Where’s the Discovery Institute when you need a defender of academic freedom?

So, after all the kvetching the Discovery Institute did over the Guillermo Gonzalez tenure denial case, why aren’t they rushing to the defense of one Steve Bitterman, a community college professor at Southwest Community College here in Iowa. The case is still developing, but what is known is that Bitterman was fired last week–apparently for teaching that Genesis isn’t literal:

A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.

“I’m just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master’s degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job,” Bitterman said.

A student of Mr. Bitterman’s was on a conservative radio show earlier today, and said that Bitterman took a “mocking” tone with the class, which ticked her and some of her fellow students off–a few of whom threatened lawsuits. If this is what happened, I can understand perhaps taking Mr. Bitterman aside to caution him to increase his sensitivities to student’s religious beliefs and teach without belittling–but firing him 48 hours later without an attempt at discussion? For teaching something that even many Christians accept?

Iowa State religion professor Hector Avalos notes:

“I don’t know the circumstances, but if he’s teaching something about the Bible and says it is a myth, he shouldn’t be fired for that because most academic scholars do believe this is a myth, the story of Adam and Eve,” Avalos said. “So it’d be no different than saying the world was not created in six days in science class.

“You don’t fire professors for giving you a scientific answer.”

Well, apparently they do at SCC. As far as I know, administrators haven’t responded and are probably trying to brush this under the rug. Of course, I expect the DI will pick up the cause any day now…

[Edited to add: the Register has an additional piece on the evolving (heh) story:

Students of a fired Iowa community college instructor say they were offended more by his brash teaching style than the remarks about the Bible that he claims led to his dismissal last week.


But students in the class, which was transmitted to a classroom in Osceola over the state fiber-optic network, say Bitterman also told them to question their religious beliefs and at one point in the heated debate told one of the Osceola students, Kristen Fry, to “pop a Prozac.”

Fry said she left class in tears.

I really wish this was recorded somewhere. The story mentions the class was broadcast over ICON (the Iowa communications network), but one can use that without necessarily taping the class. Was the remark in jest? Truly nasty? Either way, certainly not a bright thing to say, but worth losing a job over? I’m sure this isn’t the last of this yet….

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  1. While I agree that the DI would jump all over a case like this to claim persecution if the details were reversed, it’s possible we don’t know enough about the particulars of the case to be sure exactly why he was fired: there might be more to this story.

    Of course, back to the DI we DO know the reasons GG didn’t get tenure, but hasn’t stopped the DI from screaming about how it was viewpoint discrimination.

  2. Even though some of the folks at DI might agree that Genesis is not to be taken literally, they won’t say a word. That would bite the Ahmanson dominionist hand that feeds them.

  3. Bad,

    Absolutely–as I noted, the case is still developing, and it would be helpful if the college would at least give some indication as to their reason for termination.

  4. Not to worry, I’m sure that any day now that vast horde of “liberal, moderate Christians” we keep hearing about will rush to Bitterman’s defense.

  5. Good point, Tegumai. I don’t see this happening any time soon, but I do dream of a day when these so-called “liberal, moderate Christians” will speak out and act on what they claim. By not doing so, they contribute to a growing intolerance for differing views in our society – in particular, an intolerance to rational thinking and open inquiry.

  6. My religious history professor, Dr. Russell Lester, who was also an interim pastor for central Texas churches, taught that the stories of Genesis were myths and that evolution is a fact. He’s probably deceased by now but some students reportedly tried, unsucessfully, to get him fired.

    I’ve seen data indicating that southern baptists have the lowest level of education of the major North American religious groups, and that Episcopalians have the highest. I think its true that as people gain education they become more comfortable with the idea of myths as cultural markers as opposed to taking a more pejorative view of myths.

  7. Moderate Christians do exist. But you see, we believe in tolerance, which is precisely why we tend not to go up in arms against those who for whatever reason insist on believing that the world was created in a week. We think it’s silly to get all up in arms over what amounts to a religious view.

    And I think some of the fundamentalists are aware of that, and exploit it. Because we don’t think it’s appropriate to make a big fuss about one’s own religion, the vocal fundamentalists have a field day.

