Way back in the dim and distant past, like two years ago, there was a bit of a disturbance in the blogosphere, a minor contretemps after a certain Harvard law student, Lawrence VanDyke, published a “book note” in the Harvard Law Review. It was rank creationist nonsense, a work of pathetic scholarship, and it got publicly shredded by Brian Leiter, and I also got in the act. The book reviewed was an apologia for Intelligent Design by Francis Beckwith. In a later amusing twist, NRO published a defense of VanDyke and Beckwith by an anonymous “Texas free-lance writer”, who it was later discovered was Beckwith’s grad student, Hunter Baker. It’s all tortuous ancient history now, of course, and no one but those few of us involved in the dustup remember it.
What brings it all back is the news that Francis Beckwith has been denied tenure at Baylor. Hunter Baker hasn’t learned his lesson, and has written an overwrought defense, again in a pathetically semi-anonymous way, as “Graduate Student X”.
I have two things to say about it all.
One is to offer my personal sympathy to Francis Beckwith. Tenure is a brutal, evil machine that puts everyone through a hellish torture, and often spits out the deserving and rewards the undeserving. Do not ever judge someone by whether they have got tenure or not—it’s too arbitrary for that, and often represents a kind of insubstantial and subjective matching or mismatching between a person and an institution. So on a personal level, I wish Beckwith well and hope he and his family move on to a satisfying position elsewhere.
The second is that although it is nearly impossible to speculate on what’s going on in tenure committees—he could have been denied tenure on the whim of some old fart with a grudge—it’s hard to imagine that the politics of Intelligent Design did not play some small part in it. Beckwith tied his fortunes to those of the Discovery Institute and the ID movement, and at the very least we can say that that was not enough to salvage his tenure at Baylor. In fact, given that he has a respectable publication record and seems to be a personable fellow, it’s hard to avoid the speculation that they might have wanted to steer Baylor away from the disaster of Intelligent Design. A solid record of publishing large quantities of something that is being shown to be utter crap is not helpful to one’s tenure chances.
Is that a legitimate reason to deny someone tenure? Sure.