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Amarillo College nixes intelligent design class

Emails show school officials canceled the class under pressure from an atheist group

Amarillo College Wikimedia Commons

Amarillo College nixes intelligent design class

Is intelligent design too controversial to teach at a public college? It is, apparently, in Amarillo, Texas.

In fall 2013, Amarillo College planned to offer a class entitled “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design” as one of its continuing education courses. The class was not part of the school’s degree programs, but a not-for-credit elective course. It was advertised under the heading of “Philosophy.” Dozens of eager students signed up.

Yet when the president of an Amarillo-based group of atheists and agnostics complained, the college reversed course. Top school officials canceled “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design,” saying the topic was too “emotionally charged” and could invite a “disruption” in the classroom.

The controversial issue, intelligent design (ID), is an alternative theory to Darwinian evolution. It posits that biological life and the universe display evidence of having been designed. ID does not appeal to any religious texts or make assertions about who the designer might be been. Christians and Jews, of course, personally credit the God of the Bible.

The situation at Amarillo College, first revealed by an Amarillo Globe-News columnist in August and detailed later by the Discovery Institute, is the latest example of pro-Darwinist bullying of academic officials. In a similar case in 2007, Iowa State University officials denied tenure to astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of the book The Privileged Planet, after a group of atheists protested against the astronomer’s intelligent design views.

According to internal emails disclosed under a state freedom-of-information law and seen by WORLD, Amarillo College officials feared the “disruption” would come from the local atheists and agnostics group, the Freethought Oasis. Group president and co-founder Jamie Farren, who describes himself as an “atheist and rogue scholar,” had aggressively lobbied school officials to cancel the class. Farren was not a student at Amarillo College, but worked for the school as a part-time employee.

Farren also had a surprise confrontation with the instructor who planned to teach “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design” and questioned his teaching qualifications. The confrontation was so heated it prompted the instructor, Stan Wilson, to file a police report.

“This episode reveals that a single bully—backed by outside pressure groups … can scare a large public college in Texas into apparent violations of academic freedom and free speech,” Wilson wrote in an email to me.

Amarillo College President Paul Matney told me the school instead plans to host a moderated debate over evolution and intelligent design sponsored by a student organization sometime during the spring semester. The decision to cancel the class, he said, was not based on the topic but on whether or not a classroom discussion was the best format for it.

“I can assure you … we are not fearful of the discussion of controversial issues,” Matney said.

The class curriculum would have used Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, a book co-authored by leading ID theorist Stephen Meyer. “In the course, we would have generally discussed the power of neo-Darwinism to account for the diversity of life relative to intelligent design as a competing idea” said Wilson, a retired train engineer with a master’s degree in biology. He had also been hired to teach an accredited biology class at Amarillo College. He has not been renewed to teach the spring semester, he said.

Once Farren, the Freethought Oasis president, heard about the planned class, he complained to school officials.

Farren also met Wilson outside his school office one day around 10 a.m., in what Wilson described as an ambush. “What qualifications do you have to teach this class?” Farren demanded, according to Wilson, who had never met him before.

“My observation is that Stan [Wilson] was visibly pretty shaken up. Jamie [Farren] was aggressive with him,” wrote Kim Davis, the dean of continuing education, in an internal email following the confrontation. “Not physically aggressive, verbally aggressive.”

In another email, Davis said a student registered for “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design” had warned that “Jamie’s people” would be secretly videotaping the class. “I consider this behavior obsessive and fanatical,” Davis said.

Farren did not return WORLD’s request for comment in time for this story.

In an Aug. 21 email sent to college president Matney, Ellen Green, the school’s chief of communication and marketing, said that if the college hosted the intelligent design class it would violate separation of church and state since the college is a publicly supported institution.

“If we have the class (because of public pressure) and get sued by the Free Thought Oasis group … they would win,” Green wrote. “Intelligent design is a religious point of view; it is not a recognized scientific view. It might make people around here mad, but it is a religious belief, not a science. … And so we’re basically hosting a Sunday School class here paid for by the taxpayers.”

ID is an evidence-based theory, however. And even if a class were to discuss religion, that’s not unusual. Amarillo College, supported by state and local funds, offers other courses on religion such as “Life of Christ” and “The Old Testament.”

As a compromise, Green suggested to Matney that the college allow “this Stan guy and the Freethought guy [to] have a public debate on our campus, called Evolution vs. Intelligent Design.”

Asked whether worries about separation of church and state were behind the cancellation, Matney repeated that his decision was based on format, not topic. “I certainly believe in a free discussion,” he said, adding that Amarillo College wants its continuing education classes to be held in a civil and positive climate. “I just think that the issue itself is a passionate issue, it's a controversial issue. … We decided, ‘Let’s find the proper format.’”

At least one student who had registered for the class complained in an email to Matney that he and a fellow classmate were “sadly disappointed in the cancellation; but even more in the reason given. It shows a lack in AC’s will to pursue enlightenment or a fear of institutional political incorrectness.”

In an Aug. 22 email to the board of regents, Matney explained his reasoning in more detail. “A gentleman,” he wrote in a reference to Farren, had been “disturbed by the class and indicated his intent to enroll students who might potentially create a disruptive environment in the classroom—a ‘protest’ if you will. It appeared to us that there would be a significant chance of conflict and disruption in this environment.”

Matney continued, “After considerable deliberation, we concluded that because … this issue is ‘emotionally charged,’ and because there appears to be two ‘sides’ who feel strongly about the issue, we could not guarantee a positive learning experience for our students enrolled in these classes.”

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former science and technology reporter. Daniel resides in Indiana.



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