Reviews > Culture

Baylor boot

Education | Academia is no friend to conservative Christian views-even at a Southern Baptist university

Issue: "Red & blue all over," Sept. 23, 2006

When Francis Beckwith took a job at Baylor three years ago, the accomplished scholar believed the environment would suit his passions well. Beckwith has built a career of rigorous academic study in Christianity's highest intellectual tradition. Accordingly, Baylor's widely publicized mission statement affirms "the value of intellectually informed faith and religiously informed education."

But as it turns out, conservative Christian views may be no longer welcome at this Southern Baptist institution. Baylor denied Beckwith tenure this past spring despite the professor's litany of published works, strong student evaluations, and multiple teacher commendations. This month, after a lengthy appeal process, the tenure committee again voted against Beckwith, leaving his ultimate fate in the hands of newly appointed school President John Lilley. Sources closely tied to the case (granted anonymity by WORLD because proceedings were confidential) said the vote tally was 6-5 with one abstention, suggesting several members of the committee have altered their position since last spring's more one-sided count.

One possible reason for the shift in Beckwith's favor is the recent departure of his department's former chair Derek Davis, who resigned from his seat atop Baylor's J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies amid allegations of academic fraud. Davis, a close personal friend of members of the Dawson family who vehemently opposed Beckwith's presence in an institute known for strict church-state separatism, lobbied against offering Beckwith tenure.

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Beckwith is among academia's foremost pro-life advocates and has written articles supporting the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design. The tenure committee accused him of inappropriately focusing on such areas of expertise in his courses on church-state relations. In his appeal of tenure denial, Beckwith responded that "because these ethical issues are central to the most important and disputed questions in church-state studies today, it seems to me to be not only permissible, but obligatory, for a professor in this area of study to address these issues."

The tenure committee further charged Beckwith with assigning only his published works for a class on religion and society. In fact, Beckwith's writings amounted to only 15 percent of the course's required reading.

"It was a kangaroo court," said John West of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which counts Beckwith among its list of fellows. "There is no doubt that he is a superior teacher and a superior scholar. This is a clear case of academic intolerance and persecution. I don't see how parents or alumni of Baylor could continue to support that school."

C. Stephen Evans, a Baylor philosophy professor who often disagrees with Beckwith on political issues, nonetheless told The Chronicle of Higher Education he would consider resigning if Beckwith's tenure denial is not reversed. He confirmed that position to WORLD, adding that "Frank may have been the most qualified person coming up for tenure this last year, certainly among the most qualified."

Beckwith is not the first conservative-leaning voice at Baylor to face such mistreatment. William Dembski, a leading proponent of intelligent design, left the school after anti-ID forces dismantled his study center in 2000. Robert Sloan, the university's former president, faced considerable resistance to his grand vision of restoring Baylor's Baptist heritage while simultaneously elevating the school's academic reputation-a two-pronged strategy dubbed Vision 2012 that many long-time faculty members believed contradictory.

Sloan hired Beckwith as part of that endeavor, a vision to which the school still claims complete allegiance. "Being a tier-one institution with a distinct Christian mission is the thing that really attracted me to this place," Beckwith said. "There are really two different cultures at Baylor, one that affirms this vision and another that doesn't."

Beckwith told WORLD that Baylor's competing factions are not content to coexist, each harboring hopes that the other will dissolve. In the context of such a struggle, Beckwith's fate will likely reverberate well beyond the pages of his resumé. "If anything is worth fighting for, this is," he said, mixing his personal tussle with the fight to preserve Vision 2012. Beckwith added that his denial of tenure "does not bode well for younger faculty who may hold similar views in departments hostile to those views. It sends the message that the quality of work does not matter; what matters is whether you pass a particular ideological litmus test."

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