  8. A. Cline says on About Atheism that he was teaching… get this Western Civilization! Heh. You honestly should bring up the Bible here and there to teach that class, and you certainly shouldn’t teach it as literal.

  9. Moderate Christians do exist. But you see, we believe in tolerance…

    I see, so you’re tolerant of intolerance. I am ever so impressed.

  10. I’ve taught Genesis as literature / mythology many times. I usually precede my introduction of these topics with a sort of disclaimer that I’m not out to insult anyone’s beliefs & that many texts are read by many people as scripture, but that this is a secular university & so we’ll be talking about the texts in a secular way . . . Usually, before I teach Genesis I teach Gilgamesh, which tends to put the Eden & Creations stories (written 600 years apart by people in very different sorts of cultural circumstances) into context for students. I’m nice about it. I don’t mock anyone. But. I have no problem mocking biblical literalism. Bitterman ought to be defended on grounds of truth & academic freedom. I take the approach I do because I think I’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but I don’t discount the bracing qualities of vinegar & I sometimes worry about the cloying properties of honey. It’s strategic. (I have tenure, by the way.) One thing is certain: Steve Bitterman did not receive anything remotely resembling due process & if there are going to be any law suits filed, it will be Bitterman who is filing them.

  11. Well excuse me so much but I am a liberal Christian and it happens I do rush to the defense of putting good science in the classroom and keeping creationism out. I’m a longtime supporter of People for the American Way, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, etc. through letter-writing and donations, even (grab your pearls ladies!) in my prayers.

    On the Bitterman story, I was all set to email the SCC and defend Bitterman, but granted I can be impulsive. So for now I’m taking Tara and Bad’s advice and seeing how the story develops. On the Gonzalez case I wrote to the dean expressing support for their decision, as a Christian and an evolutionist. And many people I know would do the same. Anybody who says liberal Christians don’t exist or never fight for good science and good scholarship is just stuck in their own prejudice.

  12. I see yet another manifestation of this inane dogma that we have to “respect” religion. That genesis is a myth that at the very least cannot be taken literally is a reality, it is not the job of academic institutions to perpetuate the ignorance of Biblical literalism.

    I’m so pissed, I can feel my pulse in my eyelid.

  13. I also posted this at PT. I don’t normally cross post, but if the facts are as it appears in this matter, its worth going for maximum visibility.

    My only problem with what Tara says is that it is nowhere near strong enough.

    First, there is no evidence that the professor actually mocked the students. That is apparently a characterization of the student. Perhaps the student felt offended and challenged by what might have been a strong tone by the professor. Professors shouldn’t have to go around tip toeing.

    So, my view is that there should have been not even been a discrete talking to by the University administrators with the Professor. The only talking to should have been by the University administrator with the student in telling the student that at a college one is going to have their world view challenged.

    Incidentally, the AAUP just recently released a statement opposing the “hostile learning environment” standard of harassment.

    Obviously, this professor was not tenured (assuming this community college has a tenure process) and may not even have been tenure track. This just goes to show how little real academic freedom there is in practice unless and until someone is actually tenured.

    I hope that we will get more of the facts of this story. Tenured or not, if this professor really was fired only for what he stated, he may have a good legal case. Then again, the college can always claim it was protecting the “learning environment”, that it did not fire him for his views but how they were expressed, or even that he did not have a right to interject an opinion on the curriculum.

    Times are indeed very perilous for academic freedom and the courts have been chipping away at it steadily.

  14. a discrete talking to by the University administrators with the Professor.

    As opposed to numerous hints scattered here and there?

    at one point in the heated debate told one of the Osceola students, Kristen Fry, to “pop a Prozac.”

    Because the alternative, “Don’t get your knickers in a knot”, is politically worse. Today’s students would appear to cry too easily.

    Damn it, if there’s any truth in this (like Tara, I’m waiting for more details to emerge when the worst of the brouhaha boils over), Bitterman’s employers suck.

    If they really did turf him for criticizing religion, they are destined for the eternal fire. That’s my position as a Christian.

