Voices

New tenor on tenure

Baylor can't shake faculty flirtations with secularism

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

The tenure system gives university professors lifetime job security. It is also a way to get rid of professors. Typically, new faculty members are hired for a several-year probationary period. Then they marshal their publications, teaching evaluations, and other accomplishments, and apply for tenure. If they do not get it, they have to leave.

So it came as a surprise that Baylor denied tenure to Francis Beckwith, one of its best-known Christian scholars-despite his 11 books, 28 scholarly articles, a raft of teaching awards, and election as president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Baylor's previous president Robert Sloan had put forth an ambitious program to make the Baptist school in Waco, Texas, a world-class institution distinctly Christian in its scholarship. Mr. Sloan brought on board many top-notch scholars devoted to integrating faith and learning, such as intelligent design theorist William Dembski and pro-life legal scholar Mr. Beckwith.

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But the old-guard faculty resented Mr. Sloan's changes. Many insisted on a "two-spheres" approach to Christian education, in which religion is seen as a purely subjective phenomenon, with nothing to say about objective truth. Many on the science faculty rejected any association with intelligent design, fearing that departure from Darwinist orthodoxy would jeopardize their departments' scientific reputation. Others resented Mr. Sloan's assertive management style. (See "Bear of a battle," Sept. 4, 2004, and "Waco warning," June 25, 2005.)

The old guard got rid of Mr. Dembski and then Mr. Sloan, who moved into the largely ceremonial position of chancellor. Still, Mr. Sloan's Vision 2012 plan for Baylor is still on the books. The new president, John M. Lilley, former president of the University of Nevada, Reno, was a compromise candidate, so Baylor's future was unclear.

Based on information from Baylor faculty members and graduate students to whom WORLD granted confidentiality because their careers would be in jeopardy, here is what happened: Mr. Beckwith came to Baylor in 2003, as associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, over the objection of the institute's funder, the Dawson family. Mr. Beckwith had argued for the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design. The late Mr. Dawson had been an early champion for teaching evolution at Baylor.

The institute was set up to promote the strict separation of church and state, and Mr. Beckwith's pro-life activism and conservative politics put him at odds with most of his colleagues in his department. (One colleague, Jewish pro-Palestinian activist Marc Ellis, is one of "The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America" in David Horowitz's new book, The Professors.)

"Beckwith was widely viewed as a conservative, Christian hire forced on the hallowed J.M. Dawson Institute by the administration," one graduate student told WORLD. "To a veteran faculty already resentful of the move to transform the university into a research university with a stronger Christian character, Beckwith's hire was symbolic of the problem."

When tenure time approached, the anti-Sloan interim president, William Underwood, appointed psychology professor Jim Patton, the chair of the anti-Sloan faculty senate, to Mr. Beckwith's tenure committee. In an e-mail message about another faculty member shown to WORLD, Mr. Patton wrote, "I clearly do not think highly of anyone who claims ID theory is science."

The deck was clearly stacked against Mr. Beckwith. His department voted 3-1 against recommending him for tenure. Mr. Patton and the rest of his university-level committee voted to accept that verdict. The provost and the president could have overruled that decision, but they let it ride.

Mr. Beckwith-who would not comment on what happened-told WORLD that he plans to appeal his dismissal. But if he is ousted, the other conservative Christian scholars now coming up for tenure are also in trouble. And Baylor will be well on its way to becoming just another liberal, secular institution.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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