White's edict came as a U of I biologist, Scott Minnich, a supporter of the "intelligent design" theory, was set to testify in a Pennsylvania lawsuit brought by eight families trying to have this theory, branded as a new form of creationism, dropped from a school district's biology curriculum. Minnich was asked to testify on behalf of the district.
Hours after White's letter reached students, staff and faculty on Tuesday, the Discovery Institute, a Seattle public policy group that funds research into intelligent design, blasted the order as an unconstitutional assault on academic freedom and free speech.
White said in his letter that teachings of views that differ from evolution may occur in religion, philosophy or similar courses.
Intelligent design is the belief that Darwin's mechanism of natural selection inadequately explains the origins of different life forms. It argues that natural selection fails to fully explain how extremely varied and complex life forms emerged during the past 600 million years. It concludes that guidance from some external intelligence that many interpret as God must be involved.
With Idaho now in the debate, disputes over evolution are unfolding in at least 19 states. In August, President Bush weighed in, saying he thought people should be taught about different ideas — including intelligent design.
Officials at the National Center for Science Education say White is likely the first U.S. university president to come out with an official position. The center advocates against incorporating theories such as intelligent design into science curricula on grounds they introduce religion into the subject matter.
"Departments have issued statements, and scientific groups have issued statements," said Glenn Branch, the Oakland, Calif.-based center's deputy director. "But I can't think of a university president who's issued a statement like this."
White wrote that national media attention on the issue prompted the letter.
"This (evolution) is the only curriculum that is appropriate to be taught in our biophysical sciences," he wrote. "Teaching of views that differ from evolution may occur in faculty-approved curricula in religion, sociology, philosophy, political science or similar courses. However, teaching of such views is inappropriate in our life, earth, and physical science courses."
Harold Gibson, a school spokesman, said the views of Minnich, a tenured professor in the school's College of Agriculture, didn't prompt the letter.
Rather, White was staking out a position on an issue that's emerged as a successor to "creationism" after that Biblical explanation was barred from the nation's schoolhouses in 1987 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Minnich didn't return Associated Press calls for comment.
But members of the Discovery Institute — founded in 1990 by Bruce Chapman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna under President Reagan — lambasted White's edict as an intrusion into the academic freedom of Idaho professors.
John West, the associate director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture, said White's move restricting science curricula to discussions of evolution broadly restricts teaching anything that contradicts Darwin's ideas on the role of mutation and natural selection in the development of life — even by scientists not advocating intelligent design.
In addition, limiting classes where evolution alternatives can be discussed violates free speech protections, he said.
"He (White) is saying, 'If you're a teacher in philosophy, we may allow you to do this. But in science, it just doesn't cut it,' West said. "In any other area, this would be preposterous."
White's letter came just a week before Eugenie C. Scott, an activist who's fought to segregate creationism and intelligent design from science classes, is due to speak at the University of Idaho on Oct. 12.
Scott said the school's science faculty, who invited her, haven't explicitly mentioned Minnich as motivation for bringing her for a lecture titled "Why Scientists Reject Intelligent Design."
Still, "the elephant in the living room is: there is a proponent of intelligent design on the faculty of the University of Idaho," said Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. "Biologists across the country have examined intelligent design as a scientific model, and found it seriously lacking."