Ball State under scrutiny for hiring professor

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Ball State University in Indiana is facing scrutiny for hiring a science professor who wrote a book on intelligent design, a move that comes after another professor at the state college was accused of teaching creationism.

Ball State defended the hiring of Guillermo Gonzalez and said it does not support the teaching intelligent design in science classes. Proponents of intelligent design contend life is too complex to have evolved through evolution alone.

“This is a disturbing pattern and it could be a serious blow to the science curriculum at Ball State,” said Andrew Seidel, attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group from Madison, Wis., that promotes separation of church and state. “Their reputation is on the line.”

Gonzalez gained notoriety in 2004 when his book about intelligent design, “The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery,” was published. He was later denied tenure at Iowa State University.

Ball State spokeswoman Joan Todd said the university offered Gonzalez a job on June 12 as a tenure-track assistant professor of astronomy to teach in the department of physics and astronomy. Gonzalez will teach undergraduate and graduate courses in physics and astronomy, starting with introductory level astronomy courses in the fall semester at the state university in Muncie, about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis, she said.

The hiring was approved by dean, provost, and university president, which is normal university procedure, Todd said.

The hiring comes after Freedom From Religion wrote the university in May complaining that Eric Hedin, an assistant professor of physics, was teaching an honors course exploring the nature of the universe that it contended was actually religion disguised as science. The university announced last month it had appointed a review panel to investigate the allegations. Provost Terry King has received the panel’s report, reviewed it with Hedin, and is determining what to do next, Todd said.

Robert Kreiser, senior program officer for the American Association of University Professors, said he found it surprising that a university would have two cases that appear similar in such a short span, although he said he doesn’t know what discussions went on in each instance.

The Gonzalez hiring appears to pit professional competence against academic freedom, Kreiser said.

“He has the freedom to carry out the research that he judges to be appropriate, but his colleagues have the freedom as well, and indeed the responsibility, to assess his research in terms of norms of the profession,” Kreiser said.

Gonzalez declined a request for an interview Tuesday, but in an email he said he never taught intelligent design at a university. He later released a statement through the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based, proponent of intelligent design, saying he plans to continue research on astrobiology and stellar astrophysics and will not be discuss intelligent design in his classes.

“In my opinion, the controversy surrounding my hire is artificial — largely generated by one activist blogger who is not an astronomer. Lastly, I need to reiterate that I was denied tenure at ISU not because of poor academics on my part, but for idealogical and political reasons,” he wrote.

Critics contend Gonzalez book isn’t based on science and more than 120 Iowa State faculty members signed a petition renouncing it.

Todd said Ball State University agrees that intelligent design is not appropriate for science courses, “although it might find its place in appropriate classes and contexts including — but not limited to — religion and philosophy courses,” she said.

Jerry Coyne, an ecology and evolution professor at the University of Chicago who said he first complained to Ball State about Hedin’s class, said during an interview Tuesday that he doesn’t think either Hedin or Gonzalez should lose their jobs.

“I just think they need to keep religion out of science class. That’s my only mission,” he said.

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