Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith
Academic Freedom at Brigham Young University
Free Inquiry in Religious Context
Allen Dale Roberts
[p.43]Nestled at the foot of the rugged Wasatch Mountains, Brigham Young University, with more than 30,000 students, is well-known as the nation’s largest religiously-sponsored private university. With 1,500 full-time faculty in ten colleges and two professional schools, BYU offers 130 undergraduate programs and fifty-seven graduate departments, as well as a law school and graduate school of management.
The student body is composed of about 10,000 Utah students, 18,000 from other states and 2,000 from foreign countries. About 49 percent are women and 51 percent are men; 25 percent are married and 40 percent have served Mormon missions. The student body gets increasingly bright, with entering freshmen in 1989 averaging 24.7 on ACTs (compared with a national average of 18.6), and an average high school GPA of 3.43. These are the highest figures for any university in Utah, and they climb higher each year.
The faculty is well-trained and highly regarded in many departments. Most are Mormon and combine teaching responsibilities with extensive church and community service. BYU’s campus is well-maintained, and its physical facilities and equipment are, in many instances, state-of-the-art. Anyone visiting the campus cannot help but [p.44]be impressed with the freshly washed appearance of the grounds, buildings, faculty, and students.
But close observers also find that something is wrong with this picture. It is incomplete and more than a little out of focus. One would expect, with all of its assets, that BYU would be one of the leading institutions of higher education in the country, if not the world. But despite its many advantages, BYU is not renowned for academic excellence (in the last independent rating of universities I read, BYU was not mentioned as being highly ranked in any of its departments). And it is by no means an unrelated development that the campus is beset with serious difficulties connected to its restrictive policies and limitation of freedom.
Owned, sponsored, paid for, and entirely governed by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU is, by its own design and admission, first and foremost a church institution and secondarily a school. Working under the burden of institutionally-imposed and severely limiting definitions of truth and intellectual freedom, both the university’s academic freedom and academic competence are increasingly called into question. Because of its nearly total dependence on the LDS church, BYU administrators, faculty, and students alike are vulnerable to losses in scholastic integrity and freedom at the hand of an authoritarian, manipulative, and anti-intellectual church.
Controlled closely by a board of trustees composed entirely of church leaders, the university must meet the expectations and requirements imposed by trustees. The trustees have made it clear, as evident in a 1993 document justifying the limitation of academic freedom as a school policy, that this is a university with an unusual mission. In a speech which may have caused some internal hemorrhaging among administrators and fundraisers, trustee Boyd K. Packer invited faculty members and students who value academic freedom to leave BYU and seek the freedom they desire at one of the country’s other 3,500 colleges and universities. As we examine trustee attitudes to higher education, we can get a better picture of why academic freedom is a virtual impossibility at BYU.
At this point perhaps we should ask, What is a university? Clearly, this simple question does not lend itself to a single, easy answer. I have heard some facile responses and have myself provided [p.45]reductionist summaries: an educational institution in which all propositions may be discussed freely and openly. While I may hold this to be a goal worthy of universities, it reflects neither the history nor the diversity of contemporary campuses.
From the inception of the college and university concept in medieval Europe until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most universities were founded and operated by churches. Their guiding principles were consistent with those espoused by BYU today. They were committed to providing the best available knowledge, both religious and secular, and in many instances, no distinction was made between the two. In fact, throughout most ages of civilization, academic inquiry was a manifestation of religious curiosity.
According to Charles W. Anderson in his book, Prescribing the Life of the Mind, both science and philosophy were always regarded as sacred vocations: “This was simply assumed at Athens, at Alexandria, throughout the Middle Ages, and by most of the great thinkers of the high Enlightenment. Our era is startlingly difficult in this regard. Today it is widely assumed that science and religion are not only distinct but antagonistic.”
In the rationalist, post-enlightenment world, however, a new concept emerged, as described in theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman’s influential Idea of a University, and refined many times since, most recently by Jaroslav Pelikan in his The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. A professor of religious studies at Yale University, Pelikan stresses the virtues of “free inquiry, scholarly honesty, civility in discourse, toleration of diverse beliefs and values, and trust in rationality and public verifiability.”
In my own five-year experience as a BYU student and recent observations of the school, it seems to me that BYU scores low marks in attaining most of these virtues. This is in large part because it continues to pursue the ecclesiastical model of a university.
