Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith

Chapter 7.
Academic Freedom Forever; However
Frederick S. Buchanan

[p.73]The present tensions at Brigham Young University are due to a perceived need to hold faculty accountable to a dual standard. In my experience as a member of a retention, promotion, and tenure committee at the University of Utah, making decisions on the future of one’s colleagues is difficult enough in an institution which is committed to pursuit of “objective truth.” To add to this, the extent to which scholarship or behavior conforms to “divine truth” compounds an already daunting task. BYU is attempting to be both a seminary devoted to faith and a university devoted to, in Jefferson’s words, the pursuit of “truth wherever it may lead.” The central question of this dialogue is: Can Brigham Young University be a religious school and still promote and preserve academic freedom?

I began thinking about this last summer while attending a six-week National Endowment for the Humanities institute on Jefferson at “Mr. Jefferson’s University” in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at his alma mater, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. My readings about Jefferson confirmed a suspicion about where the discussion might lead: the tension between Jeffersonian ideals and Jefferson’s practices.

If anyone epitomizes the ideal of academic freedom it is surely the “Sage of Monticello.” After all, this is the humanist who “swore eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the minds of men.” Consider too Jefferson’s paean to freedom which he said characterized the University of Virginia. The university, he wrote at [p.74]its founding, “will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”1 However, when one looks further, the “darker side” of Jefferson’s perspective comes into view. For instance, when asked how David Hume’s Tory-oriented History of England might be safely used by American students, Jefferson recommended that to prevent students from “sliding into Federalist doctrine” the editor should “give you the text of Hume, purely and verbally, till he comes to some misrepresentation or omission … he then alters the text silently, makes it say what truth and candor say it should be, and resumes the original text again as soon as it becomes innocent, without having warned you of your rescue from misguidance.”2 Again when the time came for Jefferson to choose the faculty of law, he was not reluctant to favor Republican rather than Federalist perspectives. He did not want the Revolution to be subverted by “wrong” Federalist ideology and felt justified in censoring “wrong” texts and curtailing those who espoused “wrong” principles. He had his own view of political correctness or “political purity” and imposed it on his university in the name of a higher end—namely, the survival of Republican institutions. I suppose he could even have claimed that such indoctrination made his university a freer place to study the “truth” about the new nation.3

I cite these instances not to rationalize such actions or provide Jeffersonian legitimacy for the curtailment of academic freedom, but to illustrate the complexity of the issue of ends and means, of ideals and realities. Indeed, I was reminded of my mentor, Lowell L. Bennion, discussing at the Salt Lake City LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah the difference between ideals and reality. He drew a straight line across the board and said, “This is the ideal world. The world we aspire to.” Below the straight line he drew [p.75]a fluctuating graph. This uncertain line, he said, “is how we really act.” Jefferson believed in high ideals of freedom of expression, but his ideals were conditioned by jagged “howevers.” And in lesser mortals the same conditions certainly are evident.

The issue of academic freedom at BYU appeared in the Washington Post while I was in Virginia and led to considerable discussion with many of the twenty-five academicians from a variety of state and private colleges. Even from those at private religious institutions there was general agreement on the desirability and necessity of academic freedom for faculty and students. But once again my colleagues, after expressing general support for academic freedom, would invariably add the ubiquitous “however.”

Private, religious institutions are less compelled by tradition and necessity to honor free thought as part of faculty hiring agreements. In large measure such institutions depend on the financial support of a particular ideological community. They actually operate on the basis of “he who pays the piper, calls the tune.”

It is within the legal and educational rights of privately supported schools to require that faculty forego open criticisms of the policies of the sponsoring institution. And of course similar realities exist at secular institutions.

Most of my colleagues at the Jefferson Institute had difficulty understanding why a person would want to teach at an institution with a special religious mission if they did not concur with the institution’s statement of mission. A personal anecdote might illustrate this latter issue. In the 1960s I was invited to consider an appointment at BYU. In the exchange of letters it became evident that BYU president Ernest Wilkinson’s role in spying on faculty and the church’s stand on denying the priesthood to African-Americans were obstacles. The dean, whose frankness I have come to appreciate, concluded our correspondence by saying: “I think if I were you that I would be reluctant to come to BYU. I think I can see an inescapable conflict between the one paramount obligation of a BYU faculty (that is, not to harm the testimony of the students) and your views. [Your questions] would impel you to some sort of collision.”4

[p.76]He was right and I think BYU and I were both better off in the long term. The point is, of course, that people who accept a position at any university should fully understand the terms of the contract. At the same time the institution has an obligation to be “up front” about its expectations. Many problems at religious institutions could be prevented if there were clear-cut guidelines and up-front statements of expectations as well as respect for due process and minimal external interference from the Holy See or LDS church headquarters.

