Worlds Collide: Science and Religion at Ball State

Accused of teaching intelligent design, a Ball State physics professor found himself on the front lines of the culture war. Was his promotion divine intervention? Or was the university righting a wrong?
Eric Hedin never wanted any trouble. The Ball State University physics professor needs you to know that. By nature, he isn’t a culture warrior. Or a firebrand with a bullhorn, quick to brandish bumper-sticker slogans about the incompatibility of science and the Bible. In fact, he searches for each word before he speaks, like an astronomer carefully calibrating his telescope in the direction of some distant celestial body. Hedin wants you to know he is a scientist—one who earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Washington and did postdoctoral research in fusion plasma at The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. All he was trying to do, he claims, was make dry subject matter—stellar life cycles, for example—interesting to college students who weren’t majoring in science. Not unlike what Robin Williams’s John Keating character did for students uninterested in studying English in the film Dead Poets Society.

But nearly six years into teaching his “Boundaries of Science” class, trouble found him, thanks in part to an anonymous informant whose identity and motivations remain a mystery. That’s when Hedin’s experiment to engage students by tackling big questions—Why does the universe seem fine-tuned for life? How do you explain the rise of consciousness?—blew up in his face.

What happened next threatened to embarrass his employer, Ball State, which formed a special committee to investigate the class’s subject matter. It jeopardized his academic credibility in some circles, earning him a label as an “IDer”—a teacher of intelligent design. It drew the attention of four conservative state lawmakers, who, whether he wanted their help or not, rushed to Hedin’s defense. And it thrust him into the middle of an ugly national debate, reducing the professor and his class to collateral damage.

“It was an awful shock,” Hedin says in his first interview since the firestorm erupted in the spring of 2013. He pauses for a moment, trying to find the words to describe the ordeal, and settles on this: “How do you feel when you’re falsely accused?”

As long as Hedin can remember, the 56-year-old Washington native has known two constants: an interest in how things work and a deep Christian faith. The first constant led him to study physics at Seattle Pacific University, where he earned his undergrad degree. After completing a Ph.D. at the University of Washington in 1986, he spent a few years researching in Stockholm. But eventually, he “developed a growing desire to invest more fully in the lives of people,” according to his vitae, which led him to teaching. From 1993 to 1998, he was a tenure-track faculty member in the physics department at Taylor University, a Christian college in Upland. Eventually, he landed part-time jobs at Huntington College and Ball State. In August 2003, the latter offered him an assistant-professor position.

The second constant in Hedin’s life led him to ask big questions about the universe. He often began his Astronomy 100 course by reading from the author’s note of the textbook Astronomy: The Solar System and Beyond: “Astronomy helps us answer the ultimate question of human existence.” That statement inspired questions of his own, which he posed to students. What one question would you most wish to have answered? What is the meaning or purpose of your existence? Are there things that lie outside the scope of science?

He asked these questions to hundreds of Ball State students at the beginning of Astro 100, a class many non–science majors take to satisfy a general-education requirement. Instead of just calling roll to verify the number of students for the registrar at the start of each new semester, as some professors did, Hedin used the housekeeping time to track how students answered these weighty inquiries. Their responses ranged from a sentence to half a page, and Hedin spent “an enjoyable couple of hours” perusing the reflections and classifying them. The results, which Hedin published in the Journal of College Science Teaching in 2007, were all over the map. Some students just wanted to know whether there would be Social Security when they retired. But by and large, their responses conveyed a bent toward the metaphysical and contained a how-and-why-it-all-began thirst for answers.

“The challenge of teaching science to non–science majors is to engage students with a field of study that they may view as foreign, or even unfriendly territory,” Hedin wrote in the journal article. “Interspersing the lecture with discussions related to more foundational questions on students’ minds can help to establish an open atmosphere where students are more receptive to the foreign concepts of science.”

Even before the paper was published, Hedin had spotted an opportunity for a new course. At Ball State, the Honors College often relies on professors to create and develop discussion-based classes and volunteer to teach them. Hedin pitched his contribution, which would be known as Honors 296, “The Boundaries of Science.” The heady course, according to the syllabus Hedin charted out, would focus on Big Bang cosmology, including arcane topics such as the “solar nebula theory of star formation” and “the Bohr model of the atom,” as well as more-philosophical quandaries, such as different worldviews and the relationship between beauty and truth. The dean of the Honors College, James Ruebel, along with his department chair at the time, David Ober, seemed pleased by the proposal and approved the course a year before it was ever taught.

“The class had an extremely Christian bias,” wrote one of Hedin’s former students.