The recent Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains BYU’s mission as, in part, “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life,” and to “study … all truth … especially… the saving truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” As Dallin Oaks expressed during his inauguration as BYU president, “Our reason for being is to be a university. But our reason for being a university is to encourage and [p.46]prepare young men and women to rise to their full potential as sons and daughters of God.”
For Mormons, this idea of combining spiritual and temporal learning had its origins with Joseph Smith, who taught that there is no difference between the two types of knowledge. A self-taught man with a voracious appetite for learning, Smith also wrote,
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in … things both in the heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which must shortly come to pass … a knowledge also of countries and kingdoms … Seek learning out of the best books words of wisdom … seek learning, even by study and also by faith.
Church leaders and administrators assert that church sponsorship of BYU is its greatest strength. Says academic vice-president Bruce Hafen in his color metaphor describing the school’s dual role, the blue world of the church “enables greater, not lesser educational perfection than the red [higher education] world knows.”
In the annual president’s address in August 1993, Rex Lee vowed that BYU will not lose sight of its commitment to “the ideal of a church university.” He reiterated that the school would not follow the course of most other universities which “abandon their spiritual component and concentrate solely on the academic.” Lee did not speak of balance, or of the limitations of such an attitude. Like LDS apostle Joseph Fielding Smith and others, the view is that religious considerations are superior to the aims of scholarship.
The best evidence is that the board of trustees is almost entirely composed of “prophets, seers and revelators,” while “deeply committed members of the LDS church dominate the faculty.” Clearly there is no attempt to have balanced representation at any level. Still, Lee and Hafen have expressed a commitment to excellence in both scholarship and faith. “This is our distinction,” said Lee.
The public relations ingenuity of this kind of pronouncement is apparent, but is it a real distinction or a mirage? I believe that the school’s two goals are mutually unobtainable because in an institution where religion demands dominance and is suspicious of secular knowledge, and where suppression of academic freedom is an openly stated policy, academic excellence is an impossibility. In this regard, [p.47]I find myself in agreement with humanist writer Vern Bullough who says, “Religious orthodoxy and the intellectual freedom necessary for higher education are simply contradictory components.”
So the old problem surfaces. The church’s controlling leaders do not believe in learning, knowledge, and truth for their own sakes. Instead, their epistemology is of the narrowest type. Whatever current leaders teach is true, no matter how illogical, unwise, unverifiable, or contradictory with past revealed truth. Anything different is untrue, no matter how logical or verifiable.
All of the classic theories of determining truth—by correspondence, coherence, and so forth—are invalid in Mormon epistemology. This ability to discard all truths in conflict with Mormon teachings is the distinctive characteristic of BYU and Mormonism.
How does this utilitarian view of truth affect teachers and students at BYU? Some seem untouched, especially those who are unquestioning or who study in technical fields. But others feel the conflict sharply. They know that there are vast numbers of ideas and issues which can never be discussed freely in the classroom. This limiting condition has its roots in a long unresolved Mormon conflict between the nature and role of knowledge.
In the preface to his 1908 book, Joseph Smith as Scientist, LDS apostle and Harvard Ph.D. John A. Widtsoe wrote, “In the life of every person who receives a higher education in or out of schools there is a time when there seems to be opposition between science and religion; between man-made and God-made knowledge. The struggle for reconciliation between the contending forces is not an easy one.” He finds this ultimately unnecessary because, he says, “there is no real difference between science and religion.” In another publication, Centennial Tracts, he espoused his belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ “comprehends all truth, whether of science, philosophy or religion. It includes, harmonizes, and moulds into one system, the truth of every cult, creed, sect or uplifting agency. It has courage to accept and teach and defend truth.”
There are problems with this idea. If science proves that homosexuality, for example, is a genetic endowment rather than a learned behavior, will the Mormon church change its position on the subject? The same could be asked of organic evolution as well as various disciplines in the social sciences. The church has not entirely [p.48]abandoned other disproven teachings. Would Mormonism be willing to accept a role of following the lead of science? I think not. Mormonism sees itself as leading out, not reacting, in the quest for knowledge.
