Intelligent design course canceled

Less than two weeks since Kansas University religious studies professor Paul Mirecki first publicly voiced plans to teach intelligent design as mythology, the embattled professor has withdrawn his course.

“I thought about it long and hard this week,” Mirecki said Thursday.

Mirecki’s comments on a list serv for KU’s Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics were what ended it.

In a statement released Thursday, KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway said: “I want to be clear that I personally find Professor Mirecki’s e-mail comments repugnant and vile. They do not represent my views nor the views of this university.”

The elective course had 25 students enrolled when it was canceled. And KU’s Provost David Shulenburger said Thursday the course may be offered in the future, though not by Mirecki.

“The university is still committed to the course,” Shulenburger said. “At such time as we have appropriate faculty to teach it, it will be taught.”

In a written statement, Mirecki said the continuing controversy over his e-mails, posted on the list serv since 2003, pressed him to withdraw the course.

“My concern is that students with a serious interest in this important subject matter would not be well served by the learning environment my e-mails and the public distribution of them have created,” he said in the statement. “It would not be fair to the students. It was not my intent when I wrote the e-mails, but I understand now that these words have offended many on this campus and beyond, and for that I take full responsibility. I made a mistake in not leading by example, in this student organization e-mail forum, the importance of discussing differing viewpoints in a civil and respectful manner.”

Critics outraged

On the list serv, Mirecki referred to himself as “Evil Dr. P” and called fundamentalists “fundies.”

In discussing his plans for a class on intelligent design, Mirecki said: “The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology.'”

His words outraged conservatives and others. The sentence traveled worldwide. It is a featured quote in the latest issue of TIME magazine.

Meanwhile, critics questioned the use of tax dollars on the course. State Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, called for Mirecki and Hemenway to appear before state lawmakers to answer questions about the course.

Sen. Kay O’Connor, R-Olathe, last week responded to the e-mail: “He wants me to say ‘thank you’ by giving more money. Who is the ignoramus here?”

KU changed the name of the course, dropping reference to mythology from the title, and issued a formal apology from Mirecki – a move that only slightly quelled concerns.

John Altevogt, a conservative columnist and activist in Kansas City, visited the student group’s list serv and compiled a series of Mirecki’s comments made in recent years.

Altevogt sent the compilation to the media, politicians, university officials and others.

The following day, Thursday, the university announced the course’s closure.

Altevogt said cutting the course was the wrong outcome.

“This is again a meaningless gesture,” he said.

Altevogt said he was concerned about the focus of the religious studies department and he wants to see Mirecki and another faculty member moved to another department. He said he also wanted the religious studies department cleaned up and perhaps transferred to a religious organization that can monitor it; the chancellor fired, and the Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics student group kicked off campus.

Phil McKnight, a KU professor and member of the Friends of the Department of Religious Studies, said he did not believe the controversy would hurt fundraising efforts.

“I think people can see beyond any specific event … and realize the department has done a great deal for students over its existence,” he said.

Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, who voiced concerns about the course, said Thursday she was pleased by the decision to withdraw the course and by the chancellor’s comments.

But Sen. Kay O’Connor, R-Olathe, said the course’s demise was only one step.

“I think I see crow feathers,” O’Connor said. “There’s some folks eating crow … I’m concerned about the taxpayer-funded hatred that he has apparently been promoting. It’s an issue that’s not totally resolved.”

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka called Mirecki’s e-mails “disturbing and inexcusable” and said the professor has damaged civil discourse in Kansas.

“Mirecki has disgraced a department and university which is otherwise a beacon of tolerance and acceptance. I believe it was the correct decision that Mirecki not teach this course,” Hensley said.

Kline to the defense

But Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, a conservative Republican, said he was surprised KU pulled the class and defended Mirecki’s right to free speech.

“I believe people ought to be engaged in free discussion,” he said. “I didn’t have any problem with the teaching of the class, I don’t have a problem with all the discussion surrounding it. I think it’s healthy.”

Asked if Mirecki should be heading the religious studies department, Kline didn’t answer directly, but said, “You know, I don’t go to universities to worship.”

Rev. Terry Fox of Wichita who led the effort to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, said Mirecki’s comments were unfortunate.

“There is no such thing as a private e-mail,” Fox said. “I’m surprised that to be so educated, he is so dumb.”

Hume Feldman, associate professor of physics and astronomy, had planned to be a guest lecturer in Mirecki’s course. But having seen his e-mails, Feldman said he understood why Mirecki withdrew.

“The topic was not the course anymore,” Feldman said. “The topic was Paul and his dreadful e-mails. That’s not really what we want to talk about.”

Feldman says he remains committed to science, and helping to better explain to people what science is.

“I will find it very difficult to believe that people here will just give up and say: ‘We lost this battle and let’s just move on,'” he said.

Steve Case, a KU scientist who served as co-chairman of the state Board of Education’s science standards curriculum revision committee, said it was unfortunate Mirecki’s e-mail comments ended what would have been a valuable course. He said the events also may have a chilling effect.

“This kind of political insertion into academic offerings is chilling,” Case said.

– Journal-World Reporter Scott Rothschild contributed to this report.

Text of KU professor’s e-mail

This is the e-mail by Paul Mirecki, a religious studies professor at Kansas University, that has sparked a controversy. Mirecki posted the message on a Yahoo! listserv of KU’s Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics, a group for which Mirecki is the faculty adviser.

To my fellow damned,

Its true, the fundies have been wanting to get I.D. and creationism into the Kansas public schools, so I thought “why don’t I do it?”

I will teach the class, with several other lefty KU professors in the sciences and humanities. Class is:

REL 602 Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies.

Tuesdays 7:00-9:30pm. Smith Hall room 100. Open to undergrads and grads.

Enrollment limited to about 120. 3 credit hours.

The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category “mythology.” I expect it will draw much media attention. The university public relations office will have a press release on it in a few weeks, I also have contacts at several regional newspapers.

Of course, I won’t actually be teaching I.D. and creationisms, but rather I’ll be teaching ABOUT I.D. and creationisms as modern mythologies, indicating that these ideas have no place in a public school science class, but can certainly be analyzed in humanities classes for their function in society. Basic approach is my usual: anthropology with a focus on religious thought and behavior.

Any ideas for textbooks, guest lecturers and panels would be appreciated.

So far, six faculty have eagerly signed up to lecture. I can probably pull Chancellor Hemenway into this also, especially in the light of his public comments supporting evolution.

Doing my part to piss of (sic) the religious right,

Evil Dr. P.