The Lord’s University
by Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel
Dirty Laundry, Dangerous Words: The Houston and Evenson Cases
[p.302]If anything was clear to Gail Turley Houston in mid-1993, it was that her position at BYU was precarious. In the wake of Cecilia Konchar Farr’s and David Knowlton’s firings, she still had her job—but only provisionally, and with a clear warning that she would follow Farr out of the English department if she did not modify what the Faculty Council on Rank and Status branded her “feminist orientation and advocacy.” As they had with Farr, council members charged Houston with allowing feminism to outweigh what they saw as more important concerns in her classes. “The matter of politicizing the classroom and proselytizing students to a partisan point of view is a serious matter,” the council wrote, “especially if such efforts are unwelcomed by the students.”1
Houston’s colleagues and students had not thought she would be reprimanded. With a book accepted at a university press, she surpassed the majority of her department academically. The publicity surrounding Farr and the view that Provost Bruce Hafen had intervened in Farr’s review had led more people (including Houston) to anticipate action against Farr. When reporters began calling in early June, then, wondering if she was one of the group of professors to be on the firing line, she was surprised; she had not considered the possibility. For her first two years on campus, Houston had remained relatively quiet, pursuing academic career goals and not engaging in the public activism that had brought Farr notoriety. At the end of her second year, however, discussions in her course on Victorian literature made her aware that several students in the class had suffered abuse—as she herself had—at the hands of “good” Mormon fathers, brothers, and boyfriends. “It was the first time I ever cried in class,” she later recalled, “and I knew I had to do something about it.” For the next four years Houston would be central to much feminist activity at BYU.
Unlike Farr—a child convert to Mormonism who felt that her Eastern, [p.303]working-class roots set her apart from mainstream Mormon culture—Houston had grown up in Phoenix, Arizona, part of the “Mormon corridor” from Canada to Mexico. Houston’s family had been Mormon on both sides for five generations. She attended BYU from 1969 to 1973, majoring in humanities, but it was not until she returned in 1979 as a widowed single parent, having completed an M.A. in humanities at Arizona State University, that she began to articulate her own feminist sensibility. Her experiences in a Ph.D. program at UCLA (where she eventually met and married Michael Amundsen, a free-lance film maker) further shaped her budding feminism. As a young parent, for a time unmarried, she relied on spiritual sources of strength and assurance. “It was a rigorous program [at UCLA],” she remembered, “and difficult to do as a single mom, but I’ll never regret it because I know, frankly, that my heavenly parents wanted me to do it.”2
Houston’s casual reference to the largely unspoken Mormon doctrine of God as a heavenly married couple points to ways in which her feminism is rooted in spiritual experience. As discussed in chapter 7, beginning in the late 1970s, a growing number of Mormon feminists began to recover, explore, and share information and experiences about the Mormon concept of a heavenly mother. While Houston did not initially identify herself with feminist figures like Sonia Johnson, she did recognize ways that Mormon conceptions of patriarchy had adversely affected her childhood—a realization that became more significant over the next decade as she completed her Ph.D. For Houston, the Mormon notion of God as heavenly parents provided an alternative to patriarchy; she began to feel this most intensely following her mother’s death in 1992. In her mind the doctrine of heavenly parents was rational, commonplace, as orthodox as the familiar Mormon hymn that is its most popular expression: “In the heavens are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare. Truth is reason, truth eternal, tells me I’ve a mother there.”3
For Houston, as she arrived in Provo, there was no reason her feminism and her Mormonism should be in conflict. She considered herself devout, and her personal spiritual experiences made her a firm believer. Her decision to teach at BYU was accompanied by orthodox Mormon rituals: at her request, her husband bestowed a “priesthood blessing” on her through which both he and Gail felt divine confirmation of her decision to return to BYU to teach. A portion of her “patriarchal blessing”—an individual set of instructions typically given to Mormons as adolescents—indicated she would be educated at fine schools and be a gifted teacher. She and her family made the move from Los Angeles to Provo prepared to sink deep roots.
The Drive for a Women’s Resource Center
Houston’s realization that several of her students had come, as she had, from abusive backgrounds helped convince her that shortcomings in her culture’s ideas about gender roles were at least partly to blame. In January [p.304]1992 she joined with other campus feminists who, on the heels of VOICE’s curfew proposal (see chap. 6), were mobilizing in support of a women’s resource center on campus. That month VOICE sponsored a teach-in on violence against women; in pre-event press and during a panel on abuse, Houston announced her support for such a center. Recounting personal experiences with violence and abuse—including an attack she suffered by an intruder in her home in 1978, shortly after her first husband had died—Houston quickly became a central voice in the quest for a center. Her experiences with students led her to realize that many BYU women “have experienced violence against them in some way.”4 As she told one reporter, “We carry the same problems [at BYU] the world has. What would be bad is if we didn’t do something about it.”5
When a Women’s Coalition formed among various campus women’s groups, Houston was named to head the drive for a resource center. VOICE’s controversial status caused the group’s co-advisors, Tomi-Ann Roberts and Cecilia Konchar Farr, to maintain some distance from the movement. But activism on behalf of the center was integral to much of VOICE’s activities in 1992. At its first “Take Back the Night” march in April 1992, much of what was said by speakers and demonstrators regarded the center. A list of “Demands for a Better Society” distributed at the event included: “WE DEMAND that B.Y.U. stop pretending that women students here are not victimized by rape, incest or battery. WE DEMAND that they establish a Women’s Resource Center to provide much needed advocacy, support and education for victims of sexual assault.” Two hundred marchers chanted slogans like “Hey administration, open up you eyes! Rape and incest happen here. Stop telling lies!” and “15,000 women go to BYU. No resource center—what’re ya gonna do?” For several months campus discussion centered around the pros and cons of a campus center, VOICE’s outspoken advocacy, and the place of feminism at BYU. The Women’s Coalition gained support for a Student Advisory Council—sponsored survey of campus women on issues related to the center, and in June the coalition completed an official resource center proposal.6
That fall, as the proposal was under review by Provost Bruce Hafen, opposition emerged in the form of a BYU undergraduate, Andrew Gustafson, who set up information booths on campus to counter those set up by the Women’s Coalition. Gustafson claimed that establishing a center for women would be sexist, discriminating against men who may have been abused.7 Convinced that approval for a center was unlikely, VOICE members and others launched a letter-writing campaign to Hafen. Then in December, unexpectedly, the university announced its approval for a center, to be administered under the existing Counseling and Development Center. When asked by reporters about the board of trustees’ reaction to the proposal, President Rex Lee said he saw “unanimous recognition” among them that “there are problems peculiar to women and a desire to help.”8 Gaining [p.305]the center brought a sense of satisfaction to Houston and others who had worked for it throughout the year.