  15. Bitterman told a female student to “pop a Prozac.” He then defended himself by saying the student “was screeching at me.” I bet he wouldn’t have made that medication crack if the student was named Kevin rather than Kristen. It sounds like Bitterman needs more respect for his female students. There really is no excuse for berating a student to tears or acting so obnoxiously.

  16. Newsflash! Professors (like many humans) can be jerks. Worth a reprimand? Sure. Firing? Not so much.

    Do I think that people should behave in a respectful way? Absolutely. Do I think that people are too thin skinned sometimes? Without a doubt.

    Do I often self-interrogate like Rumsfeld? Not so much.

  17. AnnaZy, I don’t think anybody said that moderate Christians do not exist. I certainly didn’t. I was questioning how “moderate” these Christians actually are when they allow fundamentalist Christians to speak for all Christians on a national level and to engage in activities which (you) moderates claim do NOT represent (you)them. I hold that I do not see much, if any, intervention on the part of the moderate Christians in addressing/countering this extremism in their religion.

    Exceptions to the rule of silence on the part of moderates (which, thankfully, you seem to be) are not plentiful. More often than not I hear sentiments by self-proclaimed moderates (like Callie’s above) about “tolerance” to justify their silence and inaction.

  18. It’s been alleged here that the student, Kristen, was pretty out of control before Bitterman made the Prozac remark. And presumably her alleged screaming was set off by Bitterman’s insistence that the Adam and Eve story is a myth, not by any sexist or insulting remarks Bitterman directed at her, personally.

    So I really, really dislike seeing this turned into an issue about sexism. A lot of us XXs fought hard for the relative lack of discrimination we face today. Letting a student bully her professor into backing down on a widely accepted point of fact, just because she doesn’t want her Mommy and Daddy’s ideas challenged, isn’t helping women to take a full role in society. It’s keeping them childlike and dependent.

    If it turns out that Bitterman has a long history of discriminatory behavior toward women, that he’s been warned, etc. etc., then it’s an issue of sexism. But nothing like that has been alleged. Until it is, keep sexism out of it. Part of being equal is that sometimes we have to take some lumps.

  19. …and at one point in the heated debate told one of the Osceola students, Kristen Fry, to “pop a Prozac.”

    Fry said she left class in tears.

    Sounds like something stronger than Prozac should have been recommended. Her first job performance review is gonna result in a suicide…

  20. Me: I’m sure that any day now that vast horde of “liberal, moderate Christians” we keep hearing about…

    AnnaZy: Anybody who says liberal Christians don’t exist or never fight for good science and good scholarship is just stuck in their own prejudice.

    OK, so far we have a vast horde of 1. Any more volunteers?

  21. Well, I guess that the reaction of those students clearly shows why they are in a CC and not at a University/College.

  22. What is wrong with a heated debate in a humanities class? This is college for Cthulhu’s sake!

    At least the students are listening and not bored. If you just want passive sponges, go to Walmart and buy a pack.

    One of the purposes of college is to get people to think rationally and critically.

    Unless Bitterman has a history of over the top obnoxious behavior, he is probably in the clear. We don’t know what happened except for bits and pieces.

    The first thing the college should have done is interview all the students in the class and watch the videotape if there was one. And maybe even interview and review his previous classes wherever they may have been. It could well be that there was a small coterie of late adolescents who for the first time in their life heard something different from their fundie upbringing and panicked or went ballistic. For all we know, the rest of the students thought it was great entertainment and the cultists were being weird and provincial.

    As one of the posters above noted, there seems to have been zero due process in investigating and adjudicating Bittermans case. Chances are the dean or VP was a fundie death cultist and took the opportunity to smack down a heathen infidel devil worshipper atheist. Religious discrimination anyone?

    IMO, Bitterman needs to file a lawsuit and get the facts presented in court under oath and subpoena the paper trail, assuming there is one. He probably won’t get his job back but if the facts are anywhere near what they appear to be, the school would be well advised to settle quickly and out of court. Time is not on their side and most likely the facts are not either.