Widtsoe elaborates on his earlier idea: “The great, fundamental laws of the Universe are foundation stones in religion as well as in science. The principle that matter is indestructible belongs as much to theology as to geology. The theology which rests upon the few basic laws of nature is unshakable, and the great theology of the future will be such a one.” Widtsoe seems to envision a religion which progresses in part through accepting and integrating the advances of science and other reliable, worldly knowledge. As he saw it,
“Mormonism” teaches and has taught from the beginning that all knowledge must be included in true theology. Because of its comprehensive philosophy, “Mormonism” will survive all religious disturbances and become the system of religious faith which all men may accept without yielding the least part of knowledge of nature as discovered in laboratories or in the fields.
Widtsoe’s belief in Mormon philosophy as the eventual embodiment of “completely unified knowledge” might be expected from a rationalist/scientist, but even though a committee appointed by the First Presidency to read and critique his manuscript approved its publication, we can now see that his views were not those of the church, then or now.
One member of the manuscript review committee, Joseph Fielding Smith, later published his own much longer and more popular book, Man: His Origin and Destiny, in 1954, just after Widtsoe died. Smith held a very different view of science and its relation to religion. To get to the gist of his position, we need only read the subheadings under the word “science” in his index:
Science, false teaching of
Science, revelation superior to
Scientific investigation, cannot demonstrate the resurrection
Scientists, claim the Bible as myth
Scientists, faith in scripture weakened by
Scientists, false concepts of God of
Scientists, reject fall and atonement
[p.49]Scientists, revelations attacked by
Scientists will formulate false theories as long as they ignore the Divine Creator
Clearly Smith, who would later become president of the LDS church, did not share Widtsoe’s view of the harmony of science and religion. Instead, he saw them as irreconcilable opponents. Moreover, all kinds of knowledge for him were not valid or coequal. Religious knowledge, or particularly, revealed Mormon knowledge, was “superior” to any other kind.
Although the battle over these two competing positions may have been fought to a draw during the lifetimes of scientists and rationalists such as Widtsoe, Joseph Merrill, and Brigham H. Roberts, it was Joseph Fielding Smith’s theory of hierarchical knowledge that won the war and persists to this day.
When Smith asserted that “Revelation is superior to science,” he had no difficulty in telling us which worldly knowledge was false. For example: “the most pernicious doctrine ever entering the mind of man [is] the theory that man evolved from lower forms of life,” a teaching he believed originated in the devil and spread through his unwitting servants, “Darwin, Wallace and others.”
Smith believed in the supremacy of scripture—Mormon scripture—literally interpreted, over any other kind of document, evidence, or knowledge. And of course his interpretation and those of other Mormon prophets were especially superior. This religio-centric attitude is not unique to Mormons, but we are singular in reducing to second-class or even heretical status any knowledge not held to have been “revealed.”
Current church president Ezra Taft Benson, born at the end of the nineteenth century, has compounded the problem. In his 1980 speech, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” delivered at BYU, then-apostle Benson identified the “grand key” for saving human souls—”Follow the Prophet.” Consider the ramifications for academic freedom. Listen to the tone as well as the content (capitalization in original):
First; The Prophet is the Only Man Who Speaks for The Lord in Everything.
Second: The Living Prophet is More Vital to Us Than The
[p.50]Standard Works (Mormon scriptures).
Third: The Living Prophet is More Important to Us Than a Dead Prophet.
Fourth: The Prophet Will Never Lead the Church Astray.
Fifth: The Prophet is Not Required to Have Any Particular Early Training or Credentials to Speak on Any Subject or Act on Any Matter at Any Time.
Eighth: The Prophet is Not Limited by Man’s Reasoning.
Ninth: The Prophet can Receive Revelation on Any Matter—Temporal or Spiritual.
Tenth: The Prophet May be Involved in Civic Matters.
Eleventh: The Two Groups Who Have the Greatest Difficulty in Following the Prophet are the Proud Who Are Learned and the Proud Who are Rich.
Twelve: The Prophet Will Not Necessarily be Popular with the World or the Worldly.
Fourteen: The Prophet and the Presidency—The Living Prophet and the First Presidency—Follow Them and Be Blessed—Reject Them and Suffer.