Questioning the Academic Freedom Statement
Less than a month before the center’s approval was publicized, and just as her third-year review was getting underway, Houston raised some eyebrows on campus with an opinion piece in the off-campus publication Student Review, in which she questioned the intellectual foundations of and motives for the university’s new Academic Freedom Statement. (See chap. 5 for the statement’s development.) Her position in part came in response to the antagonism she had witnessed in the drive for a women’s center, as well as to VOICE and feminism in general on campus. In addition, rumors had surfaced of administration “hit lists” composed of controversial faculty members. Some professors wondered if the academic freedom statement were being drafted to protect or to limit teachers’ freedom of inquiry and expression. Houston’s essay was the most public expression on the matter. “I hope I am wrong,” she wrote, “but since I have been at BYU it seems that those who do not agree with a majoritarian agenda are increasingly endangered.” In particular, she took umbrage at the statement’s suggestion—also expressed, she noted, in recent talks by Provost Hafen and Apostle Boyd K. Packer—that BYU professors are responsible for their students’ faith. “Are testimonies so fragile as to disappear any time they are mingled with rigorous academic inquiry?” she asked. “And is it not potentially an abuse to allow the firing of a faculty member [as the statement seemed to do] because of claims that she or he caused a student to lose his or her testimony?” Rather, Houston saw personal faith as a journey; her own “deep and abiding faith,” she said, was partly the result of “always having the option to fluctuate between other positions, such as doubt, disbelief, or even angry skepticism …. [R]emoving the possibility of inhabiting a position of doubt, even antagonistic disbelief, endangers everyone in the community.”9
While no negative response was immediately forthcoming, the article would turn up in her third-year review and figure prominently in her eventual firing in 1996. At the time, however, she received only two memos of thanks from faculty—one of whom, Professor of Russian Thomas Rogers, would sit on the college committee that would help place her on probation in 1993. Houston did encounter university president Rex Lee, with whom she shared family ties,10 during a meeting he held with English department feminists in early 1993, primarily to hear their concerns about negative attitudes on campus toward feminists. Lee asked Houston to stay a few minutes after and mentioned the essay, but seemed satisfied, she recalled, by her explanation of it. The next spring a political science professor, David Bohn, took issue with Houston’s piece in his own lengthy Student Review essay.11 Houston had envisioned this kind of academic exchange; less collegial, however, were reports in the English department that one of her more conser-[p.306]vative colleagues, Don Norton, had sent a copy of her article to the board of trustees. After Norton confirmed the rumors, Houston fired a memo to department chair Neal Lambert asking him to look into the matter. She was puzzled, she wrote, “why no one (including Don) ever came to express their disagreement with the positions I took in that article. I don’t want to be obnoxious,” she continued, “but I’m concerned that there are rumors going on about my work that I don’t hear about until after complaints have been made to higher sources. By then what power do I have?”12
Third-Year Review: Appealing a Provisional Candidacy
For the next three months, Houston heard nothing from the additional levels of review-college or administrative. Not knowing that her commitment to the church was being questioned by the college committee and dean, based in part on her Student Review essay, Houston wrote a lengthy letter on 22 April to LDS Church Commissioner of Education Henry B. Eyring, President Lee, and Provost Hafen regarding rumors that Hafen had interfered in Cecilia Konchar Farr’s review process. Her letter addressed as well, she wrote, “the general atmosphere of the university as it affects women,” an atmosphere “intertwined” with Farr’s review. “I seek to work in an atmosphere in which the board and the administration trust the faculty they have hired,” she wrote, arguing that, once a faculty member had made it through the rigorous hiring process, she “should be given the benefit of the doubt when questions arise regarding [her] performance.”
Asserting that it would be “morally wrong to consider firing Professor Farr,” and noting that in recent years “the environment at BYU and in Utah County has been full of innuendo, miscommunication, erroneous reports, and even death threats” over feminism, Houston defended the place of outspoken feminists at the Mormon school: “[A]s women faculty members,” she explained, “we have a variety of experiences that can help women students to resolve the extremely difficult issues they face …. [E]ncouraging [women students] to come, with the implicit or explicit message that they are only here to find a marriage partner, is a waste of the university’s dollars and the women students’ potential.” Firing someone like Farr, she said, would alienate many women faculty and produce “tremendous institutional pressure for us to remain silent.” Finally, she “exhort[ed]” administrators to recognize the commitment she, Farr, and others had made to the community. “Thus,” she concluded, “because I am expected to be loyal to BYU, as a faculty member in good standing, I also expect the administration to hear my voice …. [and] to take seriously the charge that in many ways the atmosphere at BYU is a hostile one to feminists, that dialogue must take place, that drastic decisions must be avoided.”13
Part of Houston’s complaint came in response to news a few months earlier that the administration had refused to approve award-winning histo-[p.307]rian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an active Mormon, as keynote speaker at the annual women’s conference.14 The day after this refusal was publicized, a group of students attending a Gloria Steinem speech in Salt Lake City launched plans to host an independent LDS women’s conference. The conference—called “Counterpoint”—gained additional sponsorship from a Salt Lake City-based feminist group, the Mormon Women’s Forum. Just before the conference was to take place, however, the seventeen BYU faculty and students who had helped plan the event and who were on the program—including Houston and Farr—withdrew, having been warned that their participation could bring repercussions from the university.15
The theme of the Counterpoint conference—the “silencing” (as in Ulrich’s case) of Mormon women’s voices—made the withdrawal all the more potent. That spring at the Mormon Women’s Pilgrimage—an annual, invitation-only, independent retreat—Houston helped direct a discussion on “How to Implement Change in the Church.” Houston later reported that while workshop participants had trouble agreeing on the extent of the church’s problems or the degree to which action was called for, they did settle on a mild form of protest that would turn up locally over the next year or so: a campaign to wear white ribbons, similar in design to the nationally popular red AIDS ribbons, but turned upside-down to resemble a “V” for the “voice” some Mormon women felt they were being denied.16 Later that year, after a group of liberal Mormon intellectuals and feminists (along with one ultra-conservative theologian) was disciplined in what was widely known as “the September Six” incident, Houston participated in a similar campaign—this time to deliver white roses to the church’s offices in Salt Lake City as a plea for reconciliation (see chap. 7).
In early June, Houston, along with Farr and Knowlton, received the results of her review: she had been granted only a provisional candidacy by the Faculty Council on Rank and Status. A majority of the media attention that followed centered on the firings of Farr and Knowlton. The council’s letter, though, propelled Houston into less-noticed private and public activity. Behind the scenes she immediately began what would turn into a year-long inquiry regarding her status. The most troubling portions of the council’s letter, in her mind, were allegations concerning her teaching and commitment to the church. “The problem of concern,” the council wrote, “is her use of the classroom as a political forum to advocate her personal views. Regardless of the title and announced content of her courses, each one seems to be dominated by a feminist orientation and advocacy that a significant number of students find disturbing and partisan.” However, the council noted that guidelines on curriculum matters were vague, and encouraged a clearer articulation of departmental expectations.17
In the press attention the tenure decisions attracted, Houston followed up on her April letter to Eyring, Lee, and Hafen, and was one of the first to call attention to an increasing pattern of anti-feminist activity in Mormon-[p.308]ism generally and at BYU in particular. In the 10 June Daily Universe article that broke the story of the controversial reviews, Houston pointed to a “clear bias against feminism”: “To give me a provisional [candidacy] because I am honest about my ideology makes me very upset. I do not feel that they appreciate me.”18 In her view the university “gave me a provisional [candidacy] because I’m a feminist and they would have given me a full vote of confidence [otherwise].” The question of politicizing the classroom had also factored in Farr’s firing, something Houston found particularly troubling: “It’s a total misunderstanding of what feminism says,” she argued, “which is that everybody has politics and the most ethical thing to do when you walk into a classroom is to say ‘I’m a feminist’ and these are my politics. This is what I do.” In the future, she said, she expected BYU feminists to continue “to have a hard time when they come up for their third year review. ‘“ I guess the message is be quiet or stop being a feminist. It’s very sad because I don’t think a lot has been done [to defend feminism] on the part of the administration.” Also, if her classes had been so troubling, she wanted to know, why had no one “ever come to complain to me about any of this stuff [before] suddenly it appears in my third year review[?]”19 In response to the charges of politicizing the classroom, she argued that Knowlton’s and Farr’s firings also demonstrated a political bias. “The review process is fair most of the time—unless you’re an activist. There’s clearly a double standard.”20
