Kansas U Chancellor Condemns Mirecki

Hello to readers from Evolvethought

May, 2003, in the Lawrence Journal-World:

Drawing subtle parallels Friday between state Sen. Susan Wagle, Josef Stalin’s Russia and McCarthyism, Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway said academic freedom must be rigorously defended.

“Nothing threatens academic freedom more than a faculty having to look over its shoulders to see if Big Brother is watching,” he said. “In Stalin’s Russia, KGB spies in civilian clothes were sent to university classrooms to inform on professors. Senator Joseph McCarthy, in the anticommunism of the 1950s, provided a chilling example of how public power could be abused to intimidate artists and intellectuals.”

Nice words, but sadly it’s just so much hot air. Here’s Hemenway in December 2005, quoted in a crowing column by Jack Cashill in WorldNetDaily:

Moved in no small part by articles in WorldNetDaily and a few other online publications, Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway effectively killed an anti-intelligent-design course planned for the spring.

…”I want to be clear that I personally find Professor [Paul] Mirecki’s e-mail comments repugnant and vile,” said Hemenway in announcing Mirecki’s withdrawal from the course. “They do not represent my views nor the views of this university. People of all faiths are valued at KU, and campus ministries are an important part of life at the university.”

Mirecki‘s sin, as has been widely reported, was an unearthed email in which he had boasted that a course considering Intelligent Design Creationism as a form of mythology would be a “slap in the big, fat face” of the “fundies” who have recently taken control of the state school board and redefined science in line with their religious beliefs. Mirecki apologised for an “uncivil” error of judgement, but as the furore continued he revised the course title and has now abandoned the idea altogether.

However, local Republicans have smelt blood, and want Mirecki destroyed: long-time activist (and creationist) John Altevogt dug out some other emails in which Mirecki had expressed mocking and negative comments about religious traditions and believers, which he sent out to the media, while state senators (in particular Brenda Landwehr) are still threatening to withhold funding from KU.

According to another Lawrence Journal-World report, Altevogt sees this as an excellent opportunity to bring the academic study of religion under the control of religious groups:

…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.

Elsewhere (as quoted by Cashill), Atlevogt rachets up the heat by accusing Mirecki of anti-Semitism, for making mocking comments about Jews who believe in the importance of sacrificing a Red Heifer (the ashes of which are needed before a new Jewish Temple can be built).

This is not the first time that Hemenway has failed to support academics’ rights to say things that may upset religious people, despite his stirring 2003 comments. American Atheists reported in 2000:

For months, an international support campaign has been protesting the dismissal of Dr. Fred Whitehead, prominent freethought historian and writer, from his position at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Fred, an Assistant Professor, was with that institution for 21 years; he was abruptly informed in December, 1999 that his research no longer presumably fit the mission of that institution.

In fact, Dr. Whitehead was an outspoken critic of a dangerous and constitutionally suspect trend at the University. The Medical Center has sponsored meetings, seminars and conferences claiming to link physical health with religious and spiritual belief. Whitehead — also a leading figure in the fight over creationist pseudoscience in Kansas public schools — spoke out, and organized his own gatherings.

…A recent campaign generated hundreds of letters, faxes, and phone calls to Robert Hemenway, Chancellor of the University.

The campaign did no good, and Whitehead is no longer associated with the university.

(NB: for what’s it worth, I also think Mirecki’s email was misjudged, and some of his other utterances were unfortunate. But let’s have some proportion – many academics make scornful judgements expressed in polemical language from time to time, especially when they’re talking informally with friends. And given that Mirecki lives in Kansas, the man has suffered a massive provocation – particularly if he has children who may have to endure a debased science education)

UPDATE: The Topeka Capital-Journal states that Chancellor Hemenway “agreed with Mirecki’s decision to pull the class but said the course still had merit”. This contradicts Jack Cashill’s claim, cited below, that Hemenway “killed” the course.

UPDATE 2: Mirecki has now been hospitalised following a physical assault (see pic); the assailants allegedly made reference to the controversy. He has also been forced to resign as head of department, and is now threatening to sue KU.