So Hedin created a syllabus and launched it in the spring of 2007. The design of the course was simple. After each class discussion, students were required to summarize the main topics, but “more importantly, to give your thoughts and reflections, or even questions, about the material” in a half-page written response, according to the syllabus. There would be a quiz covering the basics of cosmology and the formation of stars and planets. And students needed to review a book relevant to the course, although that book didn’t need to be one of the several suggested on the syllabus. At the end of the semester, Hedin required students to submit a 1,500-word paper exploring and presenting their own ideas on one particular topic from the course.

Over the next six years, Hedin taught the class 11 times to 178 students. He was popular for his easy rapport. (On the student review site, students awarded Hedin a 4.0 on a five-point scale for overall quality.) Many of them seemed to enjoy Hedin’s teaching style—Honors 296 in particular. “One of the nicest guys I have ever met in my life,” one student commented in April 2010. “He tries his hardest to make something so boring interesting, but I still had to bring my laptop to stay awake. He will work with you to make sure you get something out of the class, if that is what you are trying to do. Couldn’t ask for a nicer guy.”

Other students, though, expressed concerns. “Extremely nice guy and an easy class,” a former student posted to the site in June 2010. “However, the class had an extremely Christian bias and he does not believe in evolution. Many of his views do not quite jive with those of mainstream science.” Around that same time, a few other students, as Hedin remembers it, expressed that same concern on an end-of-course survey. Hedin discussed the comments with the Honors College dean and the department chair, but the three collectively decided that those students had a reputation on campus for being outspoken atheists and brash in the way they expressed their beliefs. The comments were noted but not acted upon.

Then came the anonymous complaint. In April 2013, a local person reported Hedin to Dr. Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago evolutionary biology professor, an atheist, and the author of the book Why Evolution Is True. Days later, after checking out the whistleblower’s claims against the syllabus, which the anonymous source directed him to, Coyne posted a 1,600-word indictment of Hedin and the course on his blog under the headline “Science course at Ball State University sneaks in religion.”

Coyne accused Hedin of violating the First Amendment and proselytizing students under the guise of science. He described Hedin’s reading list for the course as “pro-religious.” Before he published the post, he wrote to Hedin’s department chair, Thomas Robertson, expressing his concerns. But Coyne says Robertson gave him the brush-off. He ended his post on an ominous note: “This will now go to the lawyers.”

And it did. Coyne alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wisconsin, and its attorney filed a complaint with Ball State in late April. The attorney for the group wrote university President Jo Ann Gora, complaining that Hedin’s class “takes your motto, ‘Education Redefined,’ too far. BSU appears to offer a class that preaches religion, yet gives students honors science credit.” USA Today and other national media outlets seized upon the story.

Ball State provost Terry King told the Muncie Star Press that the university took the complaint seriously and would investigate. In June 2013, the university took the unprecedented step of forming an ad hoc committee of four professors—of biology, philosophy, geology, and astronomy—to review the class. (The first three were Ball State professors; the fourth was from Indiana University.) Tony Proudfoot, a spokesman for Ball State, told IM the committee members were not available for an interview, and he would not release the report they issued, citing “the privacy of personnel records.”

Gora, who retired in June, also declined to comment on the case, at least not beyond a nearly 700-word statement she issued last July. The statement forbade intelligent design and creation science in the classroom. “Teaching religious ideas in a science course is clearly not appropriate,” she wrote. “Each professor has the responsibility to assign course materials and teach content in a manner consistent with the course description, curriculum, and relevant discipline. We are compelled to do so not only by the ethics of academic integrity but also by the best standards of our disciplines. As this [media] coverage has unfolded, some have asked if teaching intelligent design in a science course is a matter of academic freedom. On this point, I want to be very clear. Teaching intelligent design as a scientific theory is not a matter of academic freedom—it is an issue of academic integrity.”

Gora’s statement and the university’s handling of the affair drew widespread criticism from academic-freedom advocates and a group of conservative state lawmakers. In an op-ed for the Star Press headlined “Ball State fumbles handling of Hedin case,” Eric Kelly, a BSU professor of urban planning, argued that appointing an ad hoc committee to investigate the course strayed from proper protocol. He expressed concern that the fiat could lead to the administration micromanaging subject matter in future courses. “I accept and am inclined to agree with the president’s position in this rather one-sided debate, but I deplore the manner in which it was handled,” Kelly wrote.

It’s clear that discussion of the fiasco is still verboten in some campus circles.

In yet another Star Press op-ed, Daniel Murphy, a history faculty member at Hanover College and an academic-freedom advocate, panned the provost for failing to give Hedin a hearing in front of his peers, as university policy dictates: “King’s actions stand as a dangerous precedent and cast a chill over academic freedom at Ball State.”

Among the biggest critics of BSU’s handling of the case was the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank dedicated to advancing “Judeo-Christian” ideas and “Western principles,” according to its website. In September, John West, the group’s vice president, filed numerous public-records requests with BSU, and assailed them for not making the committee’s report public. Because Hedin’s class was not a straight science course, but a science and society course, West asserts that Hedin was in the right. “To shut down this conversation, especially in an Honors College seminar that’s supposed to deal with the interface between science and culture, is just bizarre and a disservice to students,” West says.