Private institutions are not alone in requiring “correct” expression, however: one colleague at the Jefferson Institute had been forced out of his department at a state university because he espoused a conservative ideology. He got an appointment in a religiously-oriented college. The old joke in the John F. Kennedy era: “How do you get to Washington, D.C.? Go to Harvard and turn left” has a serious undertow to it.

As much as I support the ideal of academic freedom, in the perspective of cultural pluralism it appears that something valuable may be lost if universities sponsored by churches are forced to only admit as “truth” that which can be empirically validated and tested by traditional western intellectual standards. The special mission claimed by some religious institutions is even recognized by the accreditation agencies. If historian David Tyack is correct in asserting that there has never been “one best system” of public education in America, surely it is even more evident that there is no “one best system” in higher education.5 At least as I understand it there is no one infallible scientific method, no one best literary standard, and certainly no one best way to reform education. This is not to say that “anything goes.” It does mean, however, that openness to new ideas and methodologies should be a paramount requirement for all institutions of higher education, without these schools being required by external or internal pressure to standardize the search for “truth.”

In my conversations at the College of William and Mary I became keenly aware of the diversity of perspectives which exist in Catholic institutions, many of whose boards consist of lay members of the [p.77]Catholic church and non-Catholics. Some even have atheists on their faculty as part of their mission statement to follow truth wherever it leads and to allow students to engage in free and open debate. Catholic-oriented colleges do not assume that their prime responsibility is the promotion of official Catholic doctrine or protection of the church from its critics. However, one Utah Catholic educator noted that the increasing secularization of the nominally Catholic colleges is giving many Catholics cause for concern. If Catholic colleges lose their distinctive role and raison d’etre, lay people are asking, why bother supporting them?6

The irony is that Mormonism supports free inquiry. I grew up hearing numerous Mormon sermons about freedom and the necessity of making choices. One hymn led me, rightly or wrongly, to believe that Mormonism was not incompatible with the freedom to inquire: “Freedom and reason make us men./ Take these away, what are we then?/ Mere animals and just as well/ The beasts may think of heaven or hell.”7

Nothing so powerfully illustrates Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s relative openness to debate and inquiry as an incident at Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1843. A group of over-zealous high priests took [p.78]one of their number to task for having “wrong” ideas about a verse in the biblical book of Revelation. They were about to put Pelatiah Brown on trial, when Smith stopped the proceedings. Commenting about the incident later he said: “I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodists and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled.”8 A trammel is, of course, something which everybody in 1842 was familiar with: a hobble or shackle used to make a horse amble instead of run—a means of impeding the horse’s freedom and keeping it from straying. Smith wanted the freedom to “lengthen his stride” instead of being restrained to a slow walk. Indeed, Mormon church president Spencer W. Kimball’s challenge to “lengthen our stride” in all areas of life is impossible if we’re forced to wear a trammel, no matter how comfortable it might be.

There is a strong psychological connection between learning and tension. Dewey held that we learn only when we are solving problems and that puzzlement is a necessary condition of the learning process. My son used to wear a T-shirt to his high school weight-lifting class which read “No Pain—No Gain.” It appears to me that there is a close relationship between the notion of intellectual pain or puzzlement and the Mormon notion of free agency and that “there is opposition in all things.”9 How can there be opposition and choice, if, a priori, certain things cannot be talked about or written about? In addition to Dewey, learning theories based on the work of Kohlberg and Perry focus on the struggle which must take place in order for humans to develop intellectually, socially, morally, even spiritually.10 Students [p.79]need to be presented with ideas and arguments slightly beyond their reach so that they are stretched into solving problems and thereby develop capabilities. This is certainly a far cry from B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning and the traditional didactic and catechistical approach to teaching. But then I don’t think Mormons have ever put much stock in a no-risk theology which guarantees salvation. Granted that it’s messy and uncomfortable, nevertheless risk-taking and choice-making are essential parts of the Mormon view of life which support the ideal of academic freedom.

Over the years a significant amount of sound research has been produced at BYU. I can’t dismiss this scholarly output in the sciences, history, sociology, or literature as dishonest, simply because it was done at BYU. I have found much of the research done by my colleagues at the “Y” to be stimulating. This is why I am profoundly saddened that many of them are being measured for a trammel.

