President Sloan Addresses Polanyi Center Issue

April 20, 2000

by Larry D. Brumley

Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr. today released the following statement:

The establishment of the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University has generated a great deal of campus discussion these past few weeks and also attracted statewide media coverage. In light of the attention this Center and its work have received and the Baylor Faculty Senate's April 18 resolution calling on the administration to dissolve the Polanyi Center, I feel it is important for me to respond.

It has been suggested by some that the focus of this controversy should be on the procedures by which the Center was established and that the administration's failure to consult with the faculty in the creation of the Polanyi Center is the heart of the matter. Certainly those issues are important, but I do not believe they are the heart of the matter for two reasons: One, there was indeed some consultation with faculty. I do not recall or know all the details and all the individuals involved in the conversations, but I do know that some faculty both in the humanities and in the sciences conversed with Drs. William Dembski and Bruce Gordon, director and associate director of the Center, before it was established and later were aware of the creation of the Polanyi Center and its program charge. Unfortunately, it is now being commonly said, and repeated in the newspapers as if unqualified fact, that the Center was established without faculty consultation. The fact is, and I have readily admitted as much at the recent open forum sponsored by the Faculty Senate and elsewhere, that, in retrospect, there are some things the administration could have done to manage this process more effectively. There were some conversations with faculty and there could no doubt have been more. One can always do a better job of processing issues, but hindsight is 20/20.

The second reason I do not believe procedural issues are at the heart of this matter is that throughout higher education, and here at Baylor as well, there is a legitimate place for administrative initiative in academic matters. Certainly, there are different patterns and formats for both administrative and faculty involvement. Much depends upon the nature of the issue and/or the tradition of involvement in question. Obviously, for example, there is great involvement on the part of the faculty in the hiring process. On the other hand, there is also a lengthy tradition at Baylor with respect to the creation of various institutes and centers whereby there is a wide spectrum of involvement and/or initiative between faculty and administration. Administrative initiative is certainly one (though not the only) means whereby institutes and centers and other academic enterprises can be begun. The Center for Jewish and American Studies, established about the same time as the Polanyi Center, is an example. Creation of that Center involved significant administrative initiative and leadership, though not without some conversation with faculty and others. There was no objection in that regard, I note, though it was potentially very controversial.

Though how the Polanyi Center was established is an important matter, I do not agree that it is "the heart of the matter." In my experience, people often object to "the way things were done" as a rhetorical substitute for what was done. I think the more substantive issue here is the philosophical/ideological objection of some to the work of the Center itself. Again, I do not dismiss the other issues. They are important. But I do not think they are the heart of the matter. If that were the case, there would have been objections to the initiation of any number of other institutes, centers, and/or academic programs at the University. Such has simply not been the case. The real objection here is to the substance of the issues raised by the Polanyi Center. Indeed, in the end, a final decision about the Polanyi Center must also be dependent upon the academic and intellectual substance of the Centers work.

By dissolving the Center, as the Faculty Senate has proposed, we would in effect be imposing a form of censorship on the work of the Center. I believe there are matters of intellectual and academic integrity at stake here. Drs. Dembski and Gordon, both highly capable scholars with the credentials to support their qualifications to study the subjects that the Center was established to pursue, should be allowed to do their work. If their conclusions do not stand up to peer review, then so be it. But to quash their research and to mute their point of view because of political pressure and without sound intellectual cause is antithetical to everything for which a true university ought to stand. We should not be afraid to ask questions, even if they are politically incorrect. Indeed, I am proud of Baylor's willingness to ask questions which some are apparently afraid to entertain.

Provost Don Schmeltekopf, Dean Wallace Daniel and I met with a number of individuals several weeks ago to deal with the concerns expressed in regard to the Centers presence at Baylor. Such concerns are precisely the reason for our initiating a process whereby the work of the Polanyi Center can be evaluated. Our concern over these issues is also reflected in my extensive and, I believe, very transparent answers to the faculty questions delivered both in writing and in person at the March 2 Presidential Forum sponsored by the Faculty Senate. On that occasion, and on others, I reiterated my own deep and abiding support for the work of the sciences at Baylor. No one at Baylor has ever been asked to quit teaching evolution. No one will be. That is not the way ideas are generated, corrected, flourish or even die. The various evolutionary paradigms have a respectable intellectual history as working models that continue to promote discovery and to produce research and new research hypotheses. These paradigms have also from time to time been subjected to critique, some valuable, some not, and have themselves undergone revision. So it is with intellectual work. Ideas should rise and fall, or be revised, on their own merit.

My administration and I have worked tirelessly to provide the much-needed facilities, equipment, and programming that the sciences need for the 21st century. Further, I have made it abundantly clear where I stand on the question of "creation science." I think it is not good theology, and I would be embarrassed for what I understand to be creation science to be taught at Baylor University.

Nonetheless, I obviously do believe in the Creator God and that this is His creation, accomplished, mysteriously, through the agency of Jesus Christ. Those are historic Christian beliefs. Whether or not there are patterns of design, information, and purpose in this universe that can be detected by scientific processes, I do not know. I do think, however, that it is an interesting question. Indeed many people regard it as an issue of significant intellectual import. Surely it is fair game in a place like Baylor to ask such questions. It is simply too easy to dismiss as "creation science" every attempt to relate belief in the Creator God to the human processes of understanding the created order.

There are other constituencies both internal and external to the University who have been very complimentary of the Center's recent conference, "The Nature of Nature," and very positive about the courage Baylor has shown in tackling such a significant set of academic issues. Nonetheless, I return once again to my point: that these matters will not be decided on emotional grounds. Nor will the way the Center was established be determinative for whether or not the Polanyi Center should be dissolved. Nor, indeed, will the unfortunate behavior of some count for any arguments that it should stay. We are a university. These are matters of serious intellectual value and debate. The process that we agreed to several weeks ago is the process we will follow. There will be an evaluation committee/panel established of largely external membership to consider the academic and intellectual legitimacy, from both scientific and extra-scientific grounds, of the work of the Center.

Baylor has received much attention because of the Polanyi Center and the recent conference. We have received attention of both a negative and positive character. The last thing we can do now is allow these matters to be decided upon political grounds. I call upon all faculty to let the peer review committee do its work and make its recommendations. I am committed to treating the committee's recommendations with the utmost seriousness. Let us all proceed in a collegial manner worthy of the quality of discussion characteristic of a civil and intellectually rich university environment -- the kind we all so deeply treasure here at Baylor.

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