Just three months after Benson’s speech, another highly influential apostle, Bruce R. McConkie, followed up with his talk, “Seven Deadly Heresies,” also delivered to BYU students. The controversial talk listed among the heresies the idea that “God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths,” and the belief that “revealed religion and organic evolution can be harmonized.” Still, McConkie could claim that “All truth is in agreement, and true religion and true science bear the same witness; indeed, true science is part of religion.” This sounds like vintage Widtsoe. McConkie could say this, I believe, because he felt that in the end, scientific findings would support rather than contradict religious teachings.
The religious beliefs, pronouncements, and practices of Mormon leaders imperil academic excellence at BYU. Here are some of the difficulties I see, moving categorically from ideological issues pervasive churchwide to considerations that bear directly on the educational enterprise.
Mormonism suffers from an epistemological eliteness which bodes ill for free inquiry. Leaders hold a hierarchical view of knowledge in which the most important knowledge comes only to the few highest-ranking church leaders. While all members are urged to study [p.51]and search for truth, LDS-sanctioned “truths” are never accepted solely on the basis of their own weight or merit. This reality has a chilling effect on the search for answers by those not high in ecclesiastical position.
Moreover, the truthfulness of all propositions is based on who said them and when. Recall that Ezra Taft Benson said that the statement of a living prophet supersedes the earlier statements of a dead prophet, including, presumably, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, or Joseph Smith. Those of you familiar with Benson’s extremely conservative writings and teachings, especially those delivered in the 1950s and 1960s, will understand what a frightening prospect this is.
Leadership by gerontocracy contributes to the difficulty. Members seem unwilling to accept the reality that recent age-impaired prophets such as David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, and Ezra Taft Benson have lost any prophetic or cognitive powers due to physical and mental incapacity. This has never been more apparent than when grandson Steve Benson, after visiting his 94-year-old grandfather, declared him to be mentally dysfunctional and unable even to recognize him. His public announcement of this fact was met by the orthodox with incredulity and even death threats.
Those highest-ranking men who direct the church in the prophet/president’s absence are also aged. As a result, the leadership, which tightly controls the academic environment at BYU, remains entrenched in old thinking.
LDS leaders may be old, but their seniority has not prevented them from imposing officious pronouncements. They have gone far beyond the traditional religious realms of “morals and values” (to use a Catholic phrase describing the limitations of papal infallibility) to speak authoritatively on almost any subject, including the nature of material reality, traditionally the domain of science. In so venturing, they have spoken many errors (such as pronouncements that men dressed like Quakers lived on the moon, that earthlings would never reach the moon, that the earth is very young, and that the human species has not evolved), diminishing their credibility and the infallibility they assume.
Joseph Smith moderated this idea somewhat in warning that “A prophet is only a prophet when speaking as such,” but this caveat is not spoken today. No leader seems willing to qualify Benson’s [p.52]statement, nor can members conceive of their prophet ever speaking outside of his role as prophet.
Similarly, Mormons are limited by their belief in scriptural literalism. Although suspicious of the scriptural integrity of the Bible, Mormons hold the Book of Mormon to be “the most perfect book” ever written and maintain a similar view of the inerrancy of its other scriptures, the Doctrine and Covenants and Pear of Great Price. However, modern multi-disciplinary scholarship has shown the Book of Mormon to be a nineteenth-century product rather than an ancient document as claimed by Joseph Smith. And the original papyrus manuscripts from which the Pearl of Great Price was “translated” have been shown to contain common writings from the Egyptian Book of the Dead rather than actual writings of Abraham and Moses as claimed by Joseph Smith.
Amid these literalistic box canyons the church finds itself in, it defends its position at the expense of its members, such as the accomplished BYU professor of Asian and Near Eastern languages, David P. Wright. Wright, who was described in his termination notice as an “exceptional young scholar and teacher,” was refused tenure in 1988 for his views on the nineteenth-century origins of the Book of Mormon and for his historical-critical view of the Bible which caused him to be skeptical of the accuracy of some of the events described. Widely published and unusually competent in his field, Wright was not fired because of scholarly inadequacies. In fact, he was not even fired for what he taught, for it was admitted that he never taught these unorthodox views to has students. He was fired solely on the basis of his personal and privately-held beliefs.