To be upbeat for a moment, here are some instances of protection of academic freedom at BYU. When Professor Warner Woodworth in organizational behavior criticized the policies of a local industrial plant, attempts were made by industrial and political interests “to shut him up” for going public with his criticism. The administration resisted the pressures to censure him.11

Sociologist Wilford Smith once took issue with capital punishment in a radio address. Later he debated the issue publicly with a member of the religion faculty who said that Smith’s position was contrary to church doctrine. A BYU student wrote to the student newspaper urging Smith’s dismissal. University president Ernest Wilkinson wrote him saying he appreciated the reasonableness of his presentation and congratulating him for taking a stand “on an important issue on which the last word had not yet been said.”12 Professor Smith believed that “if there is any church that teaches its members to stand on their own feet and to think for themselves it is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”13 He once told [p.80]Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith that the conservative churchman had driven away more people from the church as a result of his strict teachings than anything he had ever taught at BYU. In a good natured riposte, Apostle Smith responded that he didn’t have to get mad about it!14 This feistiness is a healthy antidote to the all-too-common deference and reverence for authority. I’m convinced that some faculty stay at BYU to subvert, in the best educational sense of the word, the rigidity that sets in when people stop thinking critically. In the words of BYU’s Parley Christensen, these faithful dissidents prefer to believe that “God himself is limited when [humans] cease to think.”15

Clearly, some freedom does exist at BYU, but as one BYU faculty member observed to me, “It can be ‘bonkersville’ down here at times.” There is too much “sweetness and light” in the examination of crucial social and religious issues and a definite lack of open clashes of different perspectives. This is partly due to the Mormon need for unity and aversion to controversy. In fact, some view the current trouble as an inevitable cultural clash between provincial rural Utah and a cosmopolitan university. Frequently the rural ambience of the campus is assumed to be the ideal. Situated as BYU is in one of the most conservative counties in the nation, it would be surprising if this tension didn’t erupt from time to time.

When I asked a friend who teaches church history at BYU if there were any problems in the department of religious education he said there were no problems whatsoever because the fifty men and one woman who teach there are all of one mind and speak with one voice. When I suggested that at some universities if two people think alike, one of them wasn’t necessary, he simply smiled. I suppose he could justify such unanimity among the religion faculty with the scriptural injunction that “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.”

A Catholic educator recently observed that BYU was in fact Mormonism’s equivalent of a Pontifical College and that like similar [p.81]Catholic institutions its main role was to research and explain the orthodox teachings of the church—not to challenge what had already been decided upon by those in authority. Certainly that seems to have been in the mind of church leader J. Reuben Clark, Jr., when he gave the official charge at the inauguration of Howard S. McDonald as president of BYU in 1945. Acknowledging the dual function of BYU in promoting secular and spiritual knowledge, Clark asserted that secular learning is the lesser and spiritual the greater, because spiritual learning “is built upon absolute truth. … These ultimate truths may not be questioned. All secular truths will, must, conform to these ultimate truths.”16

Clark’s perspective of lesser and greater truths supports the common notion that all of BYU’s academic departments are really ancillary to the “unified” religion department. It also promotes the view that the religion faculty are in fact “emissaries of the Brethren.” These perspectives make the issue of academic freedom more problematic than in academic departments at Catholic colleges. Ironically in the same issue of the Improvement Era which published Clark’s charge to McDonald, an article by Marvin O. Ashton, of the Presiding Bishopric of the LDS church, advocated that young people should be taught to think for themselves when giving talks in church instead of parroting what their parents have written for them. He concludes: “Let us not raise parrots—let us, with the inspiration of our Heavenly Father, develop devout thinkers.”17

It is not in religion alone that absolutes are claimed. I recall one BYU professor of child development in the 1960s saying something like “If a teacher knows what the truth is there is absolutely nothing wrong with indoctrination.” The inquiring mind might want to ask a further question: “What is truth?” And what of “creativity, adventure, progress and risk”?18 Education at a university is not a means to [p.82]promoting a particular point of view, but of asking why such a point of view should be held. Surely it is possible to give good reasons for faith commitments and still remain open to “further light and knowledge,” unless, of course, we really do adhere to blind faith, which is not a Mormon tenet. To the contrary, it appears to me that their whole emphasis is on “faith [as] an instrument of growth, not an obligation to stagnation.”19 Indeed, one BYU professor of history, William J. Snow, even suggested at the semi-centennial celebration of the university that “upon many questions of importance it may be that skepticism is the highest of duties and that faith is the unpardonable sin.” Uncritical acceptance of political, social and even religious affirmations, Snow averred, “lead to a lethargic and closed mind and block the wheels of progress.”20

The discussion of academic freedom among the Mormons should include the University of Utah. The first president of the latter, John R. Park, a respected Mormon educator, laid out what can be interpreted as the university’s charter in his message to the class of 1879:

This is your university. … The faculty is here to help you to help yourselves. It is a democratic university, which means that every student must share with the faculty the responsibility of conducting it and must cooperate in every way possible for its welfare and success. Each of you will have the right to full and free expression of his thoughts and no opinion or beliefs will be forced upon you.21

Lest one assume that this grand vision for the university was consistently upheld, in 1915 a number of faculty were fired for making statements critical of Joseph Smith and the Mormon church.