Houston’s attempt to appeal her provisional candidacy lasted almost a year and resulted in a stalemate when the administration announced in October 1994 that “provisional candidacy” was no longer a category in BYU’s advancement process and hence all candidates so designated would resume full candidacy.21 But a year’s worth of wrangling did provide her with a better understanding of the process that had led the council to assign her probation. Her major points of contention, which she addressed to administrators before the month of June 1993 was out, dealt with the apparent lack of substantiation for the claims made in the Faculty Council’s letter—particularly regarding her teaching. Who were the students who had lodged complaints against her? Why hadn’t they made their complaints where she would have seen them, in the university’s evaluation process? Who was claiming that her classes were politicized and antagonistic toward the church, and on what grounds was this charge made? No one had ever raised these issues with her before, and when she confronted her department chair about student complaints, he told her that only one student had lodged a complaint with the department. “How can I respond to charges made against me,” she asked one administrator, “that have never been raised with me by my two chairs and that have never appeared as a serious problem in my student evaluations?”22
In August, after repeatedly asking to examine the files used by the college and university committees—including, for the first time in a recent BYU academic freedom case, invoking guidelines set by the American Associa-[p.309]tion of University Professors—Houston obtained access to portions of the review file assembled by the department college and dean.23 Noting the “courageous. if sometimes controversial” nature of her feminism, the department committee was overwhelmingly positive and recommended continuing status.24 At issue in the college committee’s letter (the committee at that level had recommended provisional candidacy, with one member voting for termination) were two charges that would resurface in her sixth-year review—that her teaching had unsettled enough students to warrant notice, and that she lacked loyalty to the church and university. Regarding her teaching, the college review letter had apparently been the source of the charges repeated by the university council. At the college level, however, the charges had been even more severe: “We read with concern,” the committee had written, “the statements of a number of [Houston’s] students … that they feel distressed— ‘betrayed,’ or ‘deeply pained,’ or ‘troubled’—by at least some of Dr. Houston’s statements in her classes:” While the committee said it did “not wish to make a case against Dr. Houston at this time, or ever, for that matter,” it did claim that she “overwhelm[s]” her courses with “her feminist views.” Further, some students apparently saw “her present teaching stance (in the classroom or in the media) … as negative and thus at odds with the LDS community she had contractually agreed to serve and whose values she is expected to espouse, represent and foster.” In a strongly worded paragraph, after claiming that her teaching style was “confrontational and often undercutting and diminishing … the received positions of the institution,” the committee presented her with an ultimatum: Houston “must now come to grips” with the committee’s concerns. “If she wishes to continue as a faculty member at Brigham Young University, she will find ways over the next three years to accommodate herself and her viewpoints to the standards of this institution.” Otherwise, the committee wrote, “we assume she will be too ill-at-ease to desire to continue at BYU.”25
Houston noted crucial portions in other review materials as well. In his 31 March 1993 letter to the Faculty Council on Rank and Status, humanities dean Randall L. Jones had repeated the college committee’s claim regarding student complaints, including the charge that Houston “uses the classroom as a platform for her strong feminist beliefs,” and added the first explicit mention of her Student Review article about the academic freedom statement, to which the college committee only alluded. Rather than take issue with Houston’s critique of the academic freedom statement, though, Jones focused most intensely on a passing reference she had made to seeking guidance from her “heavenly parents” in prayer. Jones wrote: “I strongly defend the right of feminist criticism to be taught at BYU, but I am concerned when it violates the principles of the gospel and church. I find it a problem,” he continued, “when someone openly advocates praying to a Mother in Heaven, especially when specific instructions have been given to us from the First Presidency not to. Her article in the Student Review is suffi-[p.310]ciently troubling as to suggest that she needs to re-evaluate her position as a member of the BYU English Department.” Jones agreed. though, with the college committee that Houston should receive provisional candidacy rather than termination.26
Clearly these two items—the letters from the college committee and the dean-had provided the Faculty Council on Rank and Status with the charges regarding her teaching and loyalty, a discovery that infuriated Houston. Jones’s letter to the Faculty Council quickly circulated among feminist faculty members. Along with material that was surfacing as Cecilia Konchar Farr was preparing to appeal her firing, Jones’s assumption that a “feminist agenda” was more “political” than other critical or cultural standpoints led some faculty to contemplate the possibility of a class action discrimination suit. While such a suit never materialized (Houston says in retrospect that fear won out for many and that, for others, statutes of limitations had run out), Houston’s review material did concur with the claims of those working on Farr’s appeal that the all-male college committee had demonstrated a clear bias against feminism and failed to recognize the political content of other, supposedly “neutral” viewpoints. “What the College Committee completely ignores,” William A. (“Bert”) Wilson would argue that month in Farr’s defense, “is that for decades the [English] department has had only one mode of discourse, formalist criticism; only one body of literature of major import, the traditional canon; and a near total focus on only one ideological concern, the study of primarily white male authors. No one charges those still clinging to these monistic points of view with being politically motivated.” Further, Wilson argued elsewhere in Farr’s appeal, the chair of the college committee, Richard Cracroft, was one of the English department’s strongest opponents of allowing previously marginalized groups of writers, including women, into the classroom. The college committee’s claims that Houston and Farr substituted feminist material for departmentally mandated guidelines (which, the faculty council admitted in Houston’s letter, were few and unclear) could be seen as a criticism of canon expansion.27
On 17 August Houston met with Dean Jones to discuss his letter from her review file. Jones was angry that the letter had been copied and circulated, but Houston argued it was important to let other feminists know how feminism had been regarded in the review process. As for the complaints about her teaching and the Student Review essay, Jones agreed with Houston that these concerns should have been raised with her earlier. But he maintained that the college and university committees had been concerned about reports that she had made anti-church statements in class, and told her that his own impression of her Review essay was that she did not care about her students. Houston wanted to know who had been to her classroom to hear the statements; Jones could not answer. All complaints, he said, would be housed with Neal Lambert in the English department. When [p.311]Houston told him that Lambert had only received one complaint, Jones seemed surprised. (Earlier that day Lambert had told Houston that the one complaint he did receive had been transmitted to him orally via John Tanner, another English department faculty member and an administrator.)28
The same day she spoke with Lambert and Jones, Houston filed a formal appeal with the administration, despite academic vice president Todd Britsch’s insistence that one could not appeal provisional status. Drawing on the meetings with Lambert and Jones, Houston demanded to know where the student complaints had come from and, if they could not be substantiated, why they were allowed into her file. She Challenged the motivation behind the college committee’s letter. “Am I right,” she asked, “in interpreting the … letter as having a hostile tone?” She also questioned the college and dean for having passed judgment on her loyalty to the church: “How can the college committee and dean state that they are concerned about my ‘loyalty to the teachings, doctrines and leadership of the Church’ and that I ‘violate the principles of the gospel and church’ when none of these men ever talked to me to express their concerns in the manner we have been enjoined to use both professionally and spiritually, that if you have anything against your brother or sister you go. and talk to them.”29 Although Vice President Alan Wilkins acknowledged that she had raised “important questions about the accuracy of evidence and reported concerns used to make comments about [her] performance in the classroom,” administrators asked her to accept private apologies rather than a forum for appeal.30
In an additional plea to Britsch, Houston made more specific complaints about procedural violations: “[T]he university committee evaluation of my performance,” she claimed, “was based on uninvestigated charges made by the college committee,” as well as on misinformation about the English department’s “core” curriculum. “[T]he many tiered system set up for the third year review did not,” she believed, “work properly in my case.” If she were to follow Britsch’s advice and simply “accept private admissions that mistakes have been made in my case,” she wanted to know, what would prevent “other committees in the future from imposing their own agendas and philosophies upon feminist candidates?”31
