Baylor University in October terminated well-known Intelligent Design scientist William Dembski as head of the Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information, and Design. The center was placed in limbo, without a name or certain future at the university in Waco, Texas.
Dembski, who retains his Baylor professorship, says he was overwhelmed by politicking within Baylor. The Polanyi Center’s critics were apprehensive, he says, partly because of Southern Baptist conflicts between creationists and evolutionists–one front in the ongoing struggle between moderates and conservatives for control of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Intelligent Design, favored by some conservatives, is a new approach to the creation-evolution debates that lays aside the question of who designed the universe to ask whether there is any evidence of design.
Dembski’s own work, published by Cambridge University Press in The Design Inference, employs careful statistical testing of the natural world to see if it shows evidence of intelligent design. Like a code-breaker of secret messages, the Intelligent Design analyst asks whether the signals of the natural world are simply random or point to an intelligent creative force. Dembski, an Orthodox Christian, says Intelligent Design research is like looking for the difference between a jumble of clouds and skywriting that broadcasts a message.
Baylor, which describes itself as “the largest Baptist university in the world,” has long been a source of complaint for Southern Baptist conservatives. For example, Judge Paul Pressler of Houston, Texas, decided to rally Southern Baptist conservatives after hearing students in his church youth group describe what they were being taught at Baylor.
Moderate Texas Southern Baptists recently redirected $5 million away from Southern Baptist seminaries and agencies and awarded additional funds to Texas schools, including Baylor.
Robert Sloan Jr., president of Baylor since 1995, has attempted to take Baylor in two directions at the same time: moving it into the top tier of national universities while also reconnecting the school to its Baptist heritage.
Sloan’s method of sidestepping established means for academic appointments has been controversial. In the meantime, more than a dozen lawsuits are alleging wrongful termination and demotion during Sloan’s presidency.
Critics say the creation of the Polanyi Center is an example of Sloan’s acting without extensive faculty involvement; it has been a sore spot for the center’s critics from the beginning.
Dembski walked into a tense situation and was subject to dismissive comments that he was a “stealth creationist.” Michael Beaty, head of Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning and Dembski’s immediate boss, urged him to follow a turn-the-other-cheek strategy.
As the controversy escalated, Dembski became ever more embattled. In January, Polanyi Center critics questioned administrators about the scientific legitimacy of Intelligent Design and warned that Baylor’s reputation would be severely hurt in the scientific world.
In April and May, critics asked members of Congressional education committees to withdraw an invitation for Intelligent Design scientists to give a briefing. The faculty senate voted 26-2-1 to ask that Baylor’s president completely dissolve the Intelligent Design initiatives.
Dembski says that Baylor officials, alarmed at the escalating conflict, ordered him not to attend the Washington meeting and to write a letter disavowing it. When Dembski refused, university officials began considering his termination.
President Sloan appointed a committee to evaluate the Polanyi Center. The committee recommended stripping the center of its name, absorbing its functions into the Institute for Faith and Learning, and setting up a Baylor faculty advisory committee to guide the institute on its involvement with the Intelligent Design movement. The ad-hoc committee also clearly recognized Intelligent Design as a legitimate scientific discipline.
But Dembski mistakenly read the committee’s report as a definitive victory, proclaiming “the triumph of Intelligent Design” in one e-mail message. He was terminated as director two days after his e-mail became public knowledge.
“The wedge of truth has a very sharp edge” and will prevail, said Intelligent Design master strategist Phillip Johnson, speaking at Pressler’s church soon after Dembski’s firing. But for now, he says, the Intelligent Design movement has suffered a huge setback.
Early on, scientists researching Intelligent Design recognized some powerful advocates for evolution would oppose such research. Some, worried about adverse publicity, received Intelligent Design research grants from the Discovery Institute without public disclosure. Says David Berlinski, a leading Intelligent Design scientist and author of the recently acclaimed Newton’s Gift, “Those who have benefitted from the change from a fundamentally religious society to a fundamentally secular one are reluctant to relinquish their power.”