[p.83]If I may be permitted a personal incursion here: it was at the U that I first faced the need to think actively about religion. Around 1957 I took a class in political science from Frank Jonas who used a text edited by his colleague G. Homer Durham, entitled Introductory Readings in Political Science. Jonas’s probing in-class discussions and Durham’s provocative questions following each set of readings challenged my patience. As a twenty-four-year-old former LDS missionary, ex-GI, and sophomore, I had never been pushed to this extent before and I resented it. I wanted more facts, not unanswerable questions. In short, I wanted to be catechized. After class one day I confronted Frank Jonas and told him that I was confused by his continual barrage of unanswerable questions. He thereupon introduced me to the essence of the university when he said I shouldn’t be so impatient to get immediate answers. When I said I didn’t know where we were going in class, he said, “Wait until we get to the end and you’ll know where we’ve been.” When I persisted, he glared at me over glasses perched on the end of his nose and growled: “What do you want me to do? Bear my testimony to you?” To Frank Jonas and, ironically, to G. Homer Durham, who later became an LDS general authority, I am indebted for awakening in me the realization that education is more than the dissemination of facts and that there are ethical/religious implications to every field of study.

In 1970 I returned to the university as a faculty member in the department of educational studies. For twenty-three years I have had utmost freedom to pursue what I have construed to be an appropriate program of research in the history of education in Utah. Even when I strayed from a strict focus on educational history and dabbled in Scottish-Mormon studies, every chairperson in our department has given me leeway to follow my line of historical inquiry. Nor could I ask for greater support from the almost totally non-Mormon faculty. At times I have taught classes dealing with religion and education and always included discussion of religion in my classes on American history of education. I have never been cautioned or questioned on the appropriateness of such discussion.

However, the University of Utah has its own set of problems. It is almost impossible for a devout Mormon to find employment in many departments. This unwritten exclusionary policy may reflect a [p.84]faculty desire to give the U a less regional profile. There may also be a suspicion on the part of non-Mormons that the religious bias of LDS faculty will interfere with research in some areas—a view which recent church disciplinary actions against LDS intellectuals tends to strengthen. But there is also undeniable prejudice. Former director of the Stewart Laboratory School Dr. Roald Campbell told me that in the 1950s highly qualified Mormon applicants were rejected in favor of less qualified non-Mormons. During a discussion in one department of a prospective appointee who had a Mormon background, a faculty member commented that he would never vote to appoint anyone who had “ever breathed the air of Utah.” The comment was roundly applauded by other members of the faculty. One friend quipped that he was too good a Mormon for the U and not devout enough for BYU. Similarly students are often waxy of how they express themselves in their papers for fear of arousing an instructor’s antipathy to Mormon beliefs and getting a low grade. Such students are careful to hide their Mormon values. In so doing they feel that their academic freedom is restricted.

Academia among Mormons, then, is a complex phenomenon. But in spite of all the “howevers” I have used to moderate my position, I believe that Mormonism officially endorses untrammeled scholarship while unfortunately promoting an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. I think I can understand some of the rationale for such a climate—institutions have a hard time letting go of their children. And yet “letting go,” even in the face of risk, is a basic principle of the Mormon world view.

I am reminded of a perceptive Amish teacher who was censured by his church in Ohio for promoting “higher education” (i.e., high school) among the young. An Amish bishop held that this would induce apostasy. The teacher’s response was that the church dropout rate among those who never went to high school was just as great as among those who went beyond the elementary grades. The same can be said of Mormons. While it is generally held that exposure to higher education decreases the extent of religious activity, among Mormons the more educated are more likely to be active in church. While there is some decrease in “religiosity” among women who go  beyond college graduation, in general increased education for Mormon men and woman does not increase the degree of [p.85]secularization they experience. There is greater chance of “backsliding” among mechanics and policemen than among social scientists and educators.22