On 6 October Houston received from Jones a reassessment of her third-year review, which he hoped would clarity the questions she had raised about the process. Jones had consulted with English department chair Neal Lambert and English professor Richard Cracroft, who had chaired the college committee. After reaffirming the positive comments made during the process about her scholarship and teaching, and following an attempt to reassure her that “we respect you, we admire you, and we need you,” Jones addressed the issues of negative student comments and Houston’s Student Review essay. “The criticisms and comments that you have asked about,” he wrote, “all arose from the materials in the promotion file—nothing else.” Houston noted, however, that while Jones was able to procure comments from student [p.312]evaluations that questioned her use of feminism in the classroom (“if a stranger came into our class they may think this [world literature course 1 was a Women’s Lib class”; “Her rebellion against patriarchy was infectious among the female students and some of the males”), none of the quotations he provided matched those in the college committee’s review letter (which had spoken of students being “betrayed” and “deeply pained”). Still, based on comments he was able to cull from the student evaluations in her file, Jones felt that “when more than one or two students express concern over the ideology of a course, that is a concern for us, too. These expressions,” he explained, “coupled with the Student Review article and disquieting low marks on ‘Gospel Insights’ and ‘Spiritually Inspiring’ [on student evaluations] are the element which, taken together, lead to our concern.”32
Jones’s memo was not the vindication Houston had hoped for. Indeed, she felt, it raised more questions: the comments about categories like “Gospel Insights” on student evaluations had not been made previously. Still, it was a more positive expression of her strengths than had been previously made, and it downplayed the issue of loyalty to the church (with the exception of a vague allusion to the Student Review article). Houston drafted a response which, she hoped, would accompany Jones’s memo as the only materials to be reintroduced into her sixth-year review. In it she itemized her student evaluations for 1990-93. Of seventy-two comments in her file, sixty-six (or 91.6 percent) were positive, and six, which all dealt with feminism, were negative. (Two of these, Houston argued, were positive about the class overall but still expressed a negative response to feminism.) Regarding claims about the categories “Gospel Insights” and “Spiritually Inspiring,” she showed that of the twenty-six times these categories had appeared in her student evaluations, she was higher than the university average eleven times, equal to the university average four times, and lower than the department average eleven times. According to the scores on the evaluations, she wrote, her lowest averages (4.5-5.4 on a scale of 7) all fell within a ranking of “very good,” and “All other scores I received for spiritually inspiring and gospel insights = Excellent!” The Student Review article, she continued,
has been greatly misunderstood …. This essay was not written-by someone who does not care about her students—rather, it was written by a teacher who desires that her students be responsible for actively directing the course of their spiritual life—a teacher who believes that students must actively work at keeping that testimony alive and not passively rely on the testimony of others, for from her own experience this teacher knows that in the trials of life one can only make it through if she has her own personal witness.33
While officials mulled over Houston’s argument that she deserved an appeal process, negative decisions were announced that fall in the appeals of Cecilia Konchar Farr and David Knowlton (see chap. 6). After almost [p.313]three dozen faculty signed an editorial arguing that BYU’s academic freedom policies were fair and responsible, and that Farr’s and Knowlton’s firings (for, they implied, “politiciz[ing] an agenda contrary to Church beliefs”) had been upheld by “some of the most respected and competent men and women faculty on campus,” Houston responded in a lengthy editorial. Contrary to the belief of these faculty that their own assertions were politically neutral, she argued, their move to defend the status quo was highly political. Even if the faculty editorial were correct in asserting that a majority of BYU professors supported the university’s recent actions, Houston argued that “minority voices are invaluable to the health of the community” and deserve to be listened to rather than vilified. “Mormons have a wide range of divergent views about many secular and spiritual issues,” Houston argued, “and it is time to cherish the free agency with which God has endowed us. Just because we disagree about our political positions—and we all have them—does not mean we cannot be a community of scholars.”34
At the end of March 1994, Houston met separately with Lambert and Jones, still hoping to resolve the matter—in particular, wanting to limit the amount of material that would be allowed to enter her sixth-year review in 1995-96. Over the next month they worked out an agreement acceptable to all three: of her third-year review material, only the 6 October reassessment of the review by Jones and Houston’s response to it would factor in her sixth-year review. This agreement was solidified in a meeting among Houston, her attorney, and David Thomas, assistant general counsel for BYU. The administration still refused to allow Houston to appeal her provisional candidacy; after Alan Wilkins announced that the category was no longer part of the university’s review system, provisional faculty, including Houston, would only be required to submit a letter summarizing previous concerns as they went into their sixth-year reviews.35
Public Protests and Feminism Under Fire
As Houston was working behind the scenes to overturn her provisional candidacy, a number of events in which she was involved attracted media attention. Just over a month after Houston received her notice of provisional status, and in the wake of the Ulrich speaker refusal, the women’s conference’s longtime organizer, Carol Lee Hawkins, was unexpectedly removed from her position. BYU maintained that Hawkins was “rotated” to another position, not fired. But several faculty women who had worked on the conference believed that the dismissal, which came after five years of service from Hawkins, was due to negative publicity over Ulrich and the continuing conflict between traditional and career women on the program. (For the development of this tension, see chap. 2.) Houston and a colleague, English professor Susan Howe, were especially vocal. Hawkins’s firing, said Howe, was just one example of how the women’s conference had in recent years “gone from being autonomous and carried out by women to being [p.314]directed by a body of men.” Houston saw “the action against Hawkins” as shocking. “Her firing sends a strong message to all the women in our community,” she told the Salt Lake Tribune.36 Coming on the heels of Farr’s firing, Houston told the Daily Universe, Hawkins’s removal was especially troubling.37 Undoubtedly Houston’s own censure for feminism was also on her mind.
Only a few days later, on 23 July, the Salt Lake Tribune published an opinion piece titled “Is BYU Anti-Feminist? Profs Say Yes” in response to Rex Lee’s assertion that the actions against Farr, Houston, and others were not anti-feminist. The statement was the first publication of a litany of wrongs that would be repeated over the next few years: BYU had only a weakly implemented affirmative action policy for women; only three female administrators, none a vice president; and only two women among the school’s fifty department chairs. Despite the church’s emphasis on “family values,” BYU offered no maternity leave. Then came the list of women who, in addition to Farr and Houston, had been “silenced” in some way by the school: Laurel Ulrich and Claudia Bushman, another highly regarded Mormon woman scholar, deemed inappropriate for BYU audiences; and Carol Lee Hawkins, recently dismissed as head of the women’s conference. Actions taken against feminists had created, the professors asserted, a climate of fear on campus. Many faculty invited to sign the statement refused because they were “afraid to jeopardize their jobs.” (The essay’s principal author, in fact, decided not to sign, and Houston had taken up the task of circulating it for faculty signatures.) The difficulty obtaining names served as “additional evidence that many professors perceive the administration as one that does not appreciate or understand the importance of feminism to the whole academic community and to the culture at large.”38
The next day, 24 July, the Tribune reported that in May influential and conservative Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer had identified feminists, “so called scholars and intellectuals,” and gay rights activists as three principal “dangers” facing the contemporary LDS church.39 Packer’s talk, in the eyes of many observers, added to the cacophony of voices attacking feminists in Mormon culture. Copies of Packer’s talk circulated on campus and at the Salt Lake Suns tone Symposium the following month, where one faculty member was overheard to claim that he belonged, happily, to all three of Packer’s dangerous groups. (Though heterosexual, he explained, he supported gay rights.) In an opposite response, several students on campus marveled at the mixed messages coming from university and church leaders, between Rex Lee’s affirmation that feminists are welcome on campus to Packer’s assertion that they threaten Mormon security.40
