Is the Creationist Purge Coming?

You’ve heard the hype: Mainstream colleges are fanatically biased against dissenting academics, especially conservative religious ones. The reality seems to be a little more complicated. News from a few mainstream schools seems to show that many institutions really do protect the academic freedom of conservative dissenters, but there seem to be fuzzy and inexact lines professors aren’t allowed to cross. Is creationism one of them?

If you asked George Yancey or Mary Poplin, you’d hear that mainstream higher education is blinded by “Christianophobia” or “secular privilege.” You’d think that conservative academics, especially religious ones, are common targets of institutional purges.

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First they came for the communists…

Recent reporting from Inside Higher Ed, however, shows a more complicated picture. Virginia Tech is under pressure to fire a teaching assistant who has been accused of harboring white-supremacist feelings. Northwestern, meanwhile (my Evanston alma mater, that is, not the Minnesota fundamentalist redoubt), refuses to fire a professor for denying the Holocaust. In both cases, from what I can tell, the politically abhorrent ideas seem to have nothing to do with the accused academic’s teaching. In other words, neither of the teachers taught anyone white supremacy or Holocaust denial.

If they did, I bet the situation would be different. Consider, for example, the case of Crystal Dixon at the University of Toledo. Dixon argued publicly that discrimination against homosexuals might be acceptable. Toledo said such notions weren’t in line with Dixon’s job as a human-resources administrator. She was out.

As far as your humble editor can discern, the awkward and unclear rule of thumb seems to be that the right of professors, administrators, and students to harbor extremely unpopular ideas will be defended. Unless those ideas interfere with the written job description of the person involved. Or unless the person doesn’t have tenure protection. Or unless the idea is really really unpopular.

Where does that leave academic creationists?

I can see how the average non-creationist might think it would be a no-brainer. It might seem that protecting professors who disagree with central tenets of their own discipline would be absurd. How could a young-earth creationist teach a mainstream geology class? How could someone who disbelieves in “macroevolution” teach a mainstream biology class?

Yet in case after case, dissenting creationist scientists keep their jobs. Consider Eric Hedin at Ball State. He was granted tenure even after being accused of pushing creationism in the classroom. And what about Michael Behe at Lehigh? The prominent intelligent-design proponent has kept his job, even though his colleagues posted a disclaimer against Behe’s work on their website.

For what it’s worth, I think those strategies are correct. Purging professors for their opinions sets a terrible precedent. But I won’t be surprised if the alleged white-supremacist at Virginia Tech loses his job. For one thing, he doesn’t have tenure. For another, white supremacy is such a despised idea that I’d be hard pressed to imagine any administrators fighting too hard to defend it.

So here’s the ILYBYGTH prediction: The Virginia Tech TA will lose his job, in spite of the fact that he should seemingly enjoy the protection of academic freedom. And creationists will continue to wonder if their institutions are scheming to replace them. I don’t blame them. Ask Scott Nearing—all too often, academic freedom is only granted to those with whom we already agree.

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