Presidential Archives

2005 State of the University Address

Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III

October 21, 2005
Statler Auditorium

Thank you, Jay. Elizabeth and I are pleased to be back in our previous roles while Cornell searches for its next president. I share Pete Meinig’s enthusiasm for Cornell’s priorities, and I can attest to the momentum with which the university is moving forward to realize them. I am grateful for the role that the Cornell University Council has played under the leadership of Ginger So for the past two years and now plays under your guiding hand. I have every confidence that the search committee will identify a first-rate person to lead Cornell as our next president, and I look forward to rejoining the faculty full time, once he or she has assumed the office.

This morning, though, I want to address a matter of great significance to Cornell and to the country as a whole, a matter with fundamental educational, intellectual, and political implications. This matter has become so urgent that I feel it imperative to make it the central subject of my State of the University Address on Trustee-Council Weekend.

The issue in question is the challenge to science posed by religiously-based opposition to evolution, described, in its current form, as “intelligent design.” This controversy raises profound questions about the nature of public discourse and what we teach in universities, and it has a profound effect on public policy.

Right now, this issue is playing out in school districts, cities, counties and states across the country. In August, the Association of Christian Schools International and the Calvary Chapel Christian Schools in Murrieta, California, brought suit against the University of California system for rejecting three of the Calvary Chapel Schools’ courses, including a creationist-oriented biology course, as inadequate preparation for college. The plaintiffs charge that by rejecting the courses, the University of California infringes on their rights “to freedom of speech, freedom from viewpoint discrimination, freedom of religion and association, freedom from arbitrary discretion, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from hostility toward religion.” 1

Kansas, which was at the heart of the anti-evolution movement a few years ago, is again considering new science standards that would urge public school teachers to present alternatives to evolution. Here in New York State, a member of the State Assembly introduced a bill last May that would require that “all pupils in grades kindergarten through twelve in all public schools in the state…receive instruction in both theories of intelligent design and evolution.” 2 The bill was referred to the Committee on Education.

As we meet today, a federal court in Pennsylvania is hearing the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which a group of parents is challenging the October 2004 decision of their local school board to teach “intelligent design” along with evolution in biology classes. The parents contend that “intelligent design” is essentially a religious concept and as such violates the separation of church and state.

Disputes involving evolution are brewing in at least 20 states and numerous school districts. And in August, President Bush weighed in by suggesting that schools should teach intelligent design along with evolution.

“I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,” the president told reporters. “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas. The answer is yes.” 3

Most of us have some familiarity with “creationism,” which asserts that life as we know it was created more or less in its present form about 10,000 years ago. Intelligent design is a more subtle construct. While not necessarily denying that some forms of life have evolved over time, it contends that some features of the natural world (the flagella of bacteria is one often cited example) are so “irreducibly complex” that they require an intelligent designer.

The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which has been leading the intelligent design movement, defines it this way: “The scientific theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Note: Intelligent design theory does NOT claim that science can determine the identity of the intelligent cause. Nor does it claim that the intelligent cause must be a ‘divine being’ or a ‘higher power’ or an ‘all-powerful force.’ All it proposes is that science can identify whether certain features of the natural world are the products of intelligence.” 4

Evolutionary theory states that genetic mutations and natural selection, over millions of years, gave rise to human beings and all other forms of life. Evolutionary theory says nothing about the existence or the non-existence of ‘god’. As our own President Emeritus Frank Rhodes, a distinguished scholar of Charles Darwin and the history of evolutionary theory, has written, “…[T]he truth is that evolution is neither anti-theistic nor theistic. So far as religion is concerned, evolution is neutral. It does suggest that species arise by natural selection which proceeds by natural laws, but, like all scientific theories, it provides no ultimate interpretation of the origin of the natural laws themselves; for it no more proves them to be the result of random chance, than it proves them to be the servant and expression of purpose.” 5

