After investigating a complaint, Georgia Southern University has directed Dr. Emerson T. “Tom” McMullen, an associate professor of history, not to discuss his “religious beliefs or opinions under the guise of University courses.”
That directive and some specific restrictions are in a Dec. 5 memo addressed to McMullen from Dr. Curtis Ricker, the dean of the GSU College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. McMullen signed the memo acknowledging he received it, but tells the Statesboro Herald that he has reservations about the memo and the whole investigation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, in an Oct. 22 letter to GSU President Dr. Brooks Keel, alleged that “McMullen uses class time to proselytize students and advance his personal religion, Christianity.” The university promised to investigate.
The resulting memo quotes extensively from the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ 1991 ruling in the Bishop v. Aronov case. Dr. Phillip A. Bishop, a University of Alabama health and physical education assistant professor, was instructed to stop lecturing in “optional classes” on what he saw as evidences of God in human physiology.
Quoting the court’s view that the “classroom is not an open forum,” Georgia Southern’s memo states that the university can direct faculty to refrain from expressing religious viewpoints in the classroom and related settings. It also cites the court’s finding that “even the appearance of proselytizing by a professor should be a real concern.”
The memo adopts, as part of Georgia Southern’s stance, passages from the ruling that expressed support for academic freedom. But the 11th Circuit judges also ruled that public universities must restrict teachers’ speech that would violate the First Amendment prohibition of a government-sponsored establishment of religion.
“As a public institution and an instrumentality of the State of Georgia, the University also must restrict speech that amounts to a violation of the Establishment Clause during school-sponsored activities,” states the memo, which McMullen indicated was actually written by university legal counsel.
Georgia Southern officials, in their investigation, looked at 10 course syllabuses, 52 exams, 16 extra-credit opportunities and 37 course evaluations from McMullen’s courses from 2008 through 2014.
In each exam between fall semester 2012 and fall semester 2014, the memo states, McMullen included an extra-credit question asking students to identify one of the Ten Commandments. As
a rationale for this, McMullen gave university officials a 2012 Wall Street Journal essay about a study where students asked to recall the Ten Commandments before a test did not cheat.
However, according to the memo, the essay showed that the researchers got the same result by reminding students of their schools’ honor codes. In an email to the Statesboro Herald, McMullen said the memo writer did not understand this point, because there was still moderate cheating among the students reminded of the honor code, but none among those asked about the Ten Commandments.
The memo directs McMullen “to avoid asking religious-based questions on examinations where such questions are not related to the curriculum of the course.”
In spring semester 2014, McMullen offered students an extra-credit opportunity that involved watching the movie “God’s Not Dead” and writing a two-page report. The university memo, referring to the movie inaccurately as “Is God Dead,” underlines McMullen’s instruction to students that reports should concentrate “on the arguments given in class.”
The memo states: “The ‘arguments given in class’ are not on the record, and therefore no conclusion can be made as to whether this assignment crossed Constitutional boundaries. However, to the extent … those arguments constituted ‘an interjection of religious beliefs and/or preferences during instructional time periods,’ they would be inappropriate.”
But, as McMullen had explained in a previous Herald interview, the extra-credit assignment involved a movie scene in which there is a classroom debate over the existence of God, not arguments that McMullen gave in an actual GSU classroom.
He also asserts that, because the World History II textbook mentioned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, famous for stating that “God is dead,” the report on the movie debate was within the scope of the course.
The course evaluations, the university memo tells McMullen, showed that “an overwhelming majority of students indicated that you are an interesting teacher, often providing stories from your own travels corresponding to the class discussions.”
But the memo then lists eight “problematic comments.” Among these, anonymous students are quoted as saying that McMullen “had a Christian agenda,” “preaches the Bible,” “stands up for faith and against evolution and atheism” and “pounded into our heads that ‘evolution is a lie;’ ‘accept Jesus.’”
Following this list, the memo directs McMullen that “it is inappropriate for you to interject your personal religious beliefs into classroom and class-related discussions with students, and you are accordingly directed to stop doing so immediately.”
The memo emphasizes that it “addresses only course-related and in-class remarks.”
It quotes the federal court’s 1991 opinion state that professors “may fairly answer” if a student asks their religious views and may express those views “far and wide and to whomever will listen” and “write and publish, no doubt authoritatively, on them,” just not under the guise of university courses.
Warning and response
Failure to comply, the memo warns McMullen, could subject him to “personnel action, up to and including efforts to terminate” his employment.
In a Dec. 17 press release, the Freedom From Religion Foundation hailed the memo as a “reprimand” of a “creationist” professor.
After not reaching McMullen by phone this week, the newspaper emailed him several questions, asking whether the memo was fair, and how it will influence his teaching and continued service at Georgia Southern. He did not respond to each question individually, but replied with a multi-point statement.
Both his statement and the university’s memo are posted with the online version of this story at www.statesboroherald.com.
McMullen responded in detail about his use of the Ten Commandments question.
“I want to reduce cheating. Because of the research reported in this article, I started asking an extra credit question on the Ten Commandments in my World History I and II classes. Naturally, both of these subjects include religion and I thought I could do so,” McMullen wrote.
Nevertheless, the day after receiving the memo, he said, he emailed students that there would be no Ten Commandments question on the exam.
McMullen acknowledges that, discussing “Darwinism,” in the World History II course, he questions whether humans and other species descended from a common ancestor.
He also cites a 2007 state Senate apology for Georgia’s participation in the early 20th century eugenics movement, which called for sterilization of criminals and people with disabilities. The apology called the movement an “outgrowth of Darwinian evolutionary theory” and blamed it for 65,000 forced sterilizations nationwide.
“Darwinists do not like connecting eugenics … with Darwinian evolutionary theory but Georgia Senate Resolution 247 does just that,” McMullen said.
He states that nobody in the GSU administration asked him his side of the story and that he first learned of the complaint Nov. 3 after it was posted on an “atheist website.”
“All, or some of this investigation could have been cleared up without sending anything to the atheists,” McMullen states.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.