John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

Hypocrisy on Display at The Des Moines Register: Academic Freedom Protects Bullying Students about Religion, But Not Presenting Evidence for Intelligent Design

Published at Evolution News

Academic freedom doesn’t protect a professor’s right to talk about the scientific evidence favoring intelligent design. But it does protect a professor’s right to belittle his students’ fundamentalist religious beliefs. That’s the hypocritical view being championed by Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu.

Unfortunately, her mindset reflects the views of a lot of pro-Darwin apologists in the media.

When astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez was being harassed and discriminated against at Iowa State University (ISU) because of his support for intelligent design, Basu actually cheered on the inquisitors. When atheist religion professor Hector Avalos spearheaded a campus petition against intelligent design in 2005, for example, Basu wrote that “it would be would be a serious breach of academic integrity” for universities to hire intelligent design proponents.

Basu even demanded that ISU impose a gag order to prevent any professor from defending intelligent design as science in ISU classrooms:

ISU can’t afford to let its curriculum be polluted this way. As it is, the United States lags behind other countries because of our scientific illiteracy. Now if pseudo-science is taught as science, we’re at serious risk. What’s more, a state university has no business promoting religion, no matter what it’s called.

There’s much at stake but a simple way to handle it. The university should issue its definition of what constitutes science, and make sure faculty uphold it. (Rekha Basu, “Don’t allow Intelligent Design to cloud your credibility,” The Des Moines Register, Aug. 24, 2005, 15A. Retrieved through

(For the record, it should be pointed out that Guillermo Gonzalez did not teach intelligent design in his classes. His crime was conducting research about intelligent design and speaking publicly in favor of the theory. But contrary to Basu, Gonzalez certainly should have had the right to discuss the scientific evidence favoring intelligent design in relevant classes.)

When ISU denied tenure to Gonzalez in 2007, Basu was at it again. This time she downplayed the idea that anything wrong had happened and even seemed to justify the university’s failure to provide information about what had happened: “To demand that a university open its personnel files to the public requires evidence of something improper, which hasn’t been demonstrated.” While grudgingly conceding that “professors are entitled to their own beliefs,” Basu insisted that “Intelligent Design proponents are wrong to equate the exclusion of their theory from the classroom with academic bias.

Professors are… not [entitled] to teach as science something that is not.” (Rekha Basu, “Bias over views or credentials,” The Des Moines Register, May 20, 2007, 30P. Retrieved through

So according to Basu’s cribbed version of academic freedom, a university has the right to impose an outright ban on the presentation of ideas in the classroom with which it disagrees.

Or not. It turns out that Basu’s advocacy for university gag orders depends entirely on what ideas are being banned. Yesterday Basu published a histrionic article warning that America was veering toward “theocracy.” Her case in point? Iowa community college professor Steve Bitterman, who she claims was fired because he told “his students not to take the story of Adam and Eve too literally.”

But wait: I thought that according to Basu, a university has the perfect right to impose a gag order banning the presentation of ideas it doesn’t like (e.g., intelligent design). Indeed, in 2005 Basu insisted that such a gag order wasn’t even “an academic-freedom issue.”

That was then; this is now.

According to Basu in 2008, preventing Professor Bitterman from talking about his views on Adam and Eve (in a history class, by the way, not a religion class) was a fundamental breach not only of his rights, but of the rights of students:

It’s not just Steve Bitterman’s right to employment that was undermined; it’s also the students’ freedom to hear different theories.

That’s strange. When Basu advocated imposing a gag order on professors at ISU who might defend intelligent design, she wasn’t the least bit concerned about “the students’ freedom to hear different theories.”

I’m willing to be more consistent than Basu. I agree that Prof. Bitterman shouldn’t have been fired from his community college simply for expressing his views about Adam and Eve—if that’s what really happened.

But the nice thing about being a Darwinist is that apparently you never have to be consistent. Academic freedom and free inquiry aren’t basic principles that apply to everyone; they apply only to the chosen few, and only to promote views with which the Darwinists agree.

Of course, what’s interesting in the Bitterman case is that the facts seem a little different than Basu’s neatly redacted version. Most importantly, the original complaint against Bitterman was filed by a female student who was reduced to tears by Bitterman’s treatment of her after she disagreed with him in class. Bitterman belittled the student and told her she should be on Prozac.

Even Bitterman says that he “can be a little acerbic at times, I don’t deny that.”

So does Basu think that academic freedom includes bullying and belittling your students?

Let’s see if I understand her argument: Universities have the affirmative duty to ban professors from speaking favorably about intelligent design in their classrooms, and such a ban wouldn’t violate academic freedom in any way. Nor would such a ban undermine “students’ freedom to hear different theories” challenging the tenets of Darwinian fundamentalism. But universities do violate academic freedom in Basu’s view when they discipline someone who may have treated his students abusively, and when they don’t allow students to hear “different theories” challenging the students’ fundamentalist religious beliefs about Adam and Eve.

Apparently no double-standard is too large for Darwin-defenders in the media like Basu.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
Discovery Institute