I believe that there is a deeply rooted Mormon belief in free agency. In the spirit of the “creative tension” which Mormon historian Leonard Arrington has said characterizes Brigham Young University, perhaps it is possible for a creative (rather than a dogmatic) resolution of an issue which threatens to parochialize Mormon education. Catholic sociologist Thomas O’Dea said many years ago that Mormonism needs its intellectuals. Today it needs them more than ever if it is to meet the challenges of a worldwide church at the portals of the twenty-first century. John Dewey, who admired much of Mormon social philosophy, trenchantly expressed the need for educational freedom as a means of enhancing the future when he observed that:

Without light, a people perish. Without freedom, light grows dim and darkness comes to reign … Without freedom, old truths become so stale worn that they cease to be truths and become mere dictates of external authority. He who would put the freedom of others in bond, especially the freedom of inquiry and communication, creates conditions which finally imperil his own freedom and that of his offspring.23

Hopefully out of a dialogue between Mormons and humanists can emerge a commitment on the part of people of good will to find creative ways of moving beyond “however” toward a more resolute “therefore.” Difficult as this may be, surely if Israel and the PLO can resolve the issues which divide them, there is hope for us. The motto of Mormon education should then read: “The Glory of God is Intelligence: It feels so good not be trammelled.”


1. Cited in Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 987.

2. Cited in David B. Tyack, ed., Turning Points in American Educational History (Waltham, MA: Blaisdell Publishing Co., 1967), 87-88. Emphasis added.

3. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson, 985-86.

4. Letter to Frederick S. Buchanan, 25 Feb. 1969.

5. David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 11.

6. The celebrated case of Charles Curran at Catholic University of America is a counter-instance of the openness to inquiry that characterizes many Catholic institutions. It is my understanding, however, that this was because CU was in fact an officially designated “Pontifical College” which means that is has been in a sense “accredited” by the Holy See to promote scholarly, but orthodox, interpretations of Catholic doctrine and practices. Faculty in the theology department have, therefore, an obligation not to contradict the officially pronounced doctrines or policies of the papacy. Paradoxically, Curran could have done the same critical exegesis on birth control and celibacy in the sociology department. He could not, however, do this as an accredited theologian, because he would then have been teaching with the imprimatur of Rome. Curran was certainly not teaching what Rome wanted him to teach. His efforts to have the courts intervene and reinstate him as a professor of theology failed.

7. “Know This That Every Soul is Free,” Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), 240.

8. Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vol. 5 (Salt Lake City: deseret Book Co., 1949), 340, emphasis added.

9. Ne. 2:11, in Book of Mormon.

10. John Dewey, How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process (Boston: Heath, 1933); Lawrence Kohlberg, The Psychology of Moral Development (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984); William G. Perry, Jr., Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 1970).

11. Conversation with Warner Woodworth, 30 July 1992.

12. Wilford E. Smith to Frederick S. Buchanan, 8 Oct. 1993.

13. Letter of Wilford E. Smith in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (Summer 1993): viii.

14. Wilford Smith related this incident to me in a telephone conversation on 1 Oct. 1993.

15. Parley A. Christensen, Of a Number of Things (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press), 25.

16. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “Charge to President Howard S. McDonald at his Inauguration as President of the Brigham Young University,” Improvement Era 49 (Jan. 1946): 60, emphasis added.

17. Marvin O. Ashton, “Poll Parrots or Thinkers,” Improvement Era 49 (Jan. 1946): 58-59.

18. Sterling M. McMurrin, “Some Distinguishing Characteristics of  Mormon Philosophy,” Sunstone 16 (Mar. 1993): 44.

19. I was unable to find a printed source for this quotation. In my personal notes (c. 1959) I attributed it to Joseph F. Smith, president of the LDS Church from 1901-18. I may have picked the quotation up from T. Edgar Lyon at the Salt Lake Institute of Religion.

20. Snow’s comments were made as the representative of the faculty at the Semi-Centennial Dinner on 16 Oct., 1925. See Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 17 (Jan. 1926): 102.

21. Cited in Elizabeth Haglund, ed., Remembering: The University of Utah (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1981), vii, emphasis added.

22. Stan L. Albrecht and Tim B. Heaton, “Secularization, Higher Education and Religiosity,” Review of Religious Research 26 (Sept. 1984): 43-58: Tim B. Heaton, “Are Social Scientists Less Religious?” AMCAP Journal 13 (1987): 139-43.

23. John Dewey, “Academic Freedom,” in Intelligence in the Modern World: John Dewey’s Philosophy, ed. Joseph Ratner (New York: Modern Library, 1939), 725.

Bonnie Bullough is Professor Emeritus of Nursing, State University of New York at Buffalo.