Many Americans, including some supporters of evolution, believe that intelligent design should be taught along with evolution. “Teach the controversy” has become the rallying cry of the Discovery Institute and others in the “I.D.” camp, and it is the view apparently endorsed by President Bush. In fact, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., which analyzed 20 years of trend data on public attitudes toward evolution, a large minority of Americans — around 40 percent — says that creationism should be taught instead of evolution in public schools. 6

Even here at Cornell, there are sharp divisions on the issue. Each year in his large course on evolution for non-majors, Will Provine, the C. A. Alexander Professor of Biological Sciences in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, asks his students a set of questions about evolution. The exact percentages vary a bit from year to year, but typically about half the students come out in favor of some sort of “purpose” informing the process through which life develops and half come out on the side of mechanistic evolution.

Of course, this is not the first time the country has experienced serious disagreement about evolution. In 1860, a year after Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, many Americans eagerly followed accounts of the Wilberforce-Huxley debate before the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The controversy came up again 80 years ago in Tennessee, pitting William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow to decide the fate of John Scopes, a high school biology teacher accused of violating the state’s law against teaching evolution. In his opening statement, Bryan claimed that “if evolution wins, Christianity goes,” while Darrow argued, “Scopes isn’t on trial; civilization is on trial.” Although the decision in the case achieved less than Darrow had hoped, it provided a significant deterrent to anti-evolution legislation that in 1925 was pending in 15 other states. 7

It arose a third time in 1987 when the Supreme Court ruled, in Edwards v. Aguillard, that Louisiana’s “Creationism Act” was invalid. That act forbade the teaching of evolution in public elementary and secondary schools unless accompanied by instruction in “creation science,” and the Supreme Court found that the Louisiana act “lacks a clear secular purpose.” 8

Now, with the well-organized, resolute intelligent design movement, the issue is back again. What adds urgency to this iteration of the dispute is the fact that this country is so polarized, both culturally and politically. When we divide ourselves into “Red States” and “Blue States”; into the people who watch Fox News and those who watch PBS; into “people of faith” and “secular humanists,” when ciphers substitute for nuanced ideas, is it any wonder that this debate now concerns matters as fundamental as what we teach in our primary and secondary schools, what academic standards universities require, and what rhetoric candidates adopt in political races? When ideological division replaces informed exchange, dogma is the result and education suffers.

And if we are honest, we have to admit that many of us in universities have contributed to the polarization that afflicts the country as a whole. President Emeritus Frank Rhodes, writing in 1982 at the height of the “creationism” debates, noted that “both fundamentalist advocates and some popular scientists claim an extension of their area of authority which is logically illegitimate. The fundamentalists offer an old doctrine of scriptural infallibility, improperly disguised as science; the scientists offer an old doctrine of materialism, equally improperly disguised as science…. Each, in its increasingly intemperate pronouncements, is guilty of intellectual imperialism.” 9

Today, as Glenn Altschuler, Cornell’s Litwin Professor of American Studies, has noted, we continue to have scientific imperialists who believe that only science can be looked to for answers to all answerable questions and that those areas where science cannot provide answers are unimportant. And we have religious imperialists who assert that all questions are appropriately directed to faith-based sources for answers.

I want to suggest that universities like Cornell can make a valuable contribution to the nation’s cultural and intellectual discourse. With a breadth of expertise that embraces the humanities and the social sciences as well as science and technology, we need to be engaging issues like evolution and intelligent design both internally, in the classroom, in the residential houses, and in campus-wide debates, and also externally by making our voices heard in the spheres of public policy and politics.

At the time of its founding in 1865 – six years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species – Cornell responded to the first assault on science and reason in a direct and forceful way. In creating what has been called the first American university, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White insisted that it break new intellectual ground. Looking back some years later, White wrote, “We had especially determined that the institution should be under the control of no political party and of no single religious sect, and with Mr. Cornell’s approval, I embodied stringent provisions to this effect in the charter.”  10

White made the defense of science, including evolution, the center of his scholarly attention during and after his presidency. It figured prominently in the history courses he managed to teach at Cornell while president. It figured in the lectures he was invited to give, as a leading college president, around the country. And it formed the basis of his magnum opus, a two-volume work entitled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

As Glenn Altschuler wrote in his biography of A. D. White, in The Warfare of Science, White sought to provide his readers with a clear distinction between theology and science. The essential difference was methodological.

