DEGREES OF FOLLY: PART III
by William Bennetta
[Parts I and II of this article ran in our February and March
issues, respectively. Here is a summary:]
By law, no unaccredited post-secondary school in California can
issue degrees unless the school has been approved by the
superintendent of public instruction (the chief of the State
Department of Education). In 1981, when Wilson Riles was
superintendent, the Department approved the granting of MS degrees
in biology, geology, "astro/geophysics", and science education by
the ICR Graduate School (ICRGS), an arm of the Institute for
Creation Research. The ICR is not a scientific institution, but a
religious ministry promoting "creation-science", a pseudoscience
based on literal readings of the Bible. The president of the ICR
and the ICRGS is Henry Morris, a preacher and former engineer.
In 1987, after the superintendency of the Department had passed to
Bill Honig, the ICR applied for renewed approval. By then,
"creation-science" and the men who purveyed it had been repeatedly
discredited. Nobody could have inquired into "creation-science" or
the ICR without finding that both were fakes.
In August 1988, the Department sent a committee of five to assess
the ICR's degree programs. The five were: Robert L. Kopach,
professor of geophysics at Stanford; Stuart H. Hurlbert, professor
of Biology at San Diego State; G. Edwin Miller, vice-president for
administration at United States International University; James A.
Woodhead, professor of geology at Occidental College; and George
F. Howe, professor of biology at The Master's College, a religious
school. (Howe -- who had been nominated for a place on the
committee by Henry Morris -- would emerge as the ICR's advocate.)
The committee was managed by the man who had assembled it: Roy W.
Steeves, of the Department's Private Postsecondary Education
The committee's report was farcical. It omitted or obscured
anything about the real nature or aims of the ICR and the ICRGS,
and it promoted the fiction that the ICR did scientific work; then
it recommended "by a vote of 3 to 2 that full institutional
approval be granted." Its last page bore the signatures of the
committee members, who were denoted by name only. There was nothing
to suggest their professions, affiliations, titles, or
Later in August, the truth got out. The two men who had voted
against approval -- Woodhead and Hurlbert -- furnished Honig with
separate accounts of what they had seen. Hurlbert wrote that he had
had little influence on the committee's report and was not an
author of it. Then he exposed the ICR's operations and
misrepresentations in detail, providing many examples and
On 10 November, Honig met in Sacramento with Woodhead, Hurlbert,
and Howe. (Kovach and Miller had been invited, but could not
attend.) Howe brought a disingenuous document, written mostly by
Henry Morris, that purported to rebut Hurlbert's account. The
meeting was inconclusive. Honig, who evidently did not want to take
part in a sham or scam, judged that he might resolve the case by
turning to Kovach. Kovach already had seen Hurlbert's dissent; and
in late November, the department sent him other information that
had not been considered during the committee's doings in August.
George Howe and Henry Morris have been working together for many
years. In the 1970s, for example, each was an officer and a
director of the Creation Research Society -- a fundamentalist group
whose members must subscribe to a creed that begins with: "1. The
Bible is the written Word of God, and because we believe it to be
inspired throughout, all of its assertions are historically and
scientifically true in all of the original autographs. To the
student of nature, this means that the account of origins in
Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths."(1)
Morris was the Society's president early in the decade, and Howe
was the editor of its quarterly. In 1977, Howe became its
Since 1982, Howe and Morris have been linked in a fundamentalist
"legal defense" organization that, according to its president,
seeks to "blow evolution out of the public schools." (I shall tell
more about this next month.)
So when Roy Steeves, in the summer of 1988, named Howe to the
committee that would examine the ICR, he furnished Howe with a
chance to do a big favor for an old pal. And Howe evidently made
the most of it, according to accounts that Hurlbert and Woodhead
gave to me during telephone interviews. Hurlbert said that Howe had
succeeded in turning the entire assessment into nonsense by
frustrating any consideration of the obvious and crucial question:
Was the ICR teaching anything that could be called science?
Woodhead told me: "With our committee constituted as it was, there
was no possibility that we could have written a decent report.
There was one person there, Howe, who would not have voted against
those people [the operators of the ICRGS] even if their whole thing
was a sham -- which is how, I think, it turned out."
Just how WAS the committee constituted? It evidently was
constituted in defiance of the education code and the PPED's own
"Guidelines for the Approval of Degree Granting Institutions
Pursuant to California Education Code Section 94310.2", a document
issued in May 1987. The code clearly called for an assessment of
"each degree program offered by the institution", and page 26 of
"Guidelines" said: "Visiting Committees for first-time applicants
will consist of a minimum of five technically qualified educators
for each program offered. Reapproval Visiting Committees will
consist of three and may, if designees prescribe, consist of five
or more technically qualified educators for each program
But Steeves, for assessing the ICRGS's program in biology, enlisted
not three "technically qualified educators" but two: Hurlbert and
Howe. For geology, he had only one: Woodhead. For
"astro/geophysics", he had only the geophysicist Kovach. And for
science education, he had nobody.
On 15 February 1989, in a letter, I asked Steeves some questions
about the composition of the committee. One question dealt with the
absence of a science-education expert. In his reply, sent on the
17th, Steeves asserted that the committee HAD had such an expert:
"It is true", he wrote, "that Dr. Howe received his training in the
field of biology, but he is the Chairperson of the Division of
Natural Sciences at The Master's College. I have enclosed the
appropriate pages of the catalog for your perusal. His professional
assignment ideally prepared him for the review of the Science
Education program at ICR."
This was just a wild bluff, for the catalog pages lent no support
to Steeves's assertion. Howe's division at The Master's College(4)
did not offer any program in education, did not offer even one
course in the theory or practice of education, and had nothing
corresponding to any of the education courses claimed by the
ICRGS.(5) (Howe taught in the division's four-man Department of
Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Mathematics, which
"seeks to promote a broad understanding of scientific facts and
principles and exposes the unwarranted interpretations of
scientific evidence that have damaged the cause of Christ.")
So: For assessing the ICRGS's program in science education, Roy
Steeves's committee had had nobody at all. That program had
received a free ride.
In my letter of 15 February, I also asked Steeves about the absence
of an astrophysicist. His answer was: "We did have a professor of
geophysics [i.e. Kovach] who advised us that in the field there is
no real distinction between the study of astrophysics and
geophysics. As a matter of fact, Dr. Kovach also has received
training in astrophysics."
How the committee operated cannot be reconstructed fully, for its
members have some conflicting recollections. All, however, seem to
agree on these points:
=> THE PPED DID NOT FURNISH THE COMMITTEE MEMBERS WITH ANY
SIGNIFICANT INFORMATION ABOUT THE ICR, OTHER THAN THE ICRGS'S
APPLICATION FOR APPROVAL, UNTIL THE COMMITTEE MET AT THE ICR ON 3
AUGUST. Steeves admits this, and defends it as standard practice.
"To depart would have possibly raised due-process questions", he
says. (This presumably is why the PPED denied Hurlbert's request
for copies of the ICR men's curricula vitae.) Steves says that all
the committee members knew that the ICR was clouded in controversy.
Kovach disagrees. He did not know what he was getting into, he
says, and he later "was surprised that it turned out to be so
emotional and controversial".
=> THE COMMITTEE'S CHAIRMAN WAS KOVACH. This was not told in the
committee's report, Kovach says, because there was an explicit
agreement that the chairman would not be identified.
=> STEEVES INSISTED THAT THE COMMITTEE'S REPORT HAD TO BE SHORT AND
HAD TO AVOID DETAIL. Steeves confirms this. If he had allowed
elaboration, he says, we would have had a much longer report but
no conclusion. As an administrative task, we had to get closure.
We were trying to accomplish a purpose -- making a recommendation."
=> THE REPORT WAS DRAFTED BY KOVACH FROM PIECES THAT THE MEMBERS,
WORKING SEPARATELY, HAD WRITTEN. THERE WAS NO SIGNIFICANT REWRITING
BEFORE THE REPORT WAS PRESENTED FOR THE MEMBERS' SIGNATURES.
=> STEEVES EMPHATICALLY PRECLUDED ANY PROTRACTED DELIBERATION, AND
INSISTED THAT THE REPORT HAD TO BE TYPED AND SIGNED BY THE EVENING
OF 5 AUGUST. Woodhead says: "Steeves was in charge, and he vetoed
the idea of taking [Kovach's draft] home for pondering." Kovach
says: "Steeves set the theme. It had to be done then and there, not
later. What he said amounted to 'You are not getting out of this
motel room until we get this report finished and signed.'"
All of this, if infer, represents the PPED's standard practice as
well as the PPED's version of due process.
I infer, too, that the PPED's regular practice includes a patently
meaningless vote like the one in which the examination of the ICR
culminated. There is no evidence that the committee made a
discrete, identifiable assessment of each of the ICR's degree
programs; but if such work was done, it was then negated. In the
end, the committee voted on only one question: Should the ICRGS as
a whole -- including its financial and administrative structure,
as well as its four degree programs -- be approved?
In effect, then, everyone voted on everything. Kovach, a
geophysicist, voted on the biology program; Hurlbert, a biologist,
voted on financial practices; Miller, an expert in finance and
administration, voted on all four degree programs, even though he
apparently did not claim expertise in any of the related
disciplines; and so forth. Why had Steeves bothered to recruit any
experts at all?
My inquiry into the ICR case has convinced me that the PPED acted
with foolish insouciance and with only one objective: to create a
nominal report by filling some sheets of paper with words. I do not
think that the PPED took the examination seriously or cared about
getting a valid result, even if (as things turned out) some
individuals in the committee DID care. I see no sign that the PPED
had any qualm about producing a farcical document, even if this
would create a fierce dilemma for Bill Honig.
A question remains: Given that the report was incompetent, false,
and misleading, why did the members of the committee sign it?
Woodhead says that he signed because he had promised to take part
in a job and had been led to understand that the job included
finishing and signing a report by the evening of 5 August. "What
my signature means", he explains, "is that I was there".
Hurlbert says: "I signed as a statement that I was present and had
participated. I did not think that it was a valid report. There
were too many omissions and too much wrong information."
Kovach says that he signed because "It was a competently prepared
report for the committee in the time that we had to prepare it."
Miller thought that "it was a reasonably representative view of
what we saw during our two- or three-day stay there." Howe "felt
it was a very good report and said what we wanted to say."
I do not know how much of this history was known to Bill Honig in
November, when he started to clean up the mess that the PPED had
made. But I suspect that, after his meeting on 10 November with
Woodhead, Hurlbert, and Howe, he understood that the committee's
proceedings had included much sham and that at least two signatures
on the committee's report did not mean what readers would surely
imagine them to mean.
Early in December, after the Department had sent additional
information about the ICR case to Robert Kovach, and after Kovach
had examined that information, Honig called him. Kovach later gave
me this account of the conversation:
"[Honig] did not ask me to change my vote. He asked, 'Given this
[new information], what would you do?' My answer was 'I would
concur with what the new material said.' So, in effect, I changed
my vote. IF WE [THE COMMITTEE] HAD HAD ALL THAT INFORMATION
AVAILABLE TO US IN A TIMELY MANNER, I WOULDN'T HAVE VOTED FOR
APPROVAL TO BEGIN WITH."(6)
On 8 December, in a story by Sandra Blakeslee, the "New York Times"
told that Honig had barred the ICR from granting science degrees.
Honig was quoted thus: "No one is stopping the [ICR] from granting
degrees in religion or creation. But they are holding their people
out to have science degrees, which they don't. The vast bulk of
what they learn is not science."
Blakeslee recounted that a committee had visited ICR and had voted
3-to-2 for approval, and that Honig had asked the committee to
reconsider. She quoted Honig again: "They had grave reservations
about the science, but did not want their recommendation to put the
school out of business. We then made the institute an offer. We
will recommend approval and all you need to do is come up with a
new name. Just don't call it science."
The ICR had refused, Blakeslee wrote; and Kovach, after discussion
with Honig, had switched his vote.
On the same day when Blakeslee's story appeared, the director of
the PPED, Joseph Barankin, sent a letter to Henry Morris. It said
that the PPED had decided to deny approval and that the case would
be reviewed on 10 January by the Council on Private Postsecondary
Educational Institutions. (This is a state agency, separate from
the Department of Education. It had no authority over approvals,
but it can hear appeals and advise the superintendent.)
Early in January, however, things changed abruptly. Honig's
Department drew back from the decision to deny approval, and the
PPED began to negotiate with the ICR. On 6 January, functionaries
of the Department -- in conversations with me and with others who
had heard rumors of a deal -- said that the Department and the ICR
had completed an agreement, and that the ICR case was no longer on
the council's agenda. They would not tell the agreement's
On 10 January, Barankin told me that an agreement was being
wrought, and he listed some terms that he expected it to have, but
he denied that it actually had been completed and signed.
What was going on? I shall try to answer that question next month.
End of Part III
(1) Later parts of the creed endorse the doctrine of organic
"kinds", the worldwide extent and effect of Noah's Flood, and the
special creation of a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. I have
not yet seen the Society's report of the research by which those
names were discovered.
(2) "Designees" evidently means the director and other
functionaries of the PPED, who act for the superintendent of public
(3) During inquiries to the PPED, I have found no suggestion that
the May 1987 rules have been changed or superseded. As far as I
know, they were in force during the examination of the ICR and are
in force now. For a copy of "Guidelines", write to Joseph P.
Barankin, Director, Private Postsecondary Education Division, State
Department of Education, P.O. Box 944272, Sacramento, CA 94244.
(4) Until 1985, the school's name had been Los Angeles Baptist
(5) According to the ICRGS's dummy catalog, the core of the ICRGS's
science-education program included courses called Curriculum Design
in Science, Curriculum Implementation in Science, and Instructional
Design and Production.
(6) Emphasis added.
[Editor's note: This is the last of our long installments about the
ICR case, but we will continue to report on it. Next month,
Bennetta will tell about the Department's putative plan to send a
new committee to make a new assessment of the ICR.]