The attention to feminism increased yet again before the end of July, leaving campus feminists feeling they were under siege. On 27 July a local daily tabloid, the Utah County Journal, whose conservative editors had a history of antagonism toward VOICE and other BYU feminists, published an [p.315]article alleging that feminists in the English department were biased against male students with traditional Mormon values. The front-page feature, its headline announcing that an “Ideological Battle Rages at BYU,” quoted students who said they had been “on trial because [they] actually happen to believe that there’s a living prophet, and that the brethren are inspired and that there is real scripture.” A parent, Cherilyn Gulbrandsen, whose son had been involved in public campaigns against VOICE and English department faculty, claimed that her son’s freshman English class had been a course in “politically correct feminist indoctrination.” Another student, unnamed, agreed that feminist professors were antagonistic to students who did not agree with them: “Basically, for a male in my [English] class, it was like being a black in the ’50s in the South.”41
While the article, written by longtime VOICE opponent Michael Morris, attempted to paint campus feminists as anti-Mormon, it also included quotes that revealed the “ideological battle” was rooted in larger conflicts in the American academy: “What’s happening in the humanities and English departments around the country,” reported BYU political science professor Louis Midgely, “is that they have been radicalized by certain sets of ideologues and turned into political battlegrounds. Some of that has leaked over into BYU …. What we have here is a war going on over something that isn’t appropriate in the church to be warring over.” (For more on the American culture wars, see chap. 10.) The Journal seemed to side with Midgely’s contention that feminists “ought to have the sense to go somewhere else where they’re free to peddle their ideology.” For example, Morris wrote, “BYU’s mission statement calling for an environment ‘enlightened by living prophets’ and its new academic-freedom guidelines restraining teaching and behavior that ‘seriously and adversely affect BYU’s mission or the Church’ are sometimes challenged by faculty with a contrary agenda.” Cheryl Brown, an associate dean in the college of humanities, explained further: “If you buy totally into feminism and then you view everything, including the church, through feminism, you’re going to have trouble, because it leads to some conclusions that are very anti-patriarchy and … anti-church, anti-church government, anti-priesthood, etc.”42
While Morris’s chief target at BYU had long been Cecilia Konchar Farr (the article claimed that her firing could be interpreted as “the genesis of the school’s rebirth”), she declined to speak with him, and so the article’s only defense of feminism came from Houston. “[T]hings are more complicated than that,” she said in response to Morris’s theories of feminist conspiracy and anti-male bias.43 Others responded later: English professor Kristine Hansen, who directed the department’s composition program (the subject of some of the article’s harshest allegations), answered in a lengthy guest editorial. “Morris never bothered to check with me to find out anything about the curriculum of the six writing courses offered in our program,” she wrote. “He did not interview any of our 119 teachers [or] any of [p.316]the almost 27,000 students who have been enrolled in the writing courses during the [last] three years.” (The complaints about upper-level courses, she added, came from interviews with only five of the school’s 1,500 English Majors or 10,000 students who take general education literature courses.) In three years as director of composition, Hansen argued, she had only received one complaint about a BYU writing class: from Jimmy Gulbrandsen, whose mother had been quoted in Morris’s article. With that in mind, Hansen wanted to know the source of Mrs. Gulbrandsen’s expertise about the department: “How would Mrs. Gulbrandsen know what is happening in the more than 160 sections of freshman composition taught each year? Or in the nearly 200 sections of advanced composition that are offered each year?” The complaints, she concluded, reflected Morris’s own agenda, and the article reflected his poor skills as a journalist: “If a reporter decides to investigate a rumor that the writing program at BYU is carrying out an agenda antithetical to the aims of its sponsoring church, wouldn’t it make sense for him to interview the people who plan the writing curricula, order the texts, hire and train the teachers, visit the classes to observe the teachers, and read the teaching evaluations at the end of each semester?”44
While campus feminists and many others dismissed the journal article out of hand, the story was picked up by the Associated Press in an abridged form, lending the charges an air of legitimacy.45 That publicity, available to LDS church leaders who already seemed negatively predisposed to campus feminists and the English department in general, was more disturbing. So was the fact that no department or college administrator stepped forward to counter the charges; indeed, Associate Dean Cheryl Brown had seemed to endorse Morris’s assumptions. The Journal’s editorial cartoonist added insult to injury a few days later with a drawing of four women, some portrayed is stereotypical old maids (presumably bitter because they are unmarried) and one with a hairy chest and armpits, wearing an executioner’s mask and a tank top that says “Academic Freedom.” The women, seated at a bar labeled “Y Church of Feminism, formerly the English Dept.,” shouts charges at a scrawny, henpecked male student who clutches a copy of a church magazine while the women prepare to burn him at the stake. Beneath is a stack of reading material: “Hillary,” “Femi-nazism,” “The Farr Side,” “Anita Hill,” and a Margaret Atwood novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which had figured in Farr’s troubles. The BYU experience as perceived by feminists themselves, however, was directly the opposite: rather than feeling in control of a small wing of the university, feminists at BYU in the summer of 1993 considered themselves an endangered species.
Finding VOICE an Advisor
Two days after the publication of Morris’s article, feminism on campus took yet another blow when BYU’s United Club Council voted to place VOICE on probation for violating speaker approval policies.46 VOICE,  whose members had a history of administrative rejections for speaker requests, had most recently invited to campus—without approval—Mormon feminist Margaret Merrill Toscano. Speaking on visual images of female deities, she had made passing comments about controversies surrounding the Mormon doctrine of a heavenly mother. The Universe gave front-page coverage to Toscano’s talk under the headline “Mother God Repressed, VOICE Told.”47 (For more on Toscano, see chap. 7.)
While VOICE members privately were upset by the decision—other groups, they complained, had committed similar violations and suffered much less scrutiny—they were relieved that the council had decided not to revoke their charter, and they realized they had willfully ignored policies in order to invite speakers or stage activism that would have been off limits otherwise. The probation, VOICE was informed, would last one semester and required a council member to be present at every VOICE meeting.48 While the council insisted that the probation was for policy violation rather than for the content of Toscano’s or other speakers’ presentations, the larger community perceived the action as a statement against campus feminism. “Probation Will Force VOICE to Change,” the Universe announced in a follow-up story.49 That change, most assumed, for better or worse could only mean silence.
As VOICE entered the fall of 1993, after Tomi-Ann Roberts had resigned and Cecilia Konchar Farr was in her final year at BYU, the club looked for new advisors. The initial impulse was to seek help from Gail Houston and a new English professor, Brandie Siegfried, but both hesitated: the VOICE advisorship, they understood, was sure to place them in the local media spotlight, if not make them avowed targets of conservative letter-writing campaigns. In early 1994, during Farr’s final semester, the group decided to look for a panel of advisors rather than one individual: a panel, said Linda Wilkins, student coordinator for the group, would protect individuals from being singled out as radicals as Farr and Roberts had been. “The community has a negative image of VOICE, but VOICE’s projects of education, service and activism are all wonderful,” one faculty member told the Daily Universe; although the professor said she was considering advising’ the group, she remained anonymous in the article to protect herself.50
In March 1994 VOICE found a willing advisor in an unlikely form: a male law professor, Fred Gedicks. Farr told reporters that VOICE had asked a number of women to work with them either individually or on a panel, but that all had declined, saying the job was too “dangerous.”51 Gedicks, whose law courses occasionally touched on feminist issues, said that while he found “certain aspects of feminism inconsistent with my religious convictions,” he still felt that “[a]nyone who knows a woman should be interested in feminist issues.”52 VOICE members seemed relieved: “I get the impression Fred wants to fight our battles for us,” Linda Wilkins commented, aware of the irony. “It’s too bad that we need that,” she said. “But we definitely do at [p.318]BYU.”53 Though not publicized as advisors for several months, Houston and Siegfried agreed to work with Gedicks, who, as the “safest” among them, would interact directly with the public.
The novelty of Gedicks’s appointment attracted media attention, including a brief notice in USA Today. A local radio show asked him and Linda Wilkins to participate in an on-air discussion with Gayle Ruzicka, president of Utah’s chapter of the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum. Ruzicka, a long-time VOICE critic and occasional disrupter of the group’s campus meetings, warned that VOICE was moving in “the radical feminism … direction” by sponsoring discussions of abortion and homosexuality. Wilkins responded that VOICE takes no stance on such issues and that members differ in their individual opinions. But mere discussion of the topics was enough to disturb Ruzicka. Eagle Forum members, she explained, were also in many cases the parents of BYU students: “We are concerned and I don’t think something like [VOICE] should be happening on the campus of BYU. Those kinds of views are against church standards.”54 The antagonism between the Eagle Forum and VOICE would only increase over the next four years.
