Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith
Tenure as a Tool
F. Ross Peterson
[p.87]My memory takes me back to May 1970, to the University of Texas at Arlington where I taught history. Shortly after the tragic deaths at Kent State and Jackson State colleges, activist students, black and white, wanted a memorial service. After considerable discussion between administrators and students, they agreed on a program and a main speaker. I was asked to be the speaker. My record on civil rights, the Vietnam War, and student issues was public and fairly dear, so both sides agreed on the choice.
The morning before the service, my department chair, E. C. Barksdale, called me into his office. He said, “Do you know what in the hell you are doing?” Barksdale had been fired by a Texas school district in 1937 for organizing teachers. He was crusty, profane, and unforgettable. I responded, “Yes, sir, I do.” He slowly pulled out his tobacco pouch, tore off a sheet of cigarette paper from a small pad, silently and sloppily rolled a cigarette, smashed it a little, then lit it. I waited. Then he said, “Be careful.”
I responded, “I’m not worried—I’ve got Academic Freedom.” He squinted, “How long you been here?” He knew. “Two years,” I answered. His eyes lit up, his clenched fist hit the desk, and he growled, “If those students get carried away and the cops get tough—you ain’t got shit!” The memorial service was without incident.
As an undergraduate at Utah State University in Logan, I ran into the issue of tenure as it pertained to Brigham Young University. Numerous faculty had previously been BYU instructors. I learned of firings over organic evolution in the early 1900s. Lowry Nelson, [p.88]founder of rural sociology as an academic field, left under duress in the 1920s, and others followed. Closer to my academic lifetime was the disruption caused by President Ernest Wilkinson in the early 1950s and 1960s. J. Golden Taylor, Thorton Y. Booth, Brigham Madsen, and Carlton Culmsee had all navigated to Logan after finding Provo inhospitable. They talked about academic freedom, or lack of it, continually. They blasted the LDS church in their daily classes. George Jensen, Austin Fife, Heber Snell, Venetta Nielsen, and Moyle Q. Rice were all great teachers, but they were harsh, sarcastic, and cynical so far as religious-sponsored education was concerned. Their collective delivery was precise and pointed.
George Jensen, a USU German professor, was given to making light of sacred things. Jensen, a returned Mormon missionary to Germany, became disaffected and as he aged evolved toward sacrilege. He loved to give sacred Mormon temple signs while shaking hands and say other things that upset students and faculty. Every so often, the board of trustees wanted him and others like him fired, but tenure provided protection. In his later years Jensen became worried that there might be truth in religion, so he promised after he died to come back and visit a younger colleague, Milton Abrams, in the event that it was true. Years later, Max Peterson rigged a speaker in the ceiling above Abrams’s head and activated a tape that said simply, “Milton! It’s true!” After that when Milton gave up coffee we decided to come dean in case he gave up smoking and came back to church.
In graduate school you were taught about tenure, academic freedom, and publish or perish. One of my professors had a memorable cartoon on his wall. The crucified Jesus and the two thieves were depicted in the background and one Roman soldier said, “They say he was a great teacher.” The other responded, “Yeah, but did he publish?”
These incidents introduced me to the reality of campus life. There are always problems and difficult decisions, and a thorough analysis reveals that each institution creates its own criteria for retaining teachers. Parochial schools have clear statements about supportive and appropriate behavior.
In eight years’ service as a department chair and eight more as an ombudsperson who oversaw due process in tenure and promotion [p.89] meetings, I have seen a variety of challenges to academic freedom. My conclusion is that it is a treasure. It is also threatened. That is why its discussion has profound relevance. Public and private institutions have separate codes, presumably based on the guidelines of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). However, there are numerous twists on the guidelines.
The educator W. T. Couch once wrote
Academic Freedom is the principle designed to protect the teacher from hazards that tend to prevent (her) or him from meeting their obligations in the pursuit of truth. The obligations of the teacher are direct to truth, and the teacher who, in order to please anybody, suppresses important information, or says things he knows are not true, or refrains from saying things that need to be said in the interest of truth, betrays his calling and renders himself unworthy to belong in the company of teachers.
This is a solid and forthright opinion that deserves careful consideration.
Academic freedom as an idea is often considered more important than the ephemeral reality of particular people and circumstances. It is an idea that is gravely threatened in our time. Institutions with specific missions and goals can require unique behavior from their employees. That is not new. The maintenance of academic freedom also implies professional ethical standards of truthful disclosure and reasonable care. It is not nor has it ever been a blank check.
As First Amendment scholar William Van Alstyne points out, professors are protected in their “freedom” but not immune “from the power of others to use their authority to restrain its exercise.” Universities or colleges are often faced with the reality of economic and curricular limitations. Consequently, an institution’s decision not to offer a particular subject or not to provide financial means for a particular line of research may be faulted as educationally unenlightened, but such actions would not constitute an abridgment of freedom. However, freedom is abridged when sanctions are threatened against a faculty member because his or her interest pertains to a subject that the institution does not support. If an institution desires to be open and pluralistic, it must avoid any and all forms of censure. But in reality ultimate financial resources of [p.90]almost all institutions of higher learning are beyond the control of the faculty. Only in rare cases do faculty manage resources.
