KU course creates furor in Topeka

Conservative lawmakers call for hearings; professor issues apology for e-mail

? Some state lawmakers are turning up the heat on Kansas University officials over a planned class they say appears aimed at mocking religious fundamentalists.

State Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, met with KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway for more than an hour Monday, and some lawmakers are calling for full-blown hearings when the Legislature convenes in January.

“I would like to have the opportunity to ask some questions and get some answers,” said state Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, vice chair of the House budget-writing committee.

The dispute centers on a course planned by Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s department of religious studies, titled: “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design and Creationism.” During a meeting Monday, religious studies faculty members approved the spring semester elective course, but the words “and other Religious Mythologies” were removed from its title.

Equating creationism with mythology dismayed some legislators, but many became angry when they learned of an e-mail Mirecki wrote to a listserv about the course. The Mirecki e-mail referred to the recent controversy over whether intelligent design should be taught in Kansas public schools.

“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,'” Mirecki wrote.

He signed the note “Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P.”

KU officials have backed Mirecki and the course, but they expressed regret about the content of the e-mail. On Monday night, Mirecki issued an apology for the e-mail in an official statement from KU and said the message was “ill-advised.”

“I have assured the provost of the university that I will teach the course according to the standards this university rightfully expects – as a serious academic subject and in an manner that respects all points of view,” Mirecki said.

House Appropriations Chairman Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, said KU should withdraw the graduate-level course.

“Spoofing what other people believe is not graduate work. It’s more the work of bar attendants,” Neufeld said.

Landwehr said if the course was deemed appropriate, someone else should teach it.

Mirecki’s e-mail “raises a larger question as to whether or not this individual is the right person to be teaching any course at a university,” she said.

Brownlee also said she was concerned about whether the course met the university’s standards.

“The KU administration – it is their job to hold their faculty responsible, and then it is the job of the Legislature to hold the administrators accountable,” she said.

Hemenway said the university was reviewing whether the course received adequate review by other faculty members before being offered.

“What we’ve been reviewing is the situation, not the academic content of the course, but whether university procedure of faculty review of this course has been followed,” he said.

The three legislators interviewed – all key veteran lawmakers – said the controversy surrounding the course wouldn’t affect their dealings with KU during the budget process.

“I can’t intimidate anyone,” Neufeld said. “They can be intimidated, but that’s their choice.”