A week after canceling a controversial course on intelligent design and creationism, University of Kansas professor Paul Mirecki was hospitalized Monday after an incident in which, Mirecki said, two men beat him with a metal object.
The alleged incident occurred around 6:40 a.m. Monday in rural Douglas County, south of the Lawrence campus where Mirecki works.
"He was treated and released yesterday," Lt. Kari Wempe of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office said of the embattled professor.
As of Tuesday afternoon, two suspects remain at large, Wempe said, adding law enforcement officials are currently seeking two suspects described as white men between 30 and 40 years old.
"The sheriff's office takes these things very seriously, so we investigate them thoroughly," Wempe said. "Our hope is that we end up finally at the end of a successful investigation and find the truth."
Mirecki, chair of KU's religious studies department, first attracted national media attention when the university announced he would teach a course titled "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Other Religious Mythologies."
While the course's title itself — later changed to drop "religious mythologies" — angered some, the exposure of comments made by Mirecki in an e-mail to an atheist student organization he worked with brought the controversy to an even higher level.
In that e-mail, Mirecki referred to Christian fundamentalists as "fundies" and said his course would be a "nice slap in their big fat face."
The university accepted Mirecki's apology, and the professor initially said he would continue as planned and teach the course next semester. After additional e-mail comments were revealed, however, Mirecki and the university withdrew the course.
Meanwhile, Mirecki appears to be doing well after his hospitalization Monday morning. According to KU spokesperson Lynn Bretz, he even taught his class later that day.
"We talked to him yesterday after learning about the incident [and] offered assistance to him," Bretz said. "Teaching the class was Dr. Mirecki's decision."
Although Bretz said the university is "alarmed and concerned" by Monday morning's incident, she downplayed any safety concerns unpopular professors may have.
"The safety of our community is always of paramount concern," she said. "I'm not in any way belittling the episode, [but] we actually have one of the safest campuses of its size."
Bretz also noted the attack did not take place on campus, but in a rural area outside the City of Lawrence.
Wempe could not confirm the attack was linked to any of the professor's earlier comments, but Mirecki told the University Daily Kansan his attackers, who he said he did not know, spoke of the intelligent-design controversy and "certainly knew who I was."
University of Wisconsin history of science professor Ronald Numbers said he was surprised to hear about the violent attack on Mirecki and said the evolution controversy, though heated, rarely escalates to this level.
"This is a hot issue that's divided many communities," he said. "It's like right-to-lifers bombing abortion clinics or something. They're always nuts on the fringes."
Numbers, who has written and lectured on the evolution controversy for the past two decades, said on one occasion, a student actually threatened to kill him.
"You have to be really careful what you say," he said.