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Some Ball State Faculty Stand Up for Physicist Charged with Teaching About Intelligent Design

It's heartening to see that Ball State University physics professor Eric Hedin, charged with teaching about intelligent design without ritualistically condemning it, has received support from at least some of his faculty colleagues. The Indianapolis Star spoke with a current and an emeritus member of his department ("Ball State professor accused of preaching Christianity in class"):

Ronald Kaitchuck, a professor in BSU’s department of physics and astronomy, finds it hard to believe that Hedin teaches strict creationism.

He suspects Hedin is “asking people to think a little broader, outside the box, which causes controversy. It’s funny.”

Ruth Howes, a retired professor from the department, said, “The people I know in the department are very straightforward thinkers. I don’t think they mean to preach to anybody, except possibly F = ma,” referring to one of Newton’s laws of motion.

Hedin replaced Howes when she retired.

“It is the university’s job to help students understand viewpoints that differ from their own,” Howes said.

But a professor in the journalism department, David E. Sumner, was particularly effective in a letter to the editor to the same newspaper. He commented on the use by the Freedom from Religion Foundation of three online reviews of Hedin's teaching ("Criticism of Ball State professor not based on credible source").

I have never met Eric Hedin, but as a fellow professor, I believe the use of comments from ratemyprofessors.com presents a biased and distorted view of his teaching.

Only 16 comments about Hedin have been made at ratemyprofessors.com since 2005. Those 16 students gave him an overall professor rating of 4.3, which is considerably higher than the Ball State professor average of 3.66. More than 95 percent of the student comments are positive. The quote from Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Andrew Seidel that Heiden has “an extremely Christian bias and does not believe in evolution” is more than 3 years old. The only other two comments that made any reference to his expression of religious beliefs are older than that.

One student called him “my favorite teacher at BSU. Very helpful and willing to work with you. Open to ideas and opinions for what you want out of the class.” Another one said, “Great professor. Fair grading, explains things clearly, and will answer any questions you have.” Another said, “Dr. Hedin is a great teacher!!”

I am not in a position to evaluate the charges made against Hedin by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But the foundation’s quoting a 3-year-old comment from a rogue website such as ratemyprofessors.com is not a credible source for serious criticisms that can affect a professor’s reputation and career.

Let's hope the administration of Ball State University sees things as clearly as these faculty members. I don't entirely like the sound of this comment from BSU's provost to the Indy Star:

Provost Terry King, a chemical engineer and the university’s chief academic officer, said, “Faculty own the curriculum. In large part, it’s a faculty matter. But we have to ensure that our teaching is appropriate. All I have so far is a complaint from an outside person. We have not had any internal complaints. But we do take this very seriously and will look into it.”

That's a relief that Dr. King recognizes his faculty, not the court system, has the responsibility of setting the curriculum at BSU. But I just don't understand the need on the part of the administration to talk about this in terms that subtly besmirch Hedin. They don't know if his teaching is "appropriate." They are taking the complaint, based largely on three stray comments at some website, "very seriously." Why in the world?

This is the way administrators would talk if a teacher had been accused by a student of some ethical or moral breach -- use your imagination. Yet what exactly is Dr. Hedin being charged with, at very worst, by a rabid, extremist group based in another state? Introducing interested young adults to serious scientific, yet admittedly faith-friendly, ideas that run counter to academic orthodoxy. And doing so, judging from most of his reviews, in a way that students overwhelmingly find positive, appropriate and enjoyable. He sounds like the kind of instructor a university should be grateful to have.

What if he had no reviews at all, like his accuser Jerry Coyne who was the first to advocate using the law to silence Hedin? Let's say no one at Rate My Professors bothered to write anything about him, much less anything glowing like some of things students have said about Dr. Hedin. Would that be preferable?

What's truly inappropriate is letting Eric Hedin go on twisting in the wind this way. Really, rather than going on embarrassing him, what Ball State University needs to do promptly is issue an unambiguous statement of support for Dr. Hedin. They hired the man. They are his employers and colleagues. They have a moral obligation to stand by him, unless it were to turn out there's a really good reason not to do so. And as far as anyone has yet shown, there is zero evidence of that.