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Local News

Intelligent design event spurs protests

Dallas: SMU faculty members say holding conference on campus sends wrong message

12:00 AM CDT on Saturday, March 24, 2007

By JEFFREY WEISS / The Dallas Morning News

Professors opposed to the Bush library aren't the only angry faculty members at Southern Methodist University this week.

Science professors upset about a presentation on "intelligent design" fired blistering letters to the administration, asking that the event be shut down.

The "Darwin vs. Design" conference, co-sponsored by the SMU law school's Christian Legal Society, will say that a designer with the power to shape the cosmos is the best explanation for aspects of life and the universe. The event is produced by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based organization that says it has scientific evidence for its claims.

Members of the anthropology department at SMU begged to differ. They accuse the conference producers of presenting religion while claiming it's science.

"These are conferences of and for believers and their sympathetic recruits," said the letter sent to administrators by the department. "They have no place on an academic campus with their polemics hidden behind a deceptive mask."

Similar letters were sent by the biology and geology departments.

The university is not going to cancel the event, interim provost Tom Tunks said Friday. The official response is a statement that the event to be held in McFarlin Auditorium April 13-14 is not endorsed by the school:

"Although SMU makes its facilities available as a community service, and in support of the free marketplace of ideas, providing facilities for those programs does not imply SMU's endorsement of the presenters' views," the statement said.

The school also will review its policies about who is allowed to hold events on campus, Dr. Tunks said.

The size of the dispute reflects two ongoing battles about academic freedom and responsibility.

Some SMU professors are concerned that the proposed Bush library and an accompanying policy institute would create the impression that the school tilts politically toward the positions of the current administration.

The other is national and local: The struggle between those who say the material world couldn't get this way on its own vs. those who say that there's no scientific justification to invoke the supernatural as an explanation.

Many SMU science professors say they are worried that merely allowing "Darwin vs. Design" on campus could give the public the impression that intelligent design has support from scientists at the school.

The Bush library debate has increased the size of the response to the intelligent design conference, some university officials said.

"In the broader context of the Bush library debate, this is causing enormous discomfort," said Caroline Brettell, interim dean of the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and an anthropologist.

The collision started last year, when law student Sarah Levy learned that the Discovery Institute wanted to hold a series of "Darwin vs. Design" conferences, including one in Dallas. Ms. Levy is president of the SMU chapter of the Christian Legal Society, which has about 100 members. SMU requires outside groups to have an official university organization as co-sponsor for any event to be held on campus.

"It is a very pertinent topic of debate right now and one that has some legal controversy around it," Ms. Levy said. "So it seemed that it was an appropriate event for the legal society to sponsor."

The two-day event will feature well-known supporters of intelligent design. Dr. Michael Behe is the author of Darwin's Black Box and was a key witness in 2005 at a federal trial that produced a ruling that intelligent design was religion rather than science.

While some who are leading the protest acknowledge the need for free speech and academic freedom, they say this event doesn't qualify.

"This is propaganda," said Dr. John Ubelaker, former chairman of the chemistry department. "Using the campus for propaganda does not fit into anybody's scheme of intellectual discussion."

Other biologists compared the conference to a presentation by Holocaust deniers. They ask, would the university allow that to happen?

Physics professor Randy Scalise regularly teaches a class that is called "The Scientific Method" but is generally referred to as "debunking pseudoscience." He's told his students to attend the conference – but he said he's preparing them with material to put it into a scientific context.

But he wishes the conference weren't happening.

"I think that by having them on campus, we are giving them legitimacy," he said.

Organizers of the conference said that the attacks by the faculty come as no surprise but are groundless.

"We aren't trying to be sneaky," said Dr. Stephen Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute.

He's scheduled to speak at the event, which brings him back to a campus where he took classes while working in Dallas as a geophysicist.

"We are very clear that this is a conference to inform the greater Dallas community about what intelligent design is," he said.

As for whether it's religion, "we'll be talking about scientific evidence," he said. "We won't be quoting Bible verses."

Several of the scientists leading the protests said Friday that they were satisfied with the university's response. And some were trying to figure out how to turn what they considered to be a negative into a positive.

"They are going to use it as a teaching moment," Dr. Brettell said.