Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

U. of Kansas Chancellor Assails 'Anti-Science' Forces as He Issues Statement Endorsing Evolution


The chancellor of the University of Kansas sent an e-mail message to all faculty and staff members on Monday stating that evolution is the "unifying principle of modern biology" and that there is no contradiction between that view and a belief in God. In an interview he added that opponents of evolution make Kansas seem like an "anti-science state."

The chancellor, Robert E. Hemenway, said the message had been prompted by a number of professor who asked him to speak out on the increasingly controversial issue. It also followed recent remarks by Steve Abrams, chairman of the Kansas Board of Education, that belief in the Bible and in evolution were not compatible. The Board of Education, which oversees public schools in the state, has no control over the university. Even so, Mr. Hemenway was concerned that Mr. Abrams's comment contributed to the perception that Kansas is "an anti-science state."

"This has been a matter of some dispute for the last six to nine months," Mr. Hemenway said in the interview, on Tuesday. "It's really seemed to escalate, and people are getting concerned that it sends the wrong message about the state and the university."

The chancellor said candidates for faculty jobs at the university have been asking "what the environment is like in Kansas" -- meaning that they are worried about the controversy over evolution versus intelligent design. Mr. Hemenway said he does not believe that any candidates have declined job offers because of the controversy.

In an interview on Tuesday, the board chairman reiterated his earlier public statement. "When you get down to the bottom line," Mr. Abrams said, "if you understand the Bible and you understand evolution, you have to decide which one you believe."

As for the idea that his statements make Kansas seem like an anti-science state, Mr. Abrams called that "baloney" and chastised the chancellor for "sitting on the sidelines and taking potshots."

Mr. Abrams confirmed that he believes in creationism, not evolution, but said his personal beliefs are irrelevant. "Every person has a bias. We want to minimize those biases," he said. "Debate is what makes for good science."

Proponents of creationism and intelligent design contend that they are only seeking to expose students to a debate over which approach best explains the history of earth and life. An overwhelming majority of scientists say that evolution is the best explanation, based on decades of research, and that creationism and intelligent design are inherently unscientific.

Mr. Hemenway sent his e-mail message just as a court battle got under way in Pennsylvania over whether to teach intelligent design in a public-school district. Mr. Hemenway said the timing was coincidental, though his message did say that evolution is under attack in the United States and that intelligent design should be taught in religion classes, not science classes.

In his message Mr. Hemenway referred to an article he wrote for The Chronicle Review in 1999. In the essay he made a plea to increase scientific literacy across the nation. He also wrote that "many Kansans are working busily to protect Kansas schoolchildren from the poor science of the Board of Education."

The text of Monday's email message follows:

Following is the text of Mr. Hemenway's message to university faculty and staff members.

Dear Colleagues:

Six years ago The Chronicle of Higher Education published a column I wrote on the evolution controversy. My point of view then, and remarks I have made publicly many times since, should surprise no one: Evolution is the central unifying principle of modern biology, and it must be taught in our high schools, universities, and colleges. On a personal level, I see no contradiction in being a person of faith who believes in God and evolution, and I'm sure many others at this university agree.

But the attack on evolution continues across America and compels me to again state the obvious: The University of Kansas is a major public research university, a scientific community. We are committed to fact-based research and teaching. As an academic, scientific community, we must affirm scientific principles.

The university's position is not an attack on anyone. We respect the right of the individual to his or her beliefs, including faith-based beliefs about creation. However, creationism and intelligent design are most appropriately taught in a religion, philosophy, or sociology class, rather than a science class.

I encourage students, faculty, and staff to take the opportunity to see the "Explore Evolution" exhibit that will open November 1 at the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Center at Dyche Hall. The exhibit focuses on seven contemporary research projects that contribute to our knowledge of evolution in creatures large and small, from a study of farmer ants to an analysis of the fossils of whales. A grant from the National Science Foundation funded six museums to create the exhibit. I applaud our Natural History Museum for partnering in this project along with the Science Museum of Minnesota and the natural-history museums at the universities of Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas.

The United States cannot accept efforts to undermine the teaching of science. Our focus should be to raise the level of scientific literacy among our citizenry because we face a critical shortage of scientists in the next two decades. As a public research university, we have a special mission to educate tomorrow's scientists and to support the science teachers who will inspire young people to become chemists, geologists, biologists, and physicists. Let us use the evolution controversy to intensify our efforts to provide a world-class education to our students and to support the faculty who engage in the important research and teaching missions of our schools and universities.

Bob Hemenway
To Rich Gibson's Home Page