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GSU professor facing "preaching" complaints


November 24, 2014

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    Georgia Southern University officials are investigating a complaint that Dr. Tom McMullen crosses the line to preaching in his history classes.
    McMullen, a tenured associate professor in the history department, has taught at Georgia Southern for almost 24 years. He teaches upper-level courses, including "The Scientific Revolution" and "Science and Religion," as well as general history classes.
    In an Oct. 22 letter to GSU President Dr. Brooks Keel, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science noted that McMullen's courses include some in the honors program.
    "However, it is our information that McMullen uses class time to proselytize students and advance his personal religion, Christianity," the groups stated in the letter. It was signed by Freedom From Religion Foundation co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dr. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist famous for his advocacy of atheism and criticism of creationism.
    The advocacy groups acknowledged that McMullen, particularly as a historian with a focus on science, could legitimately talk to students about the development of scientific ideas.
    "He could even legitimately discuss religious doctrines masquerading as science, such as young earth creationism and intelligent design," the letter stated. "However, it appears that McMullen does not present these as religious ideas lacking scientific merit. Instead, McMullen presents these religious beliefs as scientific fact."
    Filling seven pages, the letter cites anonymous student testimonials from the website RateMyProfessor.com. The advocacy groups stated that McMullen gives extra credit to students for writing about his personal religious beliefs.
    The Freedom From Religion Foundation's involvement began with a single student complaint, but this was backed up by input from a few other students and by online research, foundation staff attorney Andrew Seidel said in a phone interview.
    Last semester, in fact, McMullen offered an extra credit assignment that involved seeing the movie God's Not Dead. The advocacy groups' letter calls this film "an argument for converting to Christianity and loathing atheists in movie form."
    The letter also cites model answers to essay questions from an exam study guide McMullen gave students.
For the essay topic "Discuss the pros and cons of Darwin's idea of evolution (descent, by modification and natural selection, from a common ancestor to man, complex species)," the model answer gave only two lines of "pros" but 11 lines of "cons."
    Among the cons, the model answer asserted that there is evidence that the earliest animals were very diverse, that extinction, but not evolution, is seen today, and that "the implications of evolution's naturalism also undercut Judeo-Christian morality, replacing it with notions like ‘might makes right' and that the ‘unfit' do not deserve to survive."      The Freedom From Religion and Richard Dawkins foundations had Dr. Jerry Coyne, another evolutionary biologist known for his criticisms of creationism and arguments from intelligent design, review these materials.
    The letter quotes Coyne as saying, "virtually everything [McMullen] says about evolution is dead wrong. He's teaching lies to students and pushing a religious viewpoint."

McMullen's stance
    "I don't try to convert anybody," McMullen said in an interview. "In some of my classes, like for instance, World History I, we're doing Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and then Christianity, and then later Islam, and also, I might add Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism."
    However, he makes no secret of his own Christian beliefs, tracing his conversion to a time when he worked among scientists in government labs. His criticisms of some prevailing scientific theories, he acknowledges, are also well-known.
    McMullen's website, found through a link from the GSU History Department staff and faculty page, includes talks he has given, and opinion letters and monographs he has written over the years with titles such as "The Fish-Land Fossil Fraud," "The Biblical Basis of Modern Science" and "Introductory Scientific and Biblical Arguments for a Young Earth."
    His homepage has the Georgia Southern University banner at the top, but a disclaimer at the bottom states that the content of such pages is not sanctioned by the university and does not represent its opinions.
    McMullen argues that the Big Bang theory of the universe's origins departs from the cause-and-effect basis of science by offering no cause for the origin event. He rejects evolution, at least when it means descent of all species from a single starting point.
    "I don't buy that we descended from a common ancestor," McMullen told the Statesboro Herald. "I don't accept that as a scientist. I was an agnostic, thought science had the answers and, investigating science, I realized science didn't have all of the answers, including descent from a common ancestor, and then came to believe in God."
    McMullen's doctorate is in the history and philosophy of science. One of his two civilian master's degrees is a Master of Science, and his bachelor's degree was in chemical engineering. He served 20 years in the Air Force and retired as a major. Military history is another of his specialties. He also sometimes teaches a class on the history of flight.
    In discussing the role of science in history, McMullen talks about a number of scientists and philosophers whose views have been controversial, he noted, listing examples.
    "So we cover a lot of topics that could be interpreted as me preaching in the classroom. I don't preach creationism," McMullen said. "Basically, we've got across-the-board, broad-brush charges by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Dawkins' Foundation."
    The extra credit assignment involving God's Not Dead was to write about one particular scene, in which a professor and a student debate whether God exists, McMullen said.
    With two classes given this option, he said, about half the students wrote about the movie, and all who did so received full extra credit. He said he also offered another extra credit option but no students asked for it.
    This semester, McMullen gave students an extra-credit choice of writing about a talk he gave on John F. Darly Jr., a local man who served as a World War II medic on D-Day in Europe and was later killed in action on Iwo Jima. The alternative was to write about McMullen's paper "No Evidence for Evolution: Scientists' Research and Darwinism."
    The majority of students who took the extra credit, he said, chose to write about the Darly talk, which he also made available online.
    McMullen confirmed that the model essay answer with the 11 lines of cons and two lines of pros for evolution was his.
    In every case, he said, students can disagree with him without being penalized.
    "They can. I don't mark them down or anything like that," McMullen said. "They can disagree. That's what the whole thing about academia is, you know, that there's a freedom of thought to examine different issues."

The investigation

    But the Freedom From Religion and Richard Dawkins foundations alleged that, crossing the line from teaching to preaching, McMullen "has created serious constitutional problems" and hurts the university's reputation.
    The groups cited decisions in which courts have ruled that teachers and professors must keep their personal religious views out of public classrooms. They asked the university to investigate thoroughly.
    GSU Associate Vice President for Legal Affairs Maura Copeland, in an Oct. 30 letter to Barker and Gaylor, said that the university is doing just that, and "will take appropriate follow-up action" based on the results of its investigation.
    McMullen said university officials have his evaluations for perhaps the past five years and the syllabuses for all his courses. He has submitted his tests and extra-credit offerings for the past two years to the investigating officials, he said.
    "As a public university, Georgia Southern is well aware of its great responsibility to abide by all provisions of the Constitution of the United States of America, including the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment," Copeland wrote in her letter.

    Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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