Unintelligent Designs:

Baylor's dismissal of Polanyi Center director Dembski was not a smart move.
Several months ago we reported on the efforts of faculty at Baylor University to shut down the recently founded Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information, and Design. The center, established by administrative fiat at the behest of Baylor President Robert B. Sloan, Jr., under the auspices of the university’s Institute for Faith and Learning, came under fire in part because Sloan had avoided traditional faculty channels. But it was clear from the outset that the debate over the center was driven first and foremost by intense opposition to the Intelligent Design movement; the director of the center, who had been personally recruited for the position by Sloan himself, was William Dembski, the most outstanding scholar associated with the ID movement.

In response to faculty criticism, Sloan called for an external review committee to consider the work done under the umbrella of the Polanyi Center and to make recommendations as to whether and how the center should continue to function at Baylor. Last week, on October 17, the committee’s report was released. While its tortured language reflected bitter conflict (about which more below), the report nonetheless affirmed the “mission” of the center, as Sloan himself noted in a Baylor press release the same day.

Dembski, as the director of the center, also commented on the report in a one-paragraph e-mail message following its release. “The report marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry. This is a great day for academic freedom,” Dembski began. He concluded by observing that “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.”

The following day, opponents of the center among the Baylor faculty, including Jay Losey, head of the faculty senate, reacted strongly to Dembski’s e-mail. Baylor administrators pressured Dembski to retract the message, but he refused, and on October 19 he was removed as director of the center. “The theme of the report emphasized the need for individuals associated with the center to work together in a collegial manner,” said Michael Beaty, director of the Institute of Faith and Learning, in an official statement announcing Dembski’s dismissal. “Dr. Dembski’s actions after the release of the report compromised his ability to serve as director.” Dembski’s contract with Baylor still has several years to run, and the terms of his position following the demotion have not yet been spelled out.

What are we to make of this? First, caution is in order in commenting from a distance on personnel decisions at any institution. One doesn’t always have possession of all the relevant facts. Moreover, I come to this case with great respect not only for President Sloan but also for Michael Beaty. Still, from this vantage point, the decision to dismiss Dembski as director of the center appears to be a terrible blot on Baylor’s record.

When I read that Dembski was being demoted for a lack of collegiality, I wished for a latter-day Jonathan Swift, whose satiric genius could do justice to this affair. Given the way that Dembski’s opponents have repeatedly vilified him and his work, with charges of “stealth creationism” and the like, the man has shown the forbearance of a saint.

“Ah,” you say,” “but what a shame that he didn’t maintain that forbearance just a bit longer. Then he could have continued his work at the center.” I’m not so sure. Quoted in a Waco Tribune-Herald story, Dembski, explaining his refusal to retract the e-mail, said “I think it needed to be clear in my statements that there was tremendous opposition to this center, and it would not have been an accurate representation if there was not some reference” to the conflict.

And in fact, as noted above, that conflict is very much apparent in the elephantine language of the external review committee, which sounds more like the language of courtiers than the product of a robust intellectual community. (Note for example the two paragraphs early on–a substantial portion of the entire report–given to lauding the great tradition of the science faculty at Baylor, rather as one might flatter a medieval monarch.) How bizarre that the question of the “legitimacy” of Dembski’s work “on the logical structure of mathematical arguments for intelligent design” should have to be adjudicated by such a committee in the first place! (And note the condescension that follows; the italics are mine: “the Institute should be free, if it chooses, to include in its coverage this line of work, when carried out professionally.”) Having been rigorously peer-reviewed for publication by Cambridge University Press, Dembski’s work is obviously “legitimate”–that is, professionally up to snuff–by any reasonable standard.

That doesn’t mean his arguments will ultimately be vindicated. On that, the jury is out and probably will be for some time. But that isn’t and never has been the issue at Baylor. Within any academic field at any moment there are many rival arguments on the table, many of which are mutually contradictory. What opponents of the Polanyi Center have sought to claim is that such work is simply beyond the pale, that it doesn’t meet the requirements of the relevant academic disciplines. Hence the opening sentence of Dembski’s offending e-mail, which we’ll quote again: “The report marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry.”

Here is what it looks like, then. Dembski’s opponents hoped that the external review committee would agree with the faculty senate’s April 2000 resolution to disband the center. When that didn’t occur, they contrived an excuse to get Dembski dismissed. Presumably the next step will be to ensure that the center goes in a different direction (and there is plenty of wiggle room for that in the committee’s report).

What are they so afraid of?

John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.