VOICE’s return to the spotlight, along with a new set of club coordinators, advisors, and student government leaders, brought renewed attention to the question of the group’s probationary status, which was to have been reconsidered at the end of 1993. VOICE and BYU student leaders discovered, however, that although VOICE had functioned as a club in the fall of 1993 and had been meticulous in its attention to speaker approval policies, the group had not formally applied that semester for club registration and therefore had not technically been an approved organization. On 24 February VOICE leaders met with the United Club Council Executive Committee and determined that a representative from the council would attend all VOICE meetings, that a VOICE student coordinator would attend the council’s meetings twice a month, and that the probation would come up for review that fall.55
However, the group again made waves with a campus exhibit protesting violence against women. The display, part of a national “Clothesline Project,” allowed survivors of abuse or rape to create T-shirts with visual or verbal accounts of their experiences—to be hung out as “dirty laundry.” The project had been brought to BYU earlier that year by Farr, when one of her courses gained permission for the exhibit on campus. In the fall, with Gedicks as its advisor and Houston and Siegfried behind the scenes, VOICE decided to host the project again, in what would be the first of three annual installments. Some of the T-shirts, which members felt might jeopardize the project because of forceful or sexually graphic language, were self-censored. The group, aware of the sensibilities of the campus community, folded sleeves over certain words or pinned paper over potentially controversial portions.56
Such caution did not prevent some objections, however. Students wrote to the campus newspaper calling the project “patently offensive” and saying [p.319]it promoted a “spread the misery around” mentality. One student wrote that he “abhor[red] the public display of other people’s misery.”57 The most concerted opposition, however, came from a fellow campus club, the newly formed “DittoHead Conservatives” (the name referred to fans of syndicated right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh). The club’s president, a BYU political science senior named Perry Smith, wrote a “Counterpoint” editorial for the Daily Universe in which he denounced the shirts as pornographic and VOICE as having an agenda inappropriate for BYU. Smith, who would finally succeed in getting the Clothesline Project banned in 1996, had no qualms about his antagonism toward VOICE: he had been watching them for at least a year, he said, concerned that “freshman girls would see [VOICE] just as a club that is for the advancement of women.” After having attempted to research VOICE’s history to expose the violations that led to the group’s probationary status, he found what he considered a vulnerable spot in the Clothesline Project: some T-shirts identified abusers as LDS church members. The project’s implicit argument, Smith held, was that the Mormon church promoted abuse via its all-male priesthood: “I’ve just been waiting for them to make their next mistake,” he told reporters for the campus paper, “and they just did it with Clothesline.”58
Defenses of the project came both from student government, which, under the terms of VOICE’s probation, was a co-sponsor of the exhibit, and from VOICE advisor Fred Gedicks. Clothesline is a “positive program in raising awareness in violence against women,” student body president Matt Cowley told reporters. He and United Club Council officers also expressed concern about the DittoHeads’ campaign to undermine VOICE. For one club openly to bash another, they said, could lead to probationary measures or the loss of a club charter.59
Gedicks defended VOICE and the Clothesline Project in a Universe editorial the next week. “Mr. Smith’s comments,” he wrote, “betray an attitude that all too often appears on this campus. For too many in our community, a person who disagrees with them about the meaning or application of a particular Gospel standard is not only wrong, but evil.” While VOICE and BYU may have made some mistakes in judgment, Gedicks said, the exhibit was not “anti-Gospel.” “I am at a loss,” he concluded, “to identity the Gospel principle that is violated by condemning” violence against women.60
If Houston and Siegfried had hoped to stave off trouble by maintaining a low profile about their VOICE advisorship, controversy still found them. While VOICE was hosting its Clothesline Project that fall, Siegfried and Houston were making headlines over their planned participation in the Mormon Women’s Forum’s second annual Counterpoint conference. Despite the muddled relationship between BYU faculty and students and the conference the previous year, Houston and Siegfried had agreed to partici-[p.320]pate on discussion panels. However, when publicity for the conference was delivered to their new department chair, Jay Fox, the two were cautioned against participating. According to news reports, Fox told them he could not say how their participation would affect their standing, but the impression was clear that the event “could have negative consequences for our tenure at BYU.”61
In response, university spokesman Brent Harker maintained that BYU had no policy preventing participation in such independent Mormon conferences, but that a speaker’s content determined if action would be taken against her. (Other sources suggest that the injunction against participating in non-church symposia was understood as an “oral policy.”) Houston pointed to the dilemma she and others experienced: “You never know when you are going to step on a mine because there is no written or stated policy on feminism,” she said, defining herself as a “radical feminist” despite Provost Bruce Hafen’s claim that “radical” feminists were not appropriate for BYU. While spokesman Brent Harker defined radical feminism as the view that women should ‘Just collect male semen to reproduce” and that “men are seen as genus that women could get along without,” Houston, in language that would affect her future at BYU, defined her radicalism as a desire “to get rid of institutional structures that primarily hurt women and children but ultimately hurt everyone.” For example, she said, BYU’s aversion to child care, its inability to achieve salary parity between men and women, and its failure to aggressively recruit women professors and administrators all subjects that many faculty women considered unsafe to discuss in public—reflect a spill—over into the university of the church’s all-male power structure. “On Sunday,” she said, “men are used to treating women in an authoritarian way, with the women being deferential. Too many [men] don’t know how to work with women colleagues during the rest of the week.” A resolution to conflicts over feminism at BYU, she said, would not come until the school’s trustees agreed to meet “face to face with faculty women.”62 English instructor Julie Nichols and BYU English professor emeritus Elouise Bell also withdrew from the conference.63 Bell, who had been scheduled as a keynote speaker, was replaced by Martha Sonntag Bradley, who spoke about her painful decision to leave BYU’s history department the previous year.64
In hindsight, Houston’s comments to the Salt Lake Tribune about her decision to withdraw likely had more serious repercussions than her participation would have had. Fearing a negative review at her sixth year (the review would begin the following fall), she began applying for jobs elsewhere that winter and was encouraged by an interview—and an eventual short-listing—at the University of Pennsylvania. What was becoming increasingly clear was that publicity would follow her regardless of what she did: given Farr’s firing and continuing conflicts in Mormonism over women’s issues, [p.321]the fate of feminists at BYU would remain under close scrutiny by the media for the foreseeable future.
VOICE Protests Clarence Thomas
The next wave of that publicity came early in 1995 when BYU’s law school announced that U.S. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas would visit campus the next month to preside over its annual moot court competition. VOICE members, wondering why BYU would welcome a controversial conservative justice but would not allow a faithful (if liberal) Mormon like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich to visit campus, decided to protest. If BYU would invite Thomas, Linda Wilkins told the student newspaper, then it should demonstrate its willingness to invite equally controversial liberal figures. If they would welcome Thomas, the question became, why not Anita Hill (who, during Thomas’s confirmation hearings, had accused him of having sexually harassed her)?65
VOICE’s plan to protest—reported in the Daily Universe on 1 February, two days before the moot court was to take place—created a stir. Members of the Black Student Union and organizers of the moot court hoped to dissuade VOICE from protesting. The plans were further complicated by the fact that Thomas had worked with President Rex Lee in the Reagan administration, and one of Lee’s sons was currently working for Thomas as a clerk. On the evening of 1 February, Houston filed an application to demonstrate with the office of Student Life but learned a few hours later that the request had been denied. She quickly telephoned Vice President Alton Wade, who returned her call the next morning to explain that the request had been denied because Thomas’s visit had nothing to do with the Anita Hill controversy, and also because of Lee’s personal concerns about the situation. Houston, along with Siegfried and Wilkins, tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with Lee, and the students eventually decided to stage the protest off campus—near the university’s entrance—to avoid having to receive permission to protest. Siegfried and Houston wrote to Lee ahead of time to inform him that this decision belonged to the students. “We understand President Lee’s desire not to embarrass Justice Thomas,” they wrote. “However, we feel the students are well within the bounds of BYU’s own standards regarding public expression.”66 VOICE’s third advisor, Fred Gedicks, decided, because of his relationship to both VOICE and the law school, to participate in neither the moot court nor the protest.
Contrary to what VOICE advisors were told by the administration, BYU’s spokespeople told the press that the refusal to allow the protest on campus was due to timing: VOICE had applied too late. But VOICE was not the only group in Provo planning to protest: Perry Smith’s DittoHead Conservative Club announced it would stage a counter protest against VOICE: “These women need to get a clue,” Smith said. “If you come to this campus [p.322]you are going to hear the views of people who support LDS doctrine. If they want liberal speakers, they can go to Berkeley.”67
When the day of Thomas’s visit arrived, VOICE launched its protest, though modified so as to avoid violating school policies. After showing the film Sex and Justice: The Highlights of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Hearings on campus, the group held a press conference and a small protest just off university property. About twenty-five club members stood behind two large banners, reading “VOICE welcomes Clarence Thomas. Now can we invite Anita Hill?” and “Where was the Red Carpet for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?” To reporters, VOICE highlighted BYU’s conservatism and prevention of free speech over Thomas’s alleged harassment of Hill. The group wanted “to alert the administration of our dissatisfaction with the bias they have shown in consistently inviting guests who represent a conservative perspective.”68 Referring to Laurel Ulrich, Houston argued: “We’ve got a perfect chance to bring a Mormon with impeccable character” to campus “and the administration refuses.”69 VOICE members added that they regularly tried to invite speakers BYU would not approve because they were too controversial—presumably for their feminism. VOICE found it “ironic,” Wilkins told reporters, “that President Lee, with his legal background, will not defend our right to free speech on campus.” By taking their protest off BYU’s grounds, she continued, “our freedom of speech is protected by law.”70
As promised, DittoHead leader Perry Smith was on hand at the Thomas protest to argue against VOICE. “We have 28,000 students who wish they could get a handshake with the guy,” he said of Thomas, but VOICE—what he called “20 women”—was the focus of attention. “They need to be countered by something, somebody,” Smith argued. He was not alone in his assessment. While he was talking to reporters, a white truck drove by bearing a BYU logo on the side. “Femi-nazis go home!” its occupants shouted, waving obscene gestures at the protesters.71
The university’s response was articulated even before the protest occurred. If VOICE held its protest knowing that the administration did not approve, Student Life Vice President Alton Wade told reporters the day before Thomas arrived, the action would constitute “a deliberate, irresponsible attempt to embarrass a sitting member of the U.S. Supreme Court and the university.”72 Sources close to Lee told Houston and Siegfried that he viewed the action as a personal insult—a tender point given his family ties to Houston. About a month after the protest, Houston saw Lee at a campus reception. Determined not to avoid him, she approached him and engaged in an amicable if obligatory and brief conversation. He seemed slightly uncomfortable, she recalled, but did not bring up the incident.