  23. I am a liberal Christian, and I had already blogged on this prior to the date of this post. I will note that I was not directly getting involved in this issue, but rather referencing it as part of a larger battle against Bible classes in public schools (which I oppose). I am also a board member of Florida Citizens for Science.

  24. I have taught as a part-time instructor at a community college in California. The entire CC system here is on the backs of partime faculty who recieve no health care, job security or seniority. Plus they are paid less per course hour than the full timers. The faculty unions are by and for the full timers and are actually hostile toward part timers.

    As a supporting example to Bitterman’s case, I was fired by the department chair woman the same week I was named “Faculty of the Year” and given awards for sevice and teaching by the Board of Trustees, and the Associated Student Association.

    There was no recourse. My part time contract allowed me to be fired by any administrative position for any reason at any time. The full time faculty at California CCs are still largely former high school teachers recruited in the 1970s, and graduate school failures dumped with “terminal masters degrees.”

    Bitterman has not got a prayer.

  25. Don’t we still live in the internet age? Where everything that’s transmitted anywhere is recored somewhere? Where is this tape? If the University is sure they were right aobut their choice, shouldn’t they release the tape to show the damning evidence against this Professor?

    I’ll admit, I’m not really ready to stand up for this guy, cause on every iteration of the story more and more detail pops out that it wasn’t just a comment in a class. But seriously, I’ve worked at schools in Iowa before, and all this stuff is on tape. Probably several places.

  26. I still wonder if Dr. Bitterman doesn’t have a pretty good breach of contract case. The college hired him to teach western civilization. He did. They fired him for it.

    Even in a powerful employment-at-will state, there is some expectation that when one signs on to do an agreed-upon-task, one will not be fired for doing what was agreed upon.

  27. I think the reasonable, intelligent people who are trying to fight all this “let’s put religion into the class and call it fact” routine are fighting this all wrong.

    You wan’t to know the quickest way to get the fundies themselves passing laws separating religion from academia? Give them what they want…or at least…what they say they want…in the extreme.

    They wan’t “both” sides of the existence debate taught?

    O.k. but there’s more than TWO sides to the existence debate. They want THEIR religious myth of creation taught in the class?

    Then to be fair…we have to teach EVERY RELIGIONS creation myth in the class! What would all these fundies say if the Scientology view point of creation were taught in class? Every religion has a creation myth. Most don’t take them as anything more than a myth. It just seems it’s the fundie Christians who feel THEIR creation myth is worthy of being taught in the schools as fact.

    How about teaching various native American beliefs about how the rivers were formed by great snakes. What about the old Asian myth that the Chow dog has a purple tongue because the chow was the great spirits companion, and as he was painting the sky blue, he dropped some ink and the chow followed him along and licked up any drops of “sky ink”. I’m serious. With our tongues in our cheeks, let’s teach this, all of this as “fact”. Just tell the Christians that we have to respect everyones creation myth if we respect theirs.

    Of course, seeing how many religions there are, and all the crazy stories most of them have regarding how everything came to be, we won’t have much time for any other subjects.

    We should do this for nothing else than to get a place like the Discovery institute to file a lawsuit claiming “religious beliefs” are being taught as scientific fact in public class rooms. Can you hear the fundy students shreek when the professor has to cover Scientology beliefs about everything coming from aliens in outer space? Why are Christians so…arrogant about the myths of their religion? I just don’t see any other faith screaming to have public school students indoctrinated with their fables.

  28. Maybe I am a traditionalist, but the concept of the six-day creation as an alegory goes back at least as far as St. Augustine (both in “Confessions” and in a treatise on Genesis). A trait I like in Augustine, however, is not just his concept of “time” (which is much analogous to the lines of reasoning found in Paul Davies’ “About Time”–and about the relativity of time measurement, the meaninglessness of time before creation or before creation of a means of measurement, the meaninglessness of the concept of “day” outside of the context of earth/sun rotations, etc.), but also his concept that he could draw his conclusions from his reading of Genesis, and others might disagree; but this disagreement should not permit either he or his opponents to state the other had to be mistaken. In the realm of cosmological speculation, as sure as you might be in your own conclusions, where truth is unknowable, error lies in the assertion that your opponent is wrong.

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