Issues of professional integrity are resolved within a given institution. They are ultimately not overseen by extraneous professional groups issuing licenses. Insofar as public universities or cob leges are concerned, the power to force hemlock on a modern Socrates is constrained, and private institutions generally adopt similar procedures as exist in public schools. The original body of oversight is usually a faculty or a faculty committee. Each campus generally has a mechanism whereby charges are filed and hearings are held. This is a well-tried process of peer evaluation. On issues of suspected infringement, an appeal process usually exists that allows a faculty member to seek help from the AAUP or from the administration.
Now let me personalize the discussion and bring it closer to home and to the reality that confronts this particular dialogue. That is to illustrate the difference between public and private institutions in Utah. On the surface, the process of academic freedom looks very similar; however, there are distinct differences.
On order from the State Board of Regents, Utah institutions have undergone a revision of faculty codes. The Utah State University faculty code states,
The University is operated for the common good which depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic Freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to teaching, research and service.
The University is a community dedicated, through promulgation of thought, truth, and understanding, to teaching, research, and service. It must therefore be a place where innovative ideas, original experiments, creative activities, and independence of thought are not merely tolerated but actively encouraged. Because thought and understanding flourish only in a climate of intellectual freedom, and because the pursuit of truth is fundamentally a personal enterprise, a code statement of faculty responsibility must be strongly anchored to principles of intellectual freedom and personal autonomy. While faculty must abide by a code of standards of professional responsibility, the university must provide and safeguard a climate of intellectual freedom. Relationships within the university should consist of shared confidence, mutual loyalty, [p.91]and trust. Dealing should be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency, and a concern for personal dignity.
The code then elaborates:
Academic freedom is the right to teach, study, discuss, investigate, discover, create and publish freely. Academic freedom protects the rights of faculty members in teaching and of students in learning. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. The faculty member is entitled to full freedom in teaching, research, and creative activities, subject to the limitations imposed by professional responsibility.
Other institutions in the state and region vary. Westminster College has no tenure policy. It operates on three- or five-year renewable contracts. Community college professors are virtually unprotected in many respects. They do not have a national organization like AAUP. Untenured people at any institution clearly have problems. Frankly, private institutions can do what they want. President Rex Lee of BYU said there is more academic freedom at BYU than other universities because people can say positive things about their religion in the classroom.
Close examination of Brigham Young University’s annual contract and code illustrates the abandonment of traditional academic freedom. In 1991 the contract was routine and said little about conduct and behavior; however, in 1992 the following statement was added:
Brigham Young University is a private university. It has unique goals and aspirations that arise from the mission of its sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By accepting a contract of employment here, faculty members choose to accept, support, and participate in the University’s religiously oriented educational mission, to observe and support the behavior standards of the University, including the Honor Code and Dress and Grooming Standards, and to further the University’s objectives by being role models for a life that combines the quest for intellectual rigor with the quest for spiritual values and personal character. Faculty who are members of BYU’s sponsoring Church also accept the spiritual and temporal expectations of wholehearted Church membership.
[p.92]A year later an additional statement was included stipulating that faculty agree to “refrain from behavior or expression that seriously and adversely affects the University mission or the Church.” In addition, “LDS faculty also accept as a condition of employment the standards of conduct consistent with qualifying for temple privileges.”
The problem is that this policy takes continuance or tenure away from the hands of the university. If an ecclesiastical leader, a non-academic, revokes a professor’s LDS temple recommend (which verifies personal worthiness in areas of belief and behavior), the individual can be terminated from employment.
If a person is terminated for not upholding the mission of a private institution or its sponsoring organization, that is legal. When such political termination is disguised in a charade of academic process, the school’s honesty and morality are jeopardized. When a faculty member’s academic ability is questioned for political, religious, or ideological issues, he or she has cause for redress, according to established academic protocol.
In reality, the problems of the Provo campus for LDS church headquarters in Salt Lake City have always existed. In the 1930s the Church Education System drove many talented instructors from their ranks over theological orthodoxy. Included in this group were Obert Tanner, Lynn Bennion, Daryl Chase, and Sterling McMurrin. BYU has always been willing to sacrifice professors and ideas in order to maintain theological orthodoxy. In this respect BYU is no different from any other parochial school which has been less than honest in its academic pretensions.
During the winter of Valley Forge, American revolutionary Tom Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” They are also the times that try women’s souls. All concerned must understand the implied as well as written contract between scholars and their employers and the responsibility that accompanies freedom. Students are entitled to more than institutional insecurities about image and longevity. The human spirit deserves more leeway than short-sighted administrators sometimes allow. But they must if BYU is to fulfill a mission at all commensurate with the ideals of a university. And they will if they thoughtfully consider what is best for everyone involved.