On 17 February VOICE leaders met with student government officials, who disapproved of the Thomas protest. VOICE defended its actions, stressing that members had been conscientious to avoid violating school policies. BYUSA officials seemed convinced that their intentions were good. “There is [p.323]a broad perception that VOICE’s actions reflect a policy of purposely placing the university in compromising positions,” wrote student body president Matt Cowley in a 3 March memo. “After our meeting, we perceive the situation differently.” Still, Cowley informed the group, “VOICE and the university will continue to be at odds as long as VOICE fails to understand university guidelines, systems and expectations and as long as the University sees discrepancies between VOICE’s written [intentions] and its actions.” Following the meeting, Cowley met with other club leaders, advisors, and administrators, and presented VOICE with a list of conditions it would have to abide in order to remain an official campus club: VOICE could no longer host public events without BYUSA co-sponsorship: group leaders would have to undergo special training in university policies and procedure; and the group would have to appoint a single contact person to communicate with BYUSA and United Club Council officials. Cowley set an arbitrary date for a response from VOICE advisors, after which, if he had received no response, he would assume VOICE had forfeited its club status.73
VOICE’s initial response to BYUSA came through its student coordinators. On 8 March Linda Wilkins and two new co-coordinators, Susan Bagley and Kristen Kemmerle, asked Cowley to clarify some of his assertions. Whose “broad perception” was he referring to, for example, that VOICE purposefully seeks to embarrass the university? The administration’s? The student body’s? What exactly are the “limits of appropriateness” for expression by a club? And, most importantly, how exactly did the Thomas protest fall outside the set guidelines for public expression? “In fact,” they wrote,
we followed this policy closely when planning the demonstration. In keeping with the content standards … we did not do or say anything which was disrespectful of The Church or general church leaders. Our signs and statements to the press did not in any way denigrate or degrade Justice Thomas, nor were any of our statements in conflict with the Honor Code. We spent a considerable amount of time researching BYU’s guidelines for public expression; we also carefully considered the implications of our actions. Finally, we expressly held the demonstration off-campus to avoid potential conflicts with BYUSA.
Given the care VOICE had taken to act within the rules, they wanted to know, why did their actions warrant probation? And who had decided the terms of that probation?74
On 20 March VOICE student leaders and advisors met with BYUSA officers, including Cowley and Stacie Duce, the student association’s vice president for public relations. The officers reiterated the conditions outlined in Cowley’s initial memo, and Duce emphasized that BYUSA’s media relations policies required campus clubs to make press releases only through her office. Cowley asserted during the meeting that he and other BYUSA officers were willing to extend VOICE the benefit of the doubt—the [p.324]group had, they conceded, demonstrated good faith in their attempts to act within set boundaries.
Though the meeting ended on good terms—with VOICE advisors confirming within the week that the group would accept the conditions set by BYUSA—three days later the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story based on Cowley’s 3 March memo, much to the dismay of BYUSA’s public relations officer, who found it “bewildering … that someone at our Monday [20 March] meeting would disregard our media relations agreement” and by-pass her office in leaking the memo to the press75. The Tribune story set off a string of local and Associated Press articles depicting the action against VOICE as a “muzzling” or “silencing.”76 The group’s advisors informed Cowley that, while they agreed to his terms, they did not view the group’s status as probationary. Although BYUSA co-sponsorship constituted “special attention as the result of disagreements over the propriety of certain of VOICE’s past activities,” they wrote in a 24 March letter, they understood that “VOICE is not currently on probation.” The advisors wished to emphasize, as well, that “discomfort in the BYU community about a VOICE activity does not, by itself, indicate a violation of either LDS standards or BYU policy,” and that while it is “certainly fair to require VOICE to function within the bounds set by Gospel standards and BYU policy … we think it unfair to require VOICE to adhere to political, ideological, or cultural norms that arise from personal preference [sic] rather than Gospel doctrine.”77
While the conditions placed on VOICE might not technically have constituted probation, both insiders and outsiders regarded BYU co-sponsorship as “sanctions,” and most assumed the sanctions were directed by someone higher than student officials. Brent Harker, BYU’s spokesperson, offered carefully worded denials on this point: “BYUSA is aware that the administration had an interest,” he said, “but Matt Cowley has said the administration did not tell him what to do.”78 Houston and Siegiried clearly saw the action as official: “I’m very saddened and disturbed by this,” Houston told local reporters. “It seems to me that this shows exactly what we were trying to say when we stood on that corner [protesting Thomas], that there is little allowance for diversity on this campus.” Siegiried agreed: “I think this sends a clear message to people who have ideas that don’t fit in with the far right, Republican ideals. It basically says there are people on campus who are allowed to have political opinions and people who are not.”79 One of Houston’s comments foreshadowed her future showdown with the university: “[I]f you disagree with the prevailing politics … you will be punished,” she said. “I think a university should have larger goals than that.”80
While public attention swirled around VOICE’s censure, group members moved ahead with two spring projects: the Take Back the Night march and the Clothesline Project, both of which would now require co-sponsorship with BYUSA. Kerry Hammock, assistant director of Student Leadership Development, and David Lucero, BYUSA’s advisor, worked with [p.325]VOICE organizers to receive approval for each T-shirt. (Hammock and Lucero reviewed the shirts on behalf of the administration; the exhibit was also reviewed by student leaders.) Hammock told VOICE members he would be “particularly sensitive to verbal or pictorial disrespect to the LDS Church or its leadership, the identification (or accusation) of individuals as abusers or predators, and the appropriate use of language in our environment,” though he noted that his judgments were open to discussion. Still, Hammock was (as VOICE leaders would acknowledge) sensitive to the project’s aims. “My hope,” he wrote to one VOICE organizer, “is that women will be encouraged to make whatever shirt is needed as a part of their healing process. If possible, I would encourage women to create the shirt they need … and then to produce other shirts if their first cannot be accommodated on the line.” VOICE and BYUSA worked together as well with the national Clothesline Project to provide support and counseling staff for the event.81
In keeping with BYUSA’s and VOICE’s sensitivity to the community, the Clothesline exhibit, held in the student center’s art gallery the week of 3 April, was structured around a large sign reading:
We have screened these shirts so that the exhibit will be in harmony with the BYU Honor Code. However, some shirts make use of strong language. The coarse language used on a few of the shirts here is meant to reflect the violence done to the survivor. In short, some women choose to use strong language to more powerfully express their recognition of the foul nature of violence—these shirts are meant to de-glamorize violence, to render it as the offensive behavior that it is.82
While viewers and participants left overwhelmingly positive comments, a few students, as they had the previous year, registered complaints with the campus newspaper: one found the display full of “hate, bitterness, and unforgiving heart,” and another wondered how the anger expressed on some of the shirts could facilitate real healing.83 On the evening of the display’s last day, 7 April, VOICE and BYUSA sponsored BYU’s fourth annual Take Back the Night march. Organizers saw the coinciding events as complementary: the Clothesline Project allowed for individual expressions by survivors of abuse, who could then join with other women in a community march against violence.84
Perhaps because the events were visibly co-sponsored by BYUSA and had undergone careful scrutiny, only a small amount of controversy surrounded them in 1995—a lull in the storm of protest that had hung over VOICE since the group’s inception. When people asked Linda Wilkins if BYUSA had hindered the events, she pointed instead to the legitimacy and funding BYUSA brought with it, but then joked that VOICE had been planning “to take over BYUSA, which is run so badly, we feel our organizational skills could improve things greatly, if not eliminate the need for them completely.” Predictably, opposition did arise in the pages of the Utah County [p.326]Journal. Its editorial cartoon in response to the events showed a VOICE member in the first of two panels—obese, hairy-armed, wearing a horned Viking helmet, military stripes, and an armband marked “survivor.” She angrily shakes her fist and yells: “Take Back the Night!” In the next frame sits a staid but disgruntled Brigham Young, with a thought bubble that says, “Take back the university.” The Journal’s cartoon was a reminder that forces outside the school were invested in portraying VOICE and its advisors not only as inappropriately militant feminists but as exercising undue and anti Mormon influence on campus. Surrounding the scowling, shouting VOICE member in the first panel are upraised fists and placards representing the “evils” with which the Journal associated VOICE: R-rated movies, Sunstone, anti-Honor Code sentiments, and “English Department activism.”85
During the summer of 1995, exhausted after a year of working with VOICE, Houston and Gedicks each stepped down as advisors. Houston’s decision was facilitated largely by her coming sixth-year review, which would begin that fall. A few months without being featured in VOICE news stories, she thought, might improve her chances at continuing status. Still, realizing that she would likely face opposition from the same people who had worked against her three years earlier, she applied for academic jobs elsewhere as the review began. Gedicks, on the other hand, left his post as advisor when two other male professors on campus—Tim Heaton and Larry Young, both of the sociology department—expressed an interest in working with the group. Though Gedicks continued to affirm his belief in VOICE’s mission, privately he was relieved not to be the point man for a group whose very existence at the university required continual struggle.
