Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Beckwith Tenure Denial Reversed

Baylor President John Lilley has overruled the tenure committee that voted not to give tenure to Francis Beckwith. He was denied tenure several months ago but appealed that denial. The committee reconsidered and took a second vote, which was apparently 6-5 against giving him tenure, much closer than the first vote. And now Lilley has overruled that vote and decided to give him tenure after all. I’m in an odd position on this because while I oppose virtually everything Beckwith has advocated in his time at Baylor, I like Frank personally and am on friendly terms with him.

Frankly, I don’t think any of this really had much to do with either his abilities as a teacher or his work as a scholar. He is caught up in an ongoing political and religious battle over the direction of Baylor University, and he represents the more orthodox religious side of things. It’s a battle that has been going on for many years at Baylor, and will likely go on for many more. I don’t know anything about his teaching skills, but my understanding is that is generally very highly rated by his students as a teacher. But I’ve read a good deal of his scholarship and, while I disagree with almost all of it, I think it’s important to bear in mind that the standards by which legal scholarship is judged are quite different from how, say, scientific publications are judged.

There are plenty of legal scholars that I disagree with completely that I cannot imagine being denied tenure at any university (Robert Bork, Robert George, etc). It’s not enough to say “I think they’re wrong, therefore they don’t deserve tenure”; by that standard, no one would ever get tenure. Like those men, Beckwith is a prominent advocate for his position and regardless of whether I agree with that position, by the standards of legal scholarship, they would generally be granted tenure on the basis of their scholarship. And I fear for academic freedom if we’re going to make disagreement the standard for deciding who can and can’t be fired.

So on the whole, I think it’s probably the right decision to make. I’m happy for Frank personally because I think he’s a good guy and a true gentleman. But frankly, I’m not sure I would stay there if I was in his position. The battle over Baylor’s direction will, if anything, be even more fierce after this move. There’s no doubt he has powerful enemies there, most notably the Dawson family, who feel that the presence of an accomodationist scholar at an institute named for JM Dawson is illegitimate. I can’t imagine his life will get easier at Baylor as a result of this decision. Tenure offers him protection from many things, but not from behind the scenes intrigue and strained relationships. I think I would likely choose to move on regardless.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Carlson
    September 25, 2006

    Ed –

    I’m not all that familiar with Beckwith or the internal politics at Baylor, but I’m curious about how much–if at all–the controversy over Beckwith’s tenure has to do with ID. Dembski, in his post on this subject, states that Beckwith was opposed due to his “opennes to ID.” Would you say that that’s an accurate characterization of the situation?

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    September 25, 2006

    Dave-

    I think that’s one component of a much larger battle. There is a battle going on over the direction that Baylor is going to take. One side wants Baylor to become more of a serious academic university, while the other wants it to remain true to its Baptist roots and maintain an explicitly Christian identity. In religious terms, it’s a battle between those of a more theologically conservative view and those of a more liberal or moderate view. Beckwith is generally in the traditionalist camp and not just because of his support for ID but also because of his very strongly held views on abortion. There is a fault line within the Baptist church on church/state issues, where traditionally the Baptists have been very strong advocates of separation, but in the last 30 years the Southern Baptist Convention has gone far in the other direction. Beckwith is generally an accomodationist when it comes to church/state issues, which is bound to make him some enemies, especially among the Dawson family (the institute he works for is named after JM Dawson, who was a separationist). That’s no big deal to me, since I consider accomodationism a legitimate position on church/state matters (even while disagreeing with it and being more of a separationist myself), but in some Baylor circles it’s a big deal. So I think it goes beyond just the ID issue. It’s a pretty standard political battle in academia – if you’re viewed as being in Camp A, you’ve inevitably got enemies in Camp B.

  3. #3 Dave Carlson
    September 25, 2006

    Gotcha. Thanks for the info, Ed.

  4. #4 Andrew Wyatt
    September 25, 2006

    Beckwith is a philosophy professor, right? It would be a completely different ball of wax if he were a biology professor peddling ID in the manner of Behe.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    September 25, 2006

    Beckwith is the associate director of the Dawson Institute for Church/State Studies. But yes, there is a different standard for legal scholarship than there is for scientific scholarship.

  6. #6 Jeff Chamberlain
    September 25, 2006

    Your comments about different “standards” for legal scholarship compared with other scholarship, and in particular scientific scholarship, are not clear to me. Obviously, different subjects are judged differently just because of that. What makes a good law paper is, obviously, not the same as what makes a good biology paper, or engineering paper, or history paper, and so forth. Are you referring to something different from that?

  7. #7 Ed Darrell
    September 26, 2006

    I suspect there was a bit of animus from the Dawson family. Mr. Dawson, after whom the institute is named and whose family funds the thing, was quite an advocate of church/state separation. In the textbook battles in 2003 they discovered that the newly-hired associate director had contrary views, and they complained. In the interests of academic diversity, the family’s objections were not acted on at the time. Any time a university hires somebody for an endowed program, and that somebody has a loud, public philosophy that is contrary to the endowers, there is likely to be friction.

    That noted (and it’s a lot of conjecture), Mr. Brayton is right about tenure for people like Bork. Beckwith isn’t as dangerous, and not much more wrong.

    I think that tenured people ought to be held to higher standards than we have been holding them, however. Tenure isn’t only on the number of publications, but also on the quality and good effects of the publications — or it should be.

    I hope Dr. Beckwith figures out how legal precedents work in his future writing.