You are here

A Setback for the ICR in Texas

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
A Setback for the ICR in Texas
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
Volume: 
28
Issue: 
2
Year: 
2008
Date: 
March–April
Page(s): 
11–15
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
When the Institute for Creation Research moved its headquarters from Santee, California, to Dallas, Texas, in June 2007, it expected to be able to continue offering a master's degree in science education from its graduate school. A preliminary assessment of the ICR's facilities by a committee from the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board described the educational program as "plausible," adding, "The proposed degree would be generally comparable to an initial master's degree in science education from one of the smaller, regional universities in the state." But the state's scientific and educational leaders voiced their opposition, and at its April 24, 2008, meeting, the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board unanimously voted to deny the ICR's request for a state certificate of authority to offer the degree.

It was not the first time that the ICR's graduate school was embroiled in regulatory controversy. The ICR first began to offer graduate degrees in 1981, choosing not to seek accreditation for the program: according to Raymond A Eve and Francis B Harrold's The Creationist Movement in Modern America (Boston: Twayne, 1991), "Henry Morris thinks it would be futile to try, since higher education is controlled by evolutionists" (p 122). But it applied for, and received, approval for the program from the state superintendent of public education, which was necessary for it to award degrees in California. In 1988, when it attempted to have the approval renewed, it encountered difficulties when the then superintendent of public instruction, Bill Honig, deemed its facilities and curriculum to be below the standard of comparable accredited schools.

Faced with a revocation of its state approval, the ICR filed suit. The case was eventually settled, and the ICR's graduate school was granted a religious exemption from the usual requirements for state approval. Meanwhile, the ICR was also moving to seek accreditation from a source presumably not "controlled by evolutionists" — the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, founded in 1979. As of 2008, TRACS requires candidate institutions to affirm a list of Biblical Foundations, including "the divine work of non-evolutionary creation including persons in God's image"; TRACS's own Biblical Foundations statement, offered as a model, affirms the "[s]pecial creation of the existing space-time universe and all its basic systems and kinds of organisms in the six literal days of the creation week."

TRACS became a federally recognized accreditation agency in 1991, when Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, overruling the recommendation of his advisors, approved it as such. The decision was controversial, even eliciting a short (and now hard-to-find) book, Where the TRACS Stop Short (Ambler [PA]: Institute on Religion and Law, 1993), from the degree-mill critic Steve Levicoff. After receiving approval from the Department of Education, TRACS promptly accredited the ICR's graduate school, thus contributing further to the controversy, for the chair of the board of directors of TRACS at the time was none other than Henry Morris, the ICR's founder and then president. Despite the controversy, the ICR's graduate school continued to enjoy TRACS accreditation until it voluntarily relinquished it in November 2007.

In the October 2007 issue of the ICR's publication Acts & Facts, its president John Morris explained:
The possibility of moving to Dallas surfaced when my brother, Dr Henry Morris III, discerned that a central location would be beneficial for ICR, with several possibilities for student services at nearby affiliated colleges. The many good churches and large numbers of ICR supporters living in North Texas made it a natural fit for the ministry. ... In 2006, ICR opened a distance education effort in Dallas, as well as the hub of ICR's internet ministries. ... As additional operational functions were assigned to the new Dallas office, the Board concluded that it was in ICR's best interests to move the entire ministry.
When the ICR moved to Dallas, however, its graduate school entered a new regulatory environment. TRACS is not recognized by the state of Texas, forcing the ICR to seek temporary state certification for its graduate school while it applies for accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. As a first step toward certification, a committee of Texas educators appointed by the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board (THECB) visited the ICR's facilities in Dallas to evaluate whether the ICR meets the legal requirements for state certification. The committee's report (available on-line at http://www.texscience.org/reviews/ICR-Site-Visit-Report-and-ICR-Response.pdf) described the educational program as "plausible". (The committee members were a librarian, an educational administrator, and a mathematician; none was professionally trained in biology, geology, or physics.)