Interlude: Brian Evenson
In the wake of the controversy surrounding VOICE’s protest of Justice Thomas, another BYU English professor, Brian Evenson, made headlines with what was already a several-months’ struggle over a collection of short stories he had published nationally the previous fall. Since arriving at BYU in January 1994, Evenson—in his twenties, witty, and conspicuously unshaven—had gained popularity with students, especially the small clique of creative writers who gravitated around such department luminaries as fiction writer Darrell Spencer or transplanted Welsh poet Leslie Norris. (When Evenson first came to campus, several writing students assumed he had been hired to replace Spencer, who, unhappy in Provo, had long been seeking employment elsewhere. Spencer did not leave BYU, however, until 1997, when he took a teaching job in Ohio.)
Trouble for Evenson began less than a year after he arrived, shortly after his collection Altmann’s Tongue was published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf in August 1994. (Although several of the stories had been published in literary journals, local readers outside the English department’s hiring committee had their first peek when one of the stories appeared that sum-[p.327]mer in BYU’s independent Student Review.) The book, which Knopf had officially signed the night before Evenson interviewed for the BYU job (it formed the basis for his hiring), is filled with unnervingly cool descriptions of violence. Reviewers noted the collection’s darkness and precision of Evenson’s language, comparing him to Kafka, Beckett, and Poe.86 (The New York Times Book Review, less charitably, dubbed him “a backwoods Bret Easton Ellis.”87) At least one reviewer noted that a “great moral sensibility” could be “glimpsed behind the carnival mask of apparently frivolous murder.”88 The surface disparity between Evenson’s Mormonism and the violence of his fiction received little notice outside Utah. But in a cover story to its Sunday arts section, the church-owned Deseret News ran a half-page color photo of Evenson with an oversized headline: “‘Brother Grim.’“ “Whatever your idea of Brigham Young University,” the story began, “Brian Evenson probably isn’t it.”89
When asked about the violence in his fiction, Evenson would typically explain that he aimed to focus on the evil of violence by refusing to sugar coat it, as happened in what he termed “Hollywood violence.” “[W]hen the horror becomes gratuitous,” he told the Deseret News, “I lose interest. It has to serve some kind of purpose.” BYU’s poet-in-residence, Leslie Norris, who had taught Evenson as an undergraduate and had encouraged him to apply for the job at BYU, agreed. “I see him as a moral writer,” said Norris. “He seems to be saying ‘This is what the world would be like if we didn’t know right from wrong.'”90
As a student in Provo, Evenson had remained aloof from the predictable centers of gravity for aspiring writers, though he had won several contests. As he interviewed for the position at BYU, he read stories that would be included in Altmann’s Tongue to faculty and student groups, and some were included in his application files along with stories that would be published in later collections. By the fall of his first year on the faculty, he apparently still saw himself as somewhat of an outsider. “I don’t think they know quite what to think of me there,” he told the Deseret News. Still, he no doubt appreciated the gesture of support when students and colleagues offered their congratulations on the book, and when the BYU Bookstore featured Altmann’s Tongue prominently in large quantities.
But in November 1994 department chair Jay Fox summoned Evenson to a meeting with himself and the department’s creative writing section head, Douglas Thayer, to inform him that an administrator (later identified as academic vice president and associate provost Todd Britsch) had forwarded to Fox a letter from an anonymous student who found his book to be a “showcase of graphic, disgusting, pointless violence.” Fox told Evenson that he knew who had written the letter and that he would divulge the student’s identity if the student agreed to meet with Evenson. The three-page letter explained that the student—identified only as an English major and “a beginner in the field of creative writing”—had heard Evenson read in an-[p.328]other professor’s classroom, and claimed that Evenson had displayed a casual, even a contemptuous, attitude toward the connection between his faith and his art. “Before the class was over,” the student wrote, “my concern had turned to Horror …. I knew at that moment, that no matter what the consequences might be to my future in the English department, I could not let this issue go by.” The student went home, prayed, then the next week bought the “prominently displayed” book at the university bookstore. “I wanted to give it a fair review,” the student wrote.
After reading to page 84, though—a page on which, the letter notes later, appears an allusion to an apparently incestuous relationship—the student felt “like someone who has eaten something poisonous and is in desperate need to get rid of it,” and decided to write the anonymous letter as a “release.” The stories made the student “terrified to think that a man who is capable of creating and perpetrating this kind of mental imagery on others was able to be hired as a professor at BYU, and set up as an example of a successful young LDS author. … If we are to believe the Lord when he said that as a man thinketh in his heart so is he, then we all need to hope that Brian never starts practicing what he preaches, and that none of his readers do, either.”
The remainder of the letter provided a catalog of the types of violence in the book, along with page numbers (several photocopies were attached, including the dust jacket), then turned to general accusations against the English department, reminiscent of the language used a year before in the Utah County Journal attack. “I know that the procedure for grievances here at the University is to go directly to the offending person first,” the student wrote,
but I must admit that I am very concerned about my anonymity in the English Department. There is a lot of intrigue and manipulation going on there. There is a strong “liberal” element and those of us, especially students, who hold a “conservative” (in other words scriptural and prophetic teachings based) philosophy have to keep a low profile both in and out of class. It is a constant tension to know that you, as a student, must learn to “read” each particular professor’s inclination and in most cases repress any scriptural or doctrinal insights you’d like to share.
The student ended by offering “to discuss this situation in person, if it would be of any help,” and asserted a “prepared[ness] to be as public about my position as I need to be and to leave the results to the Lord.”91 The letter, Fox told Evenson, had initially been sent in October to a high church official on the board of trustees. It had taken about six weeks to work its way down through the system, something Evenson found disturbing given the university’s recently stated policy—as the student acknowledged—of clearing up grievances at the lowest levels first, without involving intermediate administrative levels if possible. According to Evenson’s notes of his meeting [p.329]with Fox and Thayer, Evenson said that he “had no difficulty in having the letter pass back up the line of authority in company with my response, but that to have it pass down alone was unfair and might cause legal problems for the University” if it ultimately affected his continuing status.
During the meeting Evenson grew increasingly aware—now that the book had come to the attention of administrators and church officials—that Fox was beginning to express reservations about it as well. While Fox was disturbed by the student’s characterization of the department as antichurch, he did agree that Evenson’s book was troubling. Was Fox taking this new position to protect himself, Evenson wondered, