Truth and Consequences at Brigham Young

Brigham Young University is in the news at the moment because its philosophy department decided not to renew the contract of an adjunct instructor after he wrote a newspaper editorial in favour of same-sex marriage. The instructor received a letter from the chair of the philosophy department informing him of the decision shortly after his editorial ran in the Salt Lake Tribune. Inside Higher Ed reported, ‘Carri Jenkins, a BYU spokeswoman, said the choice not to rehire Nielsen came from the department, which has the authority to make personnel decisions on part-time faculty. “The department made the decision because of the opinion piece that had been written, and based on the fact that Mr. Nielsen publicly contradicted and opposed an official statement by top church leaders,” Jenkins said.’ This story is of great interest to us, because the questions raised by BYU’s policy make an appearance in chapter 7 of Why Truth Matters.

But consider also some of the events which have been played out in recent years at Brigham Young University (BYU), which has its main campus in Provo, Utah. BYU, founded in 1875 by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) – that is, by Mormons – is an explicitly religious institution. Its mission statement makes it clear that it exists in order to enrich its students – as it sees it – in the Mormon faith:

The founding charge of BYU is to teach every subject with the Spirit. It is not intended “that all of the faculty should be categorically teaching religion constantly in their classes, but…that every…teacher in this institution would keep his subject matter bathed in the light and colour of the restored gospel.”

It is more than a little difficult to imagine quite what this means when it comes to subjects like accountancy and computer engineering. But it is immediately clear that BYU, and indeed other colleges and universities which are founded on religious precepts, differ significantly from their secular cousins. No doubt it is tempting to suppose that this difference necessarily undermines any claim which such institutions make that education and research are about the pursuit of truth. However, this would be to oversimplify; it is quite possible for people to carry out perfectly respectable research, in certain delimited fields, even if they believe that the moon is made of semi-skim yogurt and that a giant pumpkin is God. Religious institutions don’t throw truth out of the window altogether. Their policy is more selective; they keep the bits they like, and discard those they don’t.

Faculty at BYU are aware that their academic freedom is limited in quite specific ways. The BYU policy on academic freedom is set out in a document which was approved by the university’s trustees in September 1992.[1] It is based on a distinction between “Individual Academic Freedom”, which refers to the “freedom of the individual faculty member ‘to teach and research without interference,’ to ask hard questions, to subject answers to rigorous examination, and to engage in scholarship and creative work”; and “Institutional Academic Freedom”, which holds that it is “the privilege of universities to pursue their distinctive missions”. Bringing these two things together leads BYU to its policy on academic freedom:

It follows that the exercise of individual and institutional academic freedom must be a matter of reasonable limitations. In general, at BYU a limitation is reasonable when the faculty behaviour or expression seriously and adversely affects the university mission or the Church.

The policy document offers three examples of the kinds of things which staff aren’t permitted to say to students or in public: (a) something which contradicts or opposes LDS Church doctrine or policy; (b) something which deliberately derides or attacks the LDS Church or its leaders; and (c) something which violates the “Honor Code”[2].

It’s obvious that such a policy is bound to result in problems. Scholars working in the humanities or the social sciences are very likely to be inquiring into subjects that could bring them into conflict with the specified limitations on academic freedom. This is especially the case since the limitations are vague enough so that what the BYU authorities consider to be a violation might vary over time, and from case to case, and that faculty might not be clear anyway that particular views or activities are unacceptable.

It is important to make it clear here that there is no evidence that BYU staff are dissatisfied either with the university’s strongly religious nature, or with the fact that their academic freedom is necessarily limited. This is not surprising; some ninety-five per cent of faculty are members of the LDS Church, and also, as a condition of their employment, “temple worthy”, a status attained by only about one in five Mormons. The problems have arisen rather because of the perception that the specified limitations on academic freedom are applied with too much zeal; in particular, there is the suspicion that the policy on academic freedom is used in order to silence viewpoints which are unorthodox only on the strictest interpretation of Church doctrine, even though this is not justified by the letter of the policy. This point is perhaps best illustrated by the case of Gail Hurley Houston, who between 1990 and 1996 was an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at BYU.

Professor Houston’s story is quite complicated. Indeed, it is the subject of a sixty-two page report by BYU administrators, which itself was the result of an investigation by the American Association of University Professors, which for its part culminated in an eighteen page report.[3] The essence of the story, though, is that Professor Houston’s application for tenure (which went forward, as is standard, as she approached her sixth year of employment at BYU) was denied, despite its being supported by her departmental colleagues, her departmental chair, and two of the three requisite tenure committees. It was rejected at the last stage in the tenure process by the University Faculty Council on Rank and Status; the decision to deny tenure was then confirmed by an Appeal Panel hearing in August 1996.

Houston’s application for tenure was not denied on the grounds of the quality of her scholarship. It was denied because in the eyes of the BYU administration she had engaged in “a pattern of publicly contradicting fundamental Church doctrine and deliberately attacking the Church.”[4] Thus, she was informed that the negative recommendation was because of

the number and severity of occasions when your actions and words on and off campus…were perceived as harmful to the tenets held by the Church and the university. We feel that not only have these activities failed to strengthen the moral vigour of the university, they have enervated its very fibre.[5]

The BYU administration identified a number of specific occasions where they thought her behaviour had transgressed the boundaries set out in the policy on academic freedom. Perhaps most significant were two instances where she suggested that it is appropriate for Mormons to pray to the “Heavenly Mother” as well as to the “Heavenly Father”. The BYU authorities pointed out that she had previously had a warning that such conduct was a clear violation of Church doctrine, and therefore, that it was unacceptable, but that she had subsequently repeated the offence. There were also concerns that she had publicly advocated extending the priesthood to women, again in clear violation of Church doctrine.

It would be easy to dismiss these worries on the grounds that they are a function of a deeply ingrained sexism which is characteristic of the Mormon religion. However, whilst this is probably true, it nevertheless isn’t clear that the BYU administrators behaved in quite the arbitrary manner that some commentators have supposed. In other words, there is at least an argument that both the following things are true: Professor Houston was the victim of religious intolerance rooted in a sexist theology; and the BYU administrators correctly applied the terms of their policy on academic freedom.

There is an interesting point here, linked to some of the themes we explored in chapter 5, about how tempting it is to assess this kind of dispute in terms of viewpoints which are rooted in prior political and ideological commitments. Thus, for example, it would be easy for the authors of this book, in line with their atheism, to declare an anathema on BYU, its arguments and works; that is, to decide in advance that the justification it offered for denying tenure to a feminist scholar was necessarily going to be flawed. But if you look closely at the arguments involved in the issue, the matter is not as straightforward as that.

Consider, for example, the issue of Houston’s prayers to a “Heavenly Mother”. The report of AAUP found that BYU had not made their case on this issue, because Professor Houston’s statements about her visions of a Mother in Heaven were a “description of a personal vision,” and did not constitute public advocacy of belief as the administration charged.[6]

This is pure sophistry. BYU’s addendum to the AAUP document was right when it said:

The AAUP’s argument that Professor Houston did not “advocate” praying to Heavenly Mother is specious. She publicly announced that she engages in the practice of praying to Heavenly Mother and described what a wonderful experience it is. She even described what Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother say to her in such prayers…The clear message of her public statements was that it is appropriate to pray to Heavenly Mother, that it is a wonderful experience, and that Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother accept and respond to such prayers.[7]

However, and it is an important however, the fact that it is at least arguable that BYU acted within the terms of its own policy on academic freedom in the case of Professor Houston, albeit on the basis of the strictest interpretation of that policy, does not mean that there is no institutional pressure at BYU on faculty. The evidence is that there is institutional pressure; that a significant minority of academics fear precisely that they will fall foul of a strict interpretation of the policy on academic freedom; and, in particular, that feminist scholars tend to attract the often unwelcome attention of the BYU authorities.

Thus, for example, the AAUP described a visit to the BYU campus at Provo as follows:

Many faculty members shared in some detail the narratives of their problems with academic freedom, reappointment, promotion, and tenure, frequently producing documents but asking that their names and identifying circumstances not be included in this report. At least two cases are in litigation against the university. Some cases involve issues of personal conduct that are under investigation and others focus on academic research that raises concern with the administration. Several creative artists in different fields told of pressures to alter works to meet unclear administrative agendas…Numerous women, some in groups and some alone, spoke to the investigating committee about the hostile climate for women on campus.[8]

Reading this, though, one is led to wonder quite what they expected. Religious doctrine is always contested; therefore, disputes about academic freedom are inevitable given the existence of a policy which prohibits overt doctrinal heterodoxy. But it must be said that for a professor at a religious university to complain about this situation is a little bizarre. It comes with the territory. If you’re working within the confines of a revealed truth, then there’s a lot you can’t say. Indeed, with regard to BYU’s antipathy towards certain kinds of feminism, it is not unreasonable to ask, though it certainly isn’t politic, what exactly feminist scholars think they are doing working there in the first place? After all, the LDS Church is hardly covered in glory when it comes to its record on the rights of women.

The situation at Brigham Young University, then, is fundamentally about religion, and the pressure which the requirement for doctrinal orthodoxy, both in words and practice, exerts upon the faculty. Religion and the pursuit of knowledge, even a religiously circumscribed ‘knowledge’, are uneasy bedfellows, so it is entirely to be expected that the university faculty and administration get along with each other only uneasily.

1., accessed May 21 2005.

2. See, accessed May 21 2005.

3. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Brigham Young University”, Academe, Sept-Oct 1997, pp. 52-71.

4. ‘The Issue of Academic Freedom: An Interview with Jim Gordon”, Brigham Young Magazine, Winter 1997.

5. Cited in “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Brigham Young University”, Academe, Sept-Oct 1997, p. 52.

6. Ibid., p. 65.

7. Ibid., p. 70.

8. Ibid., p. 67.

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