Francis Beckwith and the cold, cruel realities of tenure

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.


  1. CCP says

    re: the capriciousness of tenure decisions…PZ is Correct! (as per usual, imo).
    Course my feelings on the subject may be traceable to the fact that I’ve been spit out TWICE…but was deserving both times! really! I mean it!

  2. says

    Granting the legitimacy of all of the criticisms of tenure made by PZ and CCP, the good thing about the tenure process is that it is designed to exclude pseudoscientists and others who would undermine academic pursuits.

    Beckwith is wrong about the science, the law, and the philosophy of ID. Even if his other publications and opinions are legitimate, how is one to ignore the glaring deficit in his most prominent writings on law and philosophy? How is one to ignore the threat of nonsense to both law and to academics, by granting tenure to one who is opposed to proper standards in the legal and scientific arenas?

    I agree with PZ, though, that I wish him well in any venue where he will not bring harm to science and the pursuit of small-t truth. But we cannot sacrifice proper standards under the pretense that all ideas are equal.

    Glen D

  3. Great White Wonder says

    This couldn’t have happened to a less obnoxious bag of faux-civil hot air.

    Ah well, there’s always Liberty University for folks like Beckwith. Or maybe Frank can get a job proofreading Casey Luskin’s scripts.

    Now, if only Behe’s colleagues could muster up the courage to revoke his tenure and kick him out of whatever lame-ass university continues to tolerate him.

  4. Rheinhard says

    Unfortunately, Behe is on the faculty of Lehigh University, which is actually a quite well regarded Pennsylvania university, especially well known for engineering. My brother attended there, and I considered it myself.

  5. says

    So…will there be a letter to Baylor’s President from William Dembski, saying “thank God for you and your Darwinist atheist conspiracy; you’re only helping our cause”? Oh, that’s right–Dembski was FIRED from Baylor, wasn’t he? This is the same Baylor University, no?

  6. ivy privy says

    Oh, that’s right–Dembski was FIRED from Baylor, wasn’t he?

    Technically, he wasn’t fired. They just didn’t renew his contract when it expired. He was not on the tenure-track there.

  7. george cauldron says

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Baylor supposed to be a BAPTIST university? Seems to me that despite Baker’s overwrought hysterics, it’s hard to paint Baylor as some some of fortress of wicked commie academic leftwing politics. Tho of course, that’s what they’ll do anyway.

    Those rightwing essays are amusing — even tho there was assuredly some real reason for Beckwith being denied tenure, whatever its validity, they don’t even discuss this. They instantly assume that it cannot be anything but a case of ‘persecuted conservatives’, even tho they can offer absolutely no evidence for this.

  8. Great White Wonder says

    The two ideas can’t coexist. Frank Beckwith is an outstanding Christian scholar. He’s an outstanding scholar period.

    Three words: “not fully formed.”

  9. Jeremy says

    My best professor this semester, a tremendous teacher, is an adjunct. He shares his coat room-sized office with seven other profs. He works elsewhere on the weekeneds. It’s ridiculous. I’m planning on writing in huge letters on his performance review “GIVE THIS MAN TENURE.” And if that doesn’t work, I’ll make a Facebook group: John Anderson for President/Tenure-track.

  10. Francis says

    as to VanDyke: hard to tell. According to the Claremont Institute, via Google, he was supposed to take a job at Gibson Dunn, a major US lawfirm. But he is not listed on their website. Instead, the Montana bar association lists him as having passed that bar exam. Gibson does not have offices in Montana. Also, he is not listed in the standard listing of all private lawyers in the US — Martindale Hubble.

    best guess? offer revoked, went home, working at a place which doesn’t bother with Martindale listings.


  11. says

    “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Baylor supposed to be a BAPTIST university?”
    Yes, George Cauldron, but Baylor has a reputation for resisting the hegemony of the Southern Baptist Convention and its rightward slouch into fundamentalism over the years. Even a steadily flowing river has its eddies. You would probably find Baptists there who described themselves as “moderate” and felt a need to thumb their noses at their “conservative” coreligionists. Refusing tenure to ID could be such a gesture.

  12. george cauldron says

    Yes, George Cauldron, but Baylor has a reputation for resisting the hegemony of the Southern Baptist Convention and its rightward slouch into fundamentalism over the years. Even a steadily flowing river has its eddies. You would probably find Baptists there who described themselves as “moderate” and felt a need to thumb their noses at their “conservative” coreligionists. Refusing tenure to ID could be such a gesture.

    Gotcha. That’s probably part of why they didn’t renew Dembski’s contract. But what those articles very skillfully avoid is any hint of the idea that ID is junk science and that it is in fact entirely understandable for a department to deny tenure to a scholar who has based his whole career on junk science. People have been denied tenure for far, far less. Instead, ID apologists are stating as a fact the wildly dishonest idea that a Christian university denied tenure to a professor for no reason than because he was a Christian.

  13. says

    Have a look at the 2003 STORY one Zuzu linked to in a comment at Feministe:

    “Twenty-nine members of the J.M. Dawson family have called on Baylor University to remove the associate director of the institute that bears Dawson’s name…. question the appointment of Francis Beckwith as associate director of Baylor’s J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies.

    “The letter accuses Beckwith of holding church-state positions contrary to the strong stand for separation advocated by J.M. Dawson. Therefore, he should not be a leader of the Dawson Institute, it notes.
    “‘We are troubled because Dr. Beckwith is a fellow of the Discovery Institute. The activities of this organization are widely recognized in the academic community as engaging in political activities that contravene the fundamental principle of the separation of church and state for which J.M. Dawson stood,’ the letter says.
    “‘The Discovery Institute works to get the concept called “intelligent design” into the science curriculum of public school textbooks, claiming that intelligent design is a scientific, not a religious, concept. In our judgment and in the judgment of the scientific community, this is a ruse for getting a religious notion into the public schools–clearly a violation of the separation of church and state.’
    “Intelligent design–a theory that counters evolution by advocating a rational plan behind creation–is not a new controversy at Baylor. The university’s faculty, particularly science and religion professors, protested more than three years ago, when President Sloan created the Michael Polanyi Center, intended to focus on whether mathematical and scientific formulas can prove an intelligent design behind creation.
    “‘The vast majority of scientists view intelligent design as the latest version of creationist theory, though the Discovery Institute works tirelessly to refute this fact,’ the Dawson family letter says.
    “It cites several articles in scientific and church-state journals that claim intelligent design actually is a religious theory rather than a scientific endeavor. Consequently, since intelligent design advocates attempt to introduce the theory into public school science classrooms, they violate longstanding principles of church-state separation, it adds.
    “‘We … ask the question: Is Baylor University going to maintain its commitment to the separation of church and state? Is the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies going to remain committed to its mission? How can it possibly do so if an associate director is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, an organization that violates the church-state separation principle?’ the letter asks.”

    It sounds as if ID was not only seen for what it is by some of the faculty (who are, after all, educated people), but by off-campus folk whom, I’m guessing, the university may depend on for financial support. Embarrassments that threaten funding command attention.

  14. Bill says

    After reading through these comments, the liberal qualities of tolerance, free thought, and inclusion come shining through!

  15. says

    From the “overwrought defense”:

    Now I understand why my conservative and Christian friends are so hesitant to write anything for publication using their real names. I’ve taken it up myself. Starting today.

    Does that mean that his name really is `Graduate Student “X”‘?

    Sorry about that, but I’m a badge-carrying grammar cop.