Another intellectually limiting Mormon belief is the myth of absolute and unchanging doctrine or, as defined in a recent church pronouncement justifying the punishment of heterodox thinkers, “doctrinal purity.” Another reference to the Widtsoe-Smith encounter might be instructive here. Although born just four years apart in the 1870s, Widtsoe came to value the progression of knowledge in all fields, while the younger Smith developed a great suspicion if not contempt for non-revealed knowledge. In Smith’s view, the truths of science are ever-changing and generally unreliable, while the truths of Mormonism are absolute and unchanging. He was half right. [p.53]Science does change and is happy to do so. But religious truths change as well.
In his article, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” BYU professor of American history Thomas G. Alexander put to rest the myth that Mormon theology is constant and unchanging by showing the evolution of basic doctrines of God and humankind. Carefully documenting several remarkable changes from 1830 through 1925, Alexander showed that Mormons have understood and worshipped different gods at different times. The godhead Mormons think of now is entirely different in character than the divinity worshipped by early Mormons. Moreover, Mormonism’s unchangeable doctrines are changing as we speak. The infusion of ideas from protestant rico-orthodox theology is a recent example.
Not only do church doctrines change, but they sometimes change in ways that negatively affect academic freedom. For example, some LDS leaders seem to be altering the church’s traditional views of freedom and choice in adverse ways, as evidenced by Apostle Boyd Packer’s recent change of time-honored concept of “free agency” to the more obedience-oriented “moral agency.”
Perhaps the single most intellectually confining idea in Mormonism is its belief that it is the only “true church.” I believe that any exclusive claim to truth is antithetical to the freedom of thought needed in life generally and in the academy in particular. An often quoted Mormon scripture tells us that the LDS church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” We might begin by questioning how a church, which is an organization, can be “true.” Perhaps some teachings comprise true propositions, but how can an ever-changing organizational structure be true? Anyone believing in exclusive truth possesses an intellectual arrogance which will prove hostile to those committed to the life of the mind and the ongoing search for knowledge, foundation stones of the twentieth-century university.
I believe that Mormons are also overburdened by their condition. al view of truth. More than ever before, Mormon leaders are intolerant of unfriendly truths. This has been emphasized by Apostle Russell Nelson, who counseled that truth should not be spoken if it could injure or destroy. Such advice reminds us of the old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But what if it is [p.54]necessary to use truth to expose the injury, unrighteousness, and injustice Nelson is concerned about? Using truth to expose abuse is what Lavina Fielding Anderson did. It resulted in her excommunication.
Elder Dallin Oaks has similarly warned against those “alternate voices” who speak on religious subjects “without calling or authority,” reinforcing the idea that the veracity and usefulness of a statement is based not on its inherent truthfulness, but on who pronounced it. Oaks defends the church policy of isolating leaders from speaking or debating in open, public settings. He believes leaders should stay within the safe format of the semi-annual general conference. They should stay away from forums in which their ideas might be questioned or even challenged. He promotes protecting leaders against any accountability for their ideas. In his words, “Members of the church are free to participate or listen to alternate voices they choose (this was obviously several years ago), but church leaders should avoid official involvement, directly or indirectly.” His justification is that leaders might be misunderstood. But the context of the address suggests that the real reason is fear that leaders will not be able to control the situation and avoid embarrassment. He dismisses debate as contentious, claiming that truth is better received by the humble “from the Holy Ghost through personal study and quiet contemplation.”
Debating societies in every town were important features of earlier Mormonism. These have been completely disposed of. Earlier Mormons were confident in both the strength of their beliefs and the process of open discussion which leads to their discovery and refinement. This confidence has been replaced by the total elimination of dialogue between high-ranking leaders and questioning members. Even study groups, which for generations have enriched the intellectual and spiritual growth of members, have been discouraged or forbidden.
This lack of trust in allowing members to search for truth without supervision extends to the condemnation of independent Mormon forums like the Sunstone Symposia, the Mormon Women’s Forum, and other such events. There is a fear that without being spoon-fed “truth” in a controlled setting members might become convinced of [p.55]new truths which are incompatible with those promoted by the church.
The church is not without cause in harboring these fears. Since its founding, it has lost members who have learned uncomfortable truths about leaders, practices, doctrine and history. Some have been lost to the influences of secularism, rationalism, positivism, socialism, and other worldly competitors of Mormonism. A humanist would say that any person has the right and duty to explore all of these options and select the best from among them. Mormon leaders would argue that their duty is to hide these confusing truths from the members who are childlike and weak and will be eaten by ravening wolves if not protected. Joseph Smith’s statement that “We teach the people correct principles and they govern themselves” is a favorite Mormon precept endorsing free will. But if it was ever believed in the past, there is little evidence that it is believed today. A less lofty but more accurate contemporary version is: “We teach them what to believe and punish them if they question it.”
In the 1980s, Apostle Oaks presented to the BYU student body a paper entitled, “Reading Church History,” in which he warned that it is “improper to criticize leaders, even if the criticism is true.” A consistent theme of all recent authoritative LDS treatments of truth is the principle that church-supporting, faith-promoting truths bearing happy faces are welcome; but challenging facts, no matter how important or crucial, are not welcome, and their bearers are in peril of losing their church membership and with it their eternal exaltation.
A favorite Mormon saying is, “When the prophet has spoken, the thinking is done.” Leaders control and govern from the top-down and make available no procedure for calling them into accountability for their actions or statements. When abuses of freedom occur, there are no channels for communication, no fair process for appeals. The system is a closed, totalitarian one. Like other authoritarian regimes, Mormonism seems to value coercion more than voluntary action, unity more than diversity, conformity more than individuality, silence rather than expression, obedience more than self-initiative, sacrifice more than responsible service, humility rather than courage, dogmatism rather than open questions, deference more than free inquiry, acceptance more than challenge, positive image more than truth, [p.56]simplicity more than complexity, submissiveness more than creativity, fiat rather than reasoning, power more than love, and exclusivity more than inclusivity.
The fact that the church is selective about which truths it accepts has ramifications for the educational experience. In a classroom setting, this translates into self-censorship about the kinds of questions asked. I attended five full years at BYU in the late 1960s and early 1970s without being exposed to significant local, national, and global issues and dilemmas, not because I didn’t take the right classes—I took a few classes in almost every subject and didn’t choose a major until the end of my junior year—but because the issues and dilemmas were not raised. They were not discussed. I studied philosophy at both BYU and the University of Utah and found their respective approaches to the same subject to be quite different.
Mormonism and its educational programs (which are extensive) suffer from limited access to inquiry and knowledge because of censorship and intentional manipulation of its own history. A practice long-carried on by Mormons and other religions, censorship was frequently used by church founder Joseph Smith in an attempt to eliminate opposing ideas. He established an unsettling precedent by ordering the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, a publishing house which in its only issue exposed the prophet’s polygamy. Later, histories of key church figures, such as Joseph and Lucy Smith, were pervasively altered so as to hide unpleasant anomalies. Other important documents, such as William Clayton’s Nauvoo, Illinois, journals, records of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and George Q. Cannon’s and Francis M. Lyman’s personal journals, were hidden away in the First Presidency’s vaults, never to see the light of day. Only occasionally do such records as the personal writings of Joseph Smith and the long-hidden accounts of Nauvoo polygamy fortuitously find their way into print.
In the university setting, limiting the kinds of books placed in the BYU bookstore, library, and classes, together with controlling accepted speakers, entertainers, and movies on campus, constrict students’ exposure to the wide world of ideas. Perhaps some lines should be drawn, but the net effect of systematic institutional censorship is that students cannot choose from among disparate ideas available. [p.57]They are instead too often directed into pre-determined channels of safe thought.
A practical ramification of this enforced narrowness became evident in a recent Fortune article which described Utah as one of the most favorable states in the country in which to establish a new business. The reasons give us pause. Utah employees, they said, are generally hard working and honest, unquestioning, not very creative, and willing to work for low pay.
Diversity is a virtue at most universities. At BYU, it is anathema. The disciplining of three professors in 1911 for their belief in organic evolution was but one precursor of the recent dismissal of heterodox faculty members, David Knowlton and Cecilia Konchar Farr. One effect of intolerance is the loss of diverse and outspoken faculty. Another is the suppression of research because it is not valued. A. C. Lambert, Parley A. Christensen, and Wilford Poulsen are among the faculty who kept their life’s works secret rather than publish them and risk chastisement and possible loss of employment.
The advancement of knowledge depends in large part on the intellectual process of questioning old assumptions and methods. Challenging existing authorities is part of this process. When a religious leader demands obedience to a particular edict, whether political, behavioral, or doctrinal, it creates a dilemma for students who are forced to chose between competing and contradictory sources of information. Since religious authority carries the weight of divine approval, the stakes are high for those who believe their eternal status hangs in the balance. Such religious intimidation is sufficient to dissuade many from pursuing truth in areas of study in which the claims of religion may be tested. Unfortunately, most disciplines have ramifications for religious belief. Thus the call to unquestioning obedience stifles most serious intellectual inquiry in a religious context.
The conservative religious agenda tends to limit attempts at objectivity. Objectivity is one of those highly-touted but rarely-achieved goals, yet it can be sought to greater or lesser degree, especially in some fields that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Efforts to use resources of BYU to prove the validity of LDS practices or beliefs have, for the most part, backfired and resulted in a loss of credibility.
[p.58]One example comes to mind—a long and expensive attempt by archaeologists in south and central America to prove the ancient veracity of the Book of Mormon. This effort has never succeeded. After decades of research and hundreds of excavations, BYU professor of anthropology Ray T. Matheny concluded in a 1084 paper entitled “Book of Mormon Archeology” that there is no archaeological basis to support the Book of Mormon as ancient Mesoamerican. His scores of convincing examples are too lengthy to mention here. The fact that he was warned not to speak again in public on this issue is the salient point.
BYU is dominated both by religious thinking and conservative ideology, whether religious, political, economic, or social. The church and university readily respond to letters of complaint from conservative parents, students, faculty, and alumni; but they seem to ignore suggestions from the liberal community. For example, faculty members with feminist leanings have been accused and punished for “politicizing courses,” the real reason for Cecilia Konchar Farr’s firing. Yet long-standing professors have been indoctrinating and politicizing students for decades with all sorts of orthodox social, religious, and political beliefs.
As a BYU student I experienced this personally and learned that it was permissible to teach virtually any sort of nonsense, provided it was conservative, not liberal, nonsense. Academic freedom at BYU is thus one-sided, and the lack of checks and balances creates an environment of intellectual favoritism and inequality in which the dominant position goes unchallenged and brutalizes others: the one has too much power and the others not enough. While some faculty are exceptions and are relatively non-self-censoring, there are still many who will not openly discuss ideas or propositions.
One role of the twentieth-century university is to advance fields of knowledge through research and publishing. The BYU faculty has a poor record in this regard, averaging far fewer publications per person than the national norm. Part of this reflects an ambivalent attitude toward research. Faculty who will not risk expressing themselves, or have no time to research and write, tend to stagnate rather than advance in their disciplines, robbing students of up-to-date information and thinking.
Another role of modern universities has been to be seedbeds of [p.59]revolutionary doctrines and social progress. As Karl Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. Nevertheless, the point is to change it.” This axiom has been taken to heart in many university settings. Revolutions of all sorts are important to the advancement of civilization. Leaders are often trained in universities where they obtain ideological foundations, inspired by stories of social change, sensitivity to the human condition, and possibilities for the good society, as taught in social classics such as Plato’s Republic, the Federalist Paper of Jefferson, Madison, et al., and Marx’s Das Kapital.
It could be argued that in its own quiet way, Mormonism is a radical vehicle of social change, even if it seems to many to be a self-absorbed and self-interested vehicle. Present-day Mormonism seems just as determined to maintain the status quo as early day Mormonism was determined to change society through religious revolution. Those times are long past, and I see little evidence that BYU is producing latter-day revolutionaries interested in addressing the world’s ills. Where is the activism and idealism for which great universities are known? Past student efforts, such the distribution of anti-war pamphlets in the 1960s and 1970s, have been squelched, in part through the careful surveillance of all student and faculty activities.
Secret monitoring with intent to harm severely compromises academics at BYU and throughout the church. This practice was made infamous during the long administration of BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson. In our own times, similar procedures exist. How did trustees obtain information on scholars that led to their eventual censure? It is now apparent that conservative members of the religion faculty, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, the Church Education System, and the Committee for Strengthening Church Members secretly monitor colleagues and church members at large, collecting verbal and written information on what they consider to be questionable or unorthodox activity. Tapes of speeches and copies of offending articles and manuscripts are brought to the attention of high-ranking leaders and are forwarded to local leaders or university administrators responsible for exacting punishment. In some documented instances, spies have been sent into BYU classrooms. While every university is beset with political [p.60]intrigue, the church system of secret spying, reporting, recriminating, and then denying (while at the same time justifying) the practice works against academic and intellectual freedom at all levels.
Conflict resolution is not a well-developed discipline at BYU. Controversy is not welcomed, nor are students and professors who engage in it. The overriding need for conformity has led to the creation of review procedures, some of them informal, which inhibit academic freedom.
Decisions about troublesome faculty, for example, too greatly involve the board of trustees and members of upper level administration and too little rely on departmental recommendations. This policy of high level interference runs against the recommendations of the American Association of University Professors. Interference by those not directly knowledgeable about the faculty subverts the principle that academic departments are best qualified to assess the competency and contribution of their members.
The recent handling of the termination of five BYU faculty members illustrates the compromising of academic integrity in favor of orthodoxical purity. More than a year before their dismissal, the names of Cecilia Konchar Farr and David Knowlton appeared in correspondence to university administrators from a member of the board of trustees directing the school to discipline these professors. BYU provost Bruce Hafen confirmed this process during an interview with a BYU newspaper reporter, only to reverse himself later by demanding that the reporter not run the story. Although the university has made much of the fairness and independence of the faculty evaluation procedure with defensive statements in local newspapers, there seems to have been considerable premeditation in these terminations, with one or more trustees interfering from behind the scenes.
Even if members of the Faculty Council on Rank and Status received no specific “marching orders” themselves, their ability to act independently was compromised by the knowledge that their own status would be jeopardized by any action, whether known or imagined, not supportive of the trustees. As a church leader once reminded me, prudent members know that suggestions from Mormon leaders are to be considered as commandments.
BYU president Rex Lee commented publicly that he agreed with [p.61]the firings even though he knew he would later be asked to provide final judgment in the appeal process. Such prejudice makes a mockery of BYU’s scholarship evaluations. That the appeals would be denied was a near-certainty. At its core, the present review process is simply too incestuous and politicized. In a fiercely authoritarian system wherein obedience is the real first principle of church rule, everyone in the system must be an organization man or woman; that is, a yes-man or -woman. To behave otherwise is to be vulnerable to punitive action. Outside, independent review of scholarship would strengthen the credibility of the process, as would a mechanism to neutralize the biases of review committee members who had a record of opposition to individual candidates. But as neither of these provisions for fair and independent review exists at BYU, the current problematic method of censoring scholars remains intact.
In summary, solutions to these problems are difficult. I should acknowledge here that despite its weaknesses, BYU is occasionally capable of uncharacteristic excellence. Moreover, extensive recent literature by the likes of Allan Bloom and others have exposed failures of twentieth-century higher education in general. Still, BYU is in need of significant improvement, starting from the top down. A May 1993 speech by apostle and BYU trustee Boyd Packer named “so-called scholars and intellectuals” as among leading enemies of the church. This kind of rhetoric sends a message to all LDS students weighing the value of pursuing a life of the mind. Packer was the force behind the recent purge of intellectuals. It cannot be overstated that BYU’s character is shaped by its trustees.
In a meeting of administrators discussing the image and accreditation concerns due to the terminations of controversial faculty members, one leader commented, “Some things are more important than accreditation.” Perhaps so, but BYU’s current hybrid, schizophrenic character may be troublesome to maintain over time.
If the church is willing to give up its iron-handed rule, BYU may flourish, as has the University of Notre Dame under the governance of a lay board of trustees composed of a diverse group of citizens, alumni, and educators. As Jackson Newell has observed, “The buffer provided by a lay board would defuse many of the present tensions with intellectuals by separating the parties who hold divergent views [p.62]on issues like leader infallibility and the sources for knowledge and truth.”
A radical measure on the opposite end of the spectrum would be to change the school’s role and name to Brigham Young Seminary and make the full transition to a parochial school, giving up the pretense of being a full-fledged university founded on the principle of open inquiry. This would be a bitter pill, and I am one of many who would not like to see this happen.
A middle ground would be to establish a more diverse board and replace the religion department with an off-campus religious program such as exists at non-Mormon colleges worldwide. By making religious instruction a separate, optional activity, and perhaps by instituting an academic religious studies program, the needs of both church and school might be better satisfied.
Allen Dale Roberts, architect in Salt Lake City, is coeditor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.