As a rule, White wrote, the conclusions of a great theologian ripen into dogma. “His disciples labor not to test it, but to establish it; and while, in the Catholic Church, it becomes a dogma to be believed or disbelieved under the penalty of damnation, it becomes in the Protestant Church the basis for one more sect.”

In contrast, as Professor Altschuler noted, “White championed unlimited free inquiry; it was as crucial to the ultimate survival of religion as it was to progress in science.” 11 Religion did more damage to itself than to science, White observed, when it insisted on adherence to discredited ideas. What we now call “creationism,” in his view, was no more essential to faith than a belief that the earth was at the center of the universe.

Ezra Cornell also found the issue of religion central to his concern for his new university. A few years ago, when we were rebuilding Sage Hall, I had the privilege of reading a letter that he had placed in the building’s original cornerstone on May 15, 1873.

In it, Cornell warned “that the principal danger, and I say almost the only danger I see in the future to be encountered by the friends of education, and by all lovers of true liberty is that which may arise from sectarian strife. From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded, all students must be left free to worship God, as their conscience shall dictate, and all persons of any creed or all creeds must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome, to the educational facilities possessed by the Cornell University….”

In keeping with the convictions of A. D. White and Ezra Cornell, Cornell has remained a non-sectarian university that actively supports students in the practice of their religious faiths. Cornell United Religious Work (CURW), established in 1929, was created in order to give Cornell students an array of religious options. CURW now hosts 26 affiliate groups, including Jews, Roman Catholics, Unitarians, Christian Scientists, the Society of Friends, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, a number of Christian evangelical organizations, an African-American worship service, Muslim, Hindu, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist, Hasidic Orthodox Jewish and Pagan groups. Anabel Taylor Hall provides a physical home to a wide range of student organizations and programs that are religiously-based. Even our dining options have been designed to encourage religious observance.

Religion has also figured prominently in Cornell’s academic program. As early as 1896, Henry W. Sage agreed to fund a chair of Semitic Languages and Literature, and its first holder, Nathaniel Schmidt, taught courses in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic languages, in the Old Testament Literature, and in oriental history. Today the study of world religions is alive and well at Cornell. There is a Religious Studies Program with an undergraduate major. Its faculty is drawn from several departments including Near Eastern Studies, Asian Studies, History, English, Anthropology, Philosophy, Classics and others. I believe that this is a very good thing.

So if religious beliefs of all sorts are welcomed, encouraged and supported at Cornell and if religious studies has a secure place within the curriculum, should creationism or intelligent design be taught in science courses? A substantial fraction of the American people and of our own students accept creationism or intelligent design, so what is the harm?

The answer is that intelligent design is not valid as science, that is, it has no ability to develop new knowledge through hypothesis testing, modification of the original theory based on experimental results, and renewed testing through more refined experiments that yield still more refinements and insights.

H. Allen Orr, writing in The New Yorker last spring, noted: “Though people often picture science as a collection of clever theories, scientists are generally staunch pragmatists: to scientists, a good theory is one that inspires new experiments and provides unexpected insights into familiar phenomena. By this standard, Darwinism is one of the best theories in the history of science. It has produced countless important experiments … and sudden insight into once puzzling patterns….”

Orr notes that in the 10 years since one of the “I.D.” movement’s chief theorists, biochemist Michael Behe (pronounced Bee-Hee), offered arguments about the irreducible complexity of cells as evidence for “intelligent design,” “I.D. has inspired no nontrivial experiments and has provided no surprising insights into biology.” And he adds, “As the years pass, intelligent design looks less and less like the science it claimed to be and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics….Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover [PA] and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.” 12

We should not suspend, or rather annul, the rules of science in order to allow any idea into American education. I.D. is a subjective concept. It is, at its core, a religious belief.