In an interesting development, a month before Gora issued her decree, BSU hired a new astronomy professor, Guillermo Gonzalez—who happens to be a senior fellow at West’s institute. In short order, Gonzalez, who claimed he was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007 for his views on intelligent design, issued a statement pledging to steer clear of the hot potato. “As I communicated to members of the department during my interviews, I plan to continue my research on astrobiology and stellar astrophysics,” he told The Ball State Daily. “I will not be discussing intelligent design in my classes.”
This March, a delegation of four Indiana lawmakers—state senators Dennis Kruse, Greg Walker, and Travis Holdman and state representative Jeffrey Thompson—wrote to Gora, raising questions about “whether academic freedom, free speech, and religious liberty have been respected by BSU in its treatment” of Hedin. On April 4, the delegation met with Gora on campus.

But the meeting’s proceedings remain shrouded in secrecy, raising questions about whether it might have violated the state’s open-door laws. “Ball State officials were very attentive to our requests and concerns during the April 4 meeting,” Kruse told the Star Press after the meeting. “A majority of issues have been resolved, and I look forward to working more on these matters concerning academic freedom with the university.” Through a spokesperson, Kruse declined an interview with IM.
Whatever transpired at the meeting, it was good for Hedin: He was promoted and remains in a tenure-track position. But it’s clear that discussion of the fiasco is still verboten in some campus circles. Thomas Robertson, chairperson of the physics and science department during the conflict, declined an interview with IM. And Ruebel, the Honors College dean who approved the original course six years before it was canceled, refused to comment.

Ober, chairperson emeritus of the physics and astronomy department and the first person to see Hedin’s syllabus as the acting chair before retiring in 2007, was willing to go on the record. He recalls Hedin as being a good colleague, well-accepted by students. Ober says that when he heard about the controversy surrounding Hedin’s class and his alleged proselytizing, he was perplexed. “A number of colleagues that I’ve spoken to in the department were thinking that wasn’t what they knew about the course,” he says. “The emphasis was on cosmology.”

This June, fresh from receiving his promotion and taking a few weeks of vacation, Hedin went to his bookshelf-lined office inside Cooper Physical Science Building to prepare for a summer class. He looked tan and wore a burgundy polo tucked into green cargo shorts, along with running shoes. Above his desk hung an inspirational calendar. The month’s verse was from Psalm 18:32: “It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure.”

Hedin is in the fourth year of a tenure process that usually takes seven. Proudfoot, the university spokesman, wouldn’t discuss Hedin’s promotion, other than to say that it was “nothing exceptional” and that the professor is “a valued member of Ball State’s faculty.” Hedin also maintains that the timing of his advancement was coincidental and denies ever teaching intelligent design or creationism. “I probably never even mentioned intelligent design,” he says. “And I never taught it as some system of truth or way of approaching the universe—that ‘this is the way you are to understand the universe.’ I taught scientific theory and scientific evidence, and students were allowed to make up their own mind as to whether that evidence was supportive of totally naturalistic evidence for everything, or whether it was supportive of a divine creator stepping in and saying ‘let it be.’ Their conclusions were their own business. All I was concerned about was that their conclusions were based in solid science.”

Hedin endorses the scientific dating of the universe, unlike some Creationists, who believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old. He also says he hasn’t been to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where a lifelike Adam and Eve stand in Eden while animatronic dinosaurs prowl around the garden’s rivers—a mecca for those who take a more literal view of the Bible’s six days of creation.

Hedin doesn’t know who reached out to Coyne. He contends that the list of suggested books on his syllabus—including titles such as Darwin’s Black Box, The Mind of God, and The Creator and the Cosmos—was disingenuously used to ignite the conflict. “They mischaracterized my bibliography as an assigned reading list,” he says.

Coyne faults the chairman of Hedin’s department, whom he says must have known there were problems with the syllabus and course but let them slide. “This wasn’t a personal battle for me,” the academic blogger says. “I didn’t want to win. I wanted science to win, and I’m glad it did.”

This fall, Hedin’s courseload includes “General Physics II,” “Energy, Technology, and Society,” and “Modern Physics.” Looking back on the two semesters since he last taught “The Boundaries of Science,” Hedin admits things have changed. He stares at the floor, searching for the right words once again. “It’s harder to teach,” he says. “It’s like I can’t even talk about what students are bringing up.”

Last fall, the first semester after the bad publicity, Hedin claims to have been particularly cautious about saying something potentially inflammatory in class, anything that would even come close to raising eyebrows. Still, at the end of the semester, one student complained in his review that Hedin’s faith had snuck into the course. The professor was astounded. “People hear what they want to hear,” he says.