NCSE's Eugenie C Scott disagreed with their judgment, telling the Dallas Morning News (2007 Dec 15), "It sounds like the committee may have just taken at face value what the ICR claims ... There's a huge gulf between what the ICR is doing and what they're doing at legitimate institutions like ... [the University of Texas] or Baylor." Inside Higher Ed reported (2007 Dec 17; available on-line at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/12/17/texas), "Some science groups are aghast by the idea that Texas would authorize master's degrees in science education that are based on complete opposition to evolution and literal acceptance of the Bible. And these groups are particularly concerned because the students in these programs would be people who are or want to be school teachers."

Although Patricia Nason, chair of the ICR's science education department, told the Dallas Morning News, "Our students are given both sides. They need to know both sides, and they can draw their own conclusion," the ICR's statement of faith includes the tenet, "All things in the universe were created and made by God in the six literal days of the creation week described in Genesis 1:1–2:3, and confirmed in Exodus 20:8–11. The creation record is factual, historical and perspicuous; thus all theories of origins or development which involve evolution in any form are false." Similarly, applicants to the ICR's graduate school are explicitly told that their answers to the essay questions on the application help to determine "your dedication to the Lord, the Word, and teaching creation science."

According to the Dallas Morning News's article, the ICR's graduate program "offers typical education classes, teaching such fundamentals as how to use lab equipment, the Internet, and PowerPoint in the classroom. But it also offers a class called 'Advanced Studies in Creationism.' And the course Web page for 'Curriculum Design in Science' gives this scenario: 'The school board has asked you to serve on a committee that is examining grades 6–12 science goals. ... Both evolutionist and creationist teachers serve on the curriculum committee. How will you convince them to include creation science as well as evolution in the new scope and sequence?'" The ICR's graduate school's website repeatedly declares, "ICR maintains that scientific creationism should be taught along with the scientific aspects of evolutionism in tax-supported institutions."

The Texas Commissioner of Higher Education, Raymund Paredes, was initially cagey about the committee's report. He told the San Antonio Express-News (2007 Dec 19), "Because this controversy is so potentially hot, we owe it to both sides to be absolutely fair in evaluating it. ... Maybe the real issue here is to put this proposal in the right category. Maybe it's not a program in science education. Maybe it's a program in creation studies. Then we have to decide whether that is a legitimate field or not." The New York Times (2007 Dec 19) reported, "Asked how the institute could educate students to teach science, Dr Paredes, who holds a doctorate in American civilization from the University of Texas and served 10 years as vice chancellor for academic development at the University of California, said, 'I don't know. I'm not a scientist.'"

The American Institute for Biological Sciences was quick to take a stand. Its president, NCSE Supporter Douglas Futuyma of SUNY Stony Brook, wrote in a December 28, 2007, letter to the THECB:
ICR is committed to advancing Young Earth Creationism, a literal view of the Bible that contends the earth is less than 10 000 years old. Young Earth Creationism has repeatedly been shown, legally and scientifically, to be a religious belief system and not a credible scientific explanation for the history of earth or the diversity of biological systems that have evolved on earth. ... It is unacceptable for the state to sanction the training of science educators committed to the practice of advancing their religious beliefs in a science classroom. ... The THECB will ill-serve science students if it certifies a science teacher education program based on a religious world-view rather than modern science.
Subsequently, the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board, which Paredes chairs, decided to review the assessment and to request further documentation from the ICR, rescheduling its decision from January 24, 2008, to April 24, 2008. Paredes explained to Education Week (2008 Jan 2) that the preliminary assessment focused on whether the ICR's graduate school is a stable institution with adequate resources. Now, however, the THECB would consider the merits of the program itself. "Our primary objective in looking at this program is to make sure any master's degree in science education will prepare teachers who can get students in high school ready to do college-level work in science," he said. NCSE's Joshua Rosenau was dubious about whether the ICR's program qualified, telling Education Week that presenting a creationist perspective as a rival to evolution is "presenting nonscience".

As part of the review, the Austin American-Statesman (2008 Jan 10) reported, "Paredes has asked an informal panel of scientists and science educators to comment on the institute's curriculum, which is flavored with a Christian worldview." Although members of the panel were asked not to talk to the press, the newspaper inferred, "It's likely that panelists favor a curriculum free of creationist views," citing the fact that one panelist signed a letter protesting the Texas Education Agency's treatment of Chris Comer (see RNCSE 2008 Jan/Feb; 28 [1]: 4–7), who was forced to resign for not remaining "neutral" about teaching evolution. Paredes stressed, however, that his goal was "making sure both ICR and the scientific and science education community have a full opportunity to express their views on this proposal."

Paredes also reportedly floated the idea that the ICR's graduate school revise its goal to offer a degree not in science education but in creation studies, a proposal that Steven Schafersman of the grassroots pro-science group Texas Citizens for Science applauded, telling the American-Statesman, "It would be churlish to deny ICR the ability to grant a graduate degree when we allow theology schools and Bible colleges to grant graduate degrees ... What we object to is letting them grant a degree in science education. That is a prevarication." However, a spokesperson for the THECB would not confirm that the idea of a degree in creation studies was suggested, telling the Dallas Morning News (2008 Jan 11) that "no specific recommendations" have been made.

Interviewed by Inside Higher Ed (2008 Jan 16; available on-line at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/01/16/icr), Paredes disclosed that he asked the ICR for further information regarding some specific areas of concern. He wanted to know how the ICR planned to ensure that students in the on-line program would be exposed to the experimental side of science. He also expressed concern about the ICR's curriculum — "Their curriculum doesn't line up very well with the curriculum available in conventional master of science programs here in Texas," he said. "I wanted them to either revise the curriculum or explain why it departed from the norm" — and its claims about the research conducted by its faculty members.

While the application was on hold, the THECB was inundated by e-mails. Invoking the Texas Public Information Act, both the Austin American-Statesman and the Dallas Morning News received almost 300 pages of e-mails to the THECB, supporting and opposing the ICR's application. "Many of the notes are from Texas," the Morning News (2008 Jan 23) observed. "But others come from all corners of the US and the world — from Florida to the Philippines, Nevada to Nigeria." Among the missives in opposition were "some of the state's leading physicians and scientists," the American-Statesman (2008 Jan 24) reported, "including a Nobel laureate [Robert F Curl Jr of Rice University, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996] who warned that Texas is at risk of becoming 'the laughingstock of the nation.'"

Curl was not the only Texas laureate to express opposition to the ICR's application. Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, wrote, "it would be a blow to science education in Texas, and an embarrassment for Texas." Alfred G Gilman — a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1994; executive vice president, provost, and dean at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School; and a Supporter of NCSE — asked, "How can Texas simultaneously launch a war on cancer and approve educational platforms that submit that the universe is 10 000 years old?" (In 2003, Gilman was active in resisting attempts to undermine the treatment of evolution in the textbooks then under consideration by the state board of education; see RNCSE 2003 Sep–Dec; 23 [5–6]: 8.)

Also weighing in was Daniel W Foster of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the president of the Academy of Medicine, Engineering, and Science of Texas, which seeks "to provide broader recognition of the state's top achievers in medicine, engineering and science, and to build a stronger identity for Texas as an important destination and center of achievement in these fields"; its members include over 200 Texas members of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Academy of Engineering. "We should only teach true science in Texas schools and universities, not pseudoscience," Foster wrote to the THECB. "It is crucially important for our students and for the state. [I]t will be a very negative thing if our state becomes labeled as anti-science." The Texas Academy of Sciences and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study also offered their input (see sidebars, p 14 and 15).

As the meeting of the THECB neared, the Texas Freedom Network issued a press release on April 21, 2008, reporting, "A survey of science faculty at Texas colleges and universities reveals overwhelming opposition to state approval for a master's degree in science education from a Dallas-based creationist group." The on-line survey, conducted by Raymond A Eve for the Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education, polled 881 science faculty members at fifty public and private Texas universities about whether the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board should certify a master's degree in science education from the Institute for Creation Research. Nearly 200 faculty members responded, with 185 (95% of respondents) opposed to certifying the program and 6 (3%) in favor.

"Our universities should be training science teachers who can provide a 21st-century education in Texas classrooms," said Kathy Miller, president of the TFN Education Fund. "Approving degree programs that instead promote a false conflict between science and faith would be a disservice to students and a threat to our state's reputation as a center for science and research." The press release (available on-line at http://www.tfn.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5353) contained a sampling of comments from the faculty members surveyed: for example, Matthew Rowe, a biologist at Sam Houston State University, commented, "The great state of Texas can ill-afford either the cost, or the international embarrassment, of conflating faith-based religious doctrine with scientific empiricism."

At its April 24, 2008, meeting, the THECB unanimously voted to deny the ICR's request. The board's vote accorded with a recommendation issued on April 23, 2008, by the board's Academic Excellence and Research Committee, which in turn was based on a recommendation by Paredes, the Texas Commissioner of Higher Education. According to a THECB press release issued on April 23, 2008, "Paredes based the recommendation on two considerations: 1) that ICR failed to demonstrate that the proposed degree program meets acceptable standards of science and science education; and 2) that the proposed degree is inconsistent with Coordinating Board rules which require the accurate labeling or designation of programs ... Since the proposed degree program inadequately covers key areas of science, it cannot be properly designated either as 'science' or 'science education.'"

At the committee meeting, the Dallas Morning News (2008 Apr 23) reported, Paredes said, "Evolution is such a fundamental principle of contemporary science it is hard to imagine how you could cover the various fields of science without giving it the proper attention it deserves as a foundation of science." "In insisting on a literal interpretation of biblical creation," Paredes added, the ICR's science education program "gives insufficient coverage to conventional science and does not adequately prepare students in the field of science education." Before the vote, the newspaper reported, "the board heard comment from several persons, most of whom urged rejection of the proposal. Among them was Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science (TCfS), who said the ICR was a Christian ministry rather than a science organization that was primarily interested in promoting pseudoscience." (A copy of Schafersman's testimony is available on-line at http://www.texscience.org/documents/thecb-april2008-testimony.htm.)

The Austin American-Statesman (2008 Apr 24) editorially applauded the board's decision, writing, "We applaud the board for setting this precedent in what will surely be a long series of battles involving science education in Texas. After the wars over the teaching of both evolution and intelligent design that have splintered Kansas for the past nine years, Texans can breathe at least a momentary sigh of relief. ... Paredes and the coordinating board took a correct and principled stand in denying the creationist institute's science course." Also offering plaudits was TCfS's Steven Schafersman, who told the American-Statesman (2008 Apr 24) that Paredes's recommendation was "very strong and courageous." Similarly, describing the recommendation to the Texas Observer's blog (2008 Apr 23), he said that it was a "decisive and strong decision based on sound reasoning."

Despite the board's vote, the issue is not definitively resolved yet. The ICR will now have 45 days to file an appeal or 180 days to reapply for a certificate of authority. After the committee's vote, the Dallas Morning News reported, the ICR's chief executive officer Henry Morris III "said the institute may revise its application or take its case to court. 'We will pursue due process,' he told the board. 'We will no doubt see you in the future.'" ICR's graduate school's website currently contains the explanation, "ICR is currently examining its legal options regarding how it can best serve the educational 'gaps' [sic] of Texas residents" (). For now, however, the ICR seems to be taking its case to the court of public opinion, issuing a series of press releases blaming "external pressure based on ideological biases" for the THECB's decision, complaining of viewpoint discrimination and ad hominem attacks, and bemoaning that "the state of Texas is barring some students from getting a comprehensive science education."

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
branch@ncseweb.org