02 September 2007

Dubious Documents: The Case of the Vanishing Letter

Baylor University is a Baptist institution located in Waco Texas. From Wikipedia I learn that the university is working on an ambitious program to, among other things, "Establish an environment where learning can flourish," "Develop a world-class faculty," "Attract and support a top-tier student body," "Provide outstanding academic facilities," and "Achieve a two-billion dollar endowment." Under these circumstances it is easy to understand why they would prefer not to have tools and cranks hanging around their campus. Therefore Baylor University's decision to distance itself from an "Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory" run by notorious IDian William Dembski in association with Robert Marks, a professor of engineering should not be a surprise to anybody. If it really did make such a decision.

Somebody at Uncommon Descent claims to have received a communication from John Lilley, president of Baylor University. The text given there reads:
The removal of Prof. Robert Marks' so-called "lab" on the Baylor server is entirely consistent with Baylor's stance on academic freedom. Prof. Marks was hired to do research and obtain grants for work in engineering, not to devote the bulk of his time to work in religion. I am not moved by Prof. Marks' protestations that he is working in the field of intelligent design and that this work falls under his job description. Judge John E. Jones III ruled decisively in Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design is religion, and that's good enough for me. We have a religious studies program here at Baylor as well as a seminary. Unfortunately, Prof. Marks is not qualified to serve in either of these programs otherwise I would recommend his transfer.

In any case, academic freedom does not warrant the toleration of labs and groups willy-nilly. Surely you would not object if I took measures similar to those I took with Prof. Marks' lab if a Baylor history professor proposed to start a "holocaust reexamination group" or a physics professor here proposed to found a "zodiac and astrology lab." Academic freedom comes to an end where reason and common sense give way to ignorance and nonsense. I plan to issue an official statement concerning Baylor's stance on intelligent design in coming months. The short of it is that ID is not welcome here in Waco and professors who want to work in this area can do so on their own time.

Thank you for your concerns. I hope that we can put this matter to rest quickly and that Prof. Marks can get back to being a productive member of the Baylor community.
The communication is signed "JL."

The thing that struck me immediately about it was the tone. I'm sorry, but this thing just didn't read to me like the work of a university president. It's not that all university presidents write alike--but they usually withdraw quietly under a cloud of unctuousness, rather than to strike a combative note, at least in issues like this. Phrases like "so-called 'lab,'" "that's good enough for me," "willy-nilly," and "ID is not welcome here" don't ring true to me. Of course JL could be a different breed of university president. I decided to check him out.

Here is a sample of John Lilley's prose, taken from the Baylor University website:
The Board of Regents bestowed a great honor, a challenge and an opportunity in its invitation for me to serve as Baylor's 13th president. After more than 25 years of leading universities in Pennsylvania and Nevada, it is a great privilege to return to the institution that had such a transforming effect on my life.

I look forward to serving alongside the more than 1,800 faculty and staff who have invested themselves in this great university. It is apparent to me that everyone associated with Baylor wants it to be in the ranks of America's top universities.

To accomplish that, we need to be intentional about our mission as a Christian university in the historic Baptist tradition, and we need to provide inspiring teaching/mentorship while increasing our research and creative endeavors. These are goals that have been consistently embraced by the Board of Regents, the Faculty Senate, the Staff Council, Student Government and many other Baylor constituents.

In the weeks since my election as president, I have spent many hours meeting with regents, administrative leaders, faculty, staff, students and alumni leaders. The primary purpose of these meetings has been to listen. One of the things I have heard is that the natural disagreements in our academic life need to be spoken in a more respectful manner, one that is consistent with the Christian community of which we are a part.

Over the next few weeks, I will be asking the university community to help in identifying the specific objectives that will allow us to achieve the two goals mentioned above. This process will allow all of us to help set priorities for strengthening current programs and for creating new programs and for the allocation and reallocation of resources and space. That collaboration can build consensus if we are successful in communicating more effectively.

I am eager to engage more of you in the days ahead as we work together to make stronger this university which all of us serve and so dearly love.
Now that's what a university president writes like. I particularly invite your attention to the part where he comments on the need to deal with "natural disagreements in our academic life ... in a more respectful manner, one that is consistent with the Christian community of which we are a part." Come on--does that really sound at all like the guy that wrote the letter Uncommon Descent claimed to have received?

I'd got this far in looking things over when I had to deal with the real world. It's my sister-in-law's birthday, and cake and ice-cream were in order up the street at my brother's house. Before I left I checked Uncommon Descent again, finding now that they were now claiming that this letter was a parody. When I got back home, bloated on pound cake and appetizers, the letter had vanished completely. Fortunately PZ Myers had noted the letter, and his post sent me to this link at Panda's Thumb, where a screen-shot preserves the letter in all its glory. Otherwise I might have started wondering if I had imagined the whole thing.

Now, I know something about parody, at least enough to recognize a parody when I see it. Whatever this letter was supposed to be, it was not a parody. Compare the styles of the two documents quoted above. Is there any similarity? If the author of the first thought he was anywhere close to parodying the author of the second item, he was kidding himself.

Whatever the intentions of the author, what the first is is a common, or garden, fake. There is no element of humor, satire, or exaggeration in it. The only purpose I can see is to stir IDians up against John Lilley in particular, and Baylor University in general. If it was intended as a joke of some kind, apologies are in order. If not--well, then, words fail me.

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