everyone an explanation of why not one of Dembski’s detractors at Baylor, no matter how misinformed or mean-spirited his criticism, has suffered similar penalties. Baylor faculty have misrepresented Dembski’s work as “creationist” or “fundamentalist.” They boycotted his first major conference, then tried to close the Polanyi Center altogether. These are not collegial actions.
Too Hot to Handle
Why did Dembski make people so angry? There is a local factor, peculiar to Baylor, and a broader factor, which Dembski would have encountered at most major schools. The local factor is that Southern Baptists have been through a painful controversy and schism between fundamentalists and moderates, and Baylor has emerged as a stronghold for the latter. As Dembski put it, “Baylor is—I didn’t fully realize this—the bastion for the moderates, where anything that smacks of fundamentalism, creationism, just sends people through the roof.”9
The broader factor reflects the nature of Dembski’s challenge to contemporary academia. Like C. S. Lewis before him, William Dembski has dared to do what has become unthinkable for many in the post-Enlightenment academy. He has exposed the fact that “Naturalism [is] the implicit creed of half his colleagues and (worse) that”—if he is right—“it [is] nonsense.”10
One would think that faculty at a strong Christian school like Baylor University would welcome such an academic, regardless of whether or not they agree with his views. But with notable and courageous exceptions, this has not been the case. There is too much evidence that Dembski’s academic freedom has been denied at Baylor to propitiate hostile faculty primarily concerned about secular canons of academic respectability. For Christian faculty who are worried about being associated with the “fundamentalist creationists,” intelligent design apparently is just too hot to handle. The risk, even if slight, of being associated in any way with “creationism” seems to be too great to face, even if it means ignoring both intelligence and design.
1. Fred Heeren, “The Lynching of Bill Dembski,” The American Spectator, November 2000.
3. Tony Carnes, “Design Interference,” Christianity Today, December 4, 2000.
4. Fred Heeren, “The Deed Is Done,” The American Spectator, Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001.
5. Lauren Kern, “In God’s Country,” Houston Press, December 14, 2000.
6. Fred Heeren, “The Deed Is Done,” op. cit.
7. Fred Heeren, “The Lynching of Bill Dembski,” op. cit.
8. Michael D. Beaty, “Baylor University Responds to Misconceptions about the Polanyi Center Controversy,” Metanews, October 27, 2000.
9. Lauren Kern, “In God’s Country,” op. cit.
10. Harry Blamires, “Old Western Man,” in David Mills (ed.), The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998), 18.
Angus J. L. Menuge is Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin, where he is associate director of the Cranach Institute (www.cranach.org). He has edited three books, including C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands, and has recently published Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science (Rowman & Littlefield).