What about including “I.D.” in public policy discourse? After all, it is an important view of the world shared by many Americans. Many religiously-based views enter the public arena and inform our policy debates, and they should. Religiously-derived arguments, in my view, must bear two burdens: they must be clearly identified as such, that is, as propositions of faith; and, in acknowledging that others do not share these propositions of faith, they must be supported by other arguments.

When religion moves beyond the private realm and into the public square, it must do so with great care; otherwise, it creates serious potential dangers to the civic polity and to religion itself. That is why James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, was at such pains throughout his long public life to separate church and state. In 1785, when his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry proposed that a small tax be imposed to support the churches of the Commonwealth for the avowed secular purpose of improving the general morals of society, Madison responded with his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” the single most influential document in American history on the subject of the separation of church and state.

Madison maintained (in article #1) that “we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” He allowed (in article #8) that “Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries.” But he stressed, “A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it…will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.” And he declared that (in article #5) “… the Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world; the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.”

In essence, Madison argued that government must be extremely cautious in employing religion as an instrument of civil policy. “I.D.” is a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea. It is neither clearly identified as a proposition of faith nor supported by other rationally-based arguments. As we have seen all too often in human history, and as we see in many countries today, religion can be a source of persecution and repression. As Pascal, the great French philosopher, said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” 13

The United States, it is worth noting, where church and state are most rigorously separated, is also the country where churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship flourish, where a healthy pluralism predominates, and where everyone is free to worship as he or she chooses.

I am convinced that the political movement seeking to inject religion into state policy and our schools is serious enough to require our collective time and attention. Cornell’s history, its intellectual scope, and its current commitments position us well to contribute to the national debate on religion and science.

As you know, Cornell is in the midst of a major investment in the new life sciences, the physical sciences, and computing and information sciences, and also in issues surrounding sustainability. These priorities have come out of a sustained academic planning process with strong involvement of the faculty and academic deans. Along with a focus on student aid and diversity, faculty recruitment and retention, they will figure prominently in the capital campaign, which in its quiet phase is already moving forward with great momentum. Yet I want to suggest that ultimately our efforts to position Cornell as the leading academic citizen of an interconnected world will fall short of their potential if we neglect the background conditions that have put rational thought under attack.

We have at Cornell great intellectual resources to deal with the current attacks on science and reason. We also have a strong tradition of faculty members using their expertise to comment on public policy, as the late Hans Bethe did as an advocate for nuclear non-proliferation, and as Kurt Gottfried is still doing as the co-founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

I believe that now, as we proceed with our investments in scientific inquiry, we should also be addressing the cultural issues that the invasion of science by intelligent design embodies. This is an issue that should engage not simply our science faculty, like Will Provine, but, in particular, our social scientists and humanists.

This is above all a cultural issue, not a scientific one. The controversy is about the tensions between science and belief, reason and faith, public policy and private religiosity.

Modern research universities have become segmented. We have scientists over here, humanists and social scientists over there. Knowledge is divided into ever-smaller categories; our specialization becomes ever more narrow.

I believe it is time to put the disparate parts of the modern research university back together. We have at Cornell philosophers expert at making fine distinctions and careful definitions. We have scholars of literature who have made the close reading of texts their life’s work. We have historians and scholars of American Studies who can identify and explicate the antecedents of the current controversy. We have economists, sociologists, political scientists and others adept at exploring linkages among science, religion and public policy and their relationship to broad societal themes like privilege, poverty, and inequality.

For almost 40 years, the Cornell Society for the Humanities has supported research and encouraged imaginative teaching in the humanities, in part, by focusing each year on a single theme. For the 2005-06 academic year, it is “Culture and Conflict,” a theme that relates quite directly to the issues I have been talking about. And our new Institute for the Social Sciences, partly modeled on the Society for the Humanities and partly on the social science and humanities seminars that Provost Martin helped launch a few years ago, brings together each year about a dozen faculty members from across the university to work collaboratively on a cutting-edge topic that will stimulate new courses and productive discussions on campus, and important scholarship.

Social scientists should be asking questions such as: “How, if at all, might ‘I.D.’ influence the public-policy debate in the United States, given our strict separation of church and state?” “What would constitute evidence of a conscious or intelligent designer of the universe?” Humanists should be asking questions such as: “Are reason and faith polar opposites?” “Are they inevitably antagonistic to one another? How have the aesthetic roots of religious belief and the exploration of the spiritual shaped literature, music, art, and culture?” “How might we frame conversations to talk about when human life begins amidst assertions that a definition of human life may be so inherently subjective as to preclude reaching a consensus?” These are large and important questions. They go to the heart of our American democracy and to the essence of the human experience.

I am pleased that under Provost Martin’s leadership, Cornell’s strong tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration continues to embrace not only the sciences and technological fields, but also the humanities and the social sciences. Humanists and social scientists, whose expertise lies in understanding cultures and ideas, can – and should — move us beyond ridiculing or ignoring our opponents or claiming that, at some level, science is good and faith is bad. They can keep us from claiming too much in the sphere of religion or in the sphere of science and give us the language we need to learn from each other.

To that end, I ask our three task forces, on life in the age of the genome, wisdom in the age of digital information, and sustainability, to consider means of confronting the following questions: how to separate information from knowledge and knowledge from ideology; how to understand and address the ethical dilemmas and anxieties that scientific discovery has produced; and how to assess the influence of secular humanism on culture and society.

Consistent with Cornell’s land grant mission, I ask as well that humanists, social scientists, and scientists venture outside the campus to help the American public sort through these complex issues. I ask them to help a wide audience understand what kinds of theories, arguments, and conclusions deserve a place in the academy – and why it isn’t always a good idea to “teach the controversies.” When professors tend only to their own disciplinary gardens, public discourse is undernourished.

Cornell is known the world over as one of the great global research universities. Twenty-eight years ago, with substantial Cornell involvement, the Voyager I spacecraft set out on a journey to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond. Over the years Voyager has confirmed some of our expectations about the solar system and provided data that contravened others. Voyager I is now the most distant human-made object in the universe. It is approaching the very edge of our solar system and is about to venture into the vast unknown of the interstellar medium.

Voyager and its sister craft, Voyager II, traveling along at some distance behind, seem poised to amaze and enlighten us with a new perspective on the universe of which we are a part. They are the results of scientific method and experimentation, but also of imagination and creativity. They inspire in us the emotions we associate with both religion and science: awe, wonder, curiosity, and an intense desire to know more.

The spirit of discovery and innovation, exemplified by the Voyager mission, helped earn Cornell a 12th place ranking in a recent survey of the best universities in the world. Cornell is the place where the science behind the Mars Rovers was, and still is, being done. It is the university that led in the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which had not been reliably reported in the United States for 60 years, and was thought to have become extinct. It is the place where music professors like Steve Stucky win Pulitzer Prizes, and computer scientists like Jon Kleinberg and poets like Alice Fulton win MacArthur Foundation awards.

It is also a place that has nurtured great intellectual leaders who have not only made landmark contributions to their disciplines, but who are willing to speak out, frequently and forcefully, about the obligation of the academy to pursue knowledge and truth unfettered by political or religious dogma. Cornellians who do will be acting in the great tradition of Cornell’s founders, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White.

5. Frank H. T. Rhodes, “Darwin Remembered,” unpublished manuscript, March 22, 1982, p. 4.
6. Scott Keeter, “What’s Not Evolving Is Public Opinion,” Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2005
9. Frank H. T. Rhodes, “Darwin Remembered,” pp. 3-4.
10. A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Religion in Christendom, 1928, p. vi.
11. Glenn Altschuler, A. D. White: Educator, Historian, Diplomat, 1979, p. 205.
12. H. Allen Orr, “Devolution; Annals of Science,” The New Yorker, Vol. 81, Iss. 15, p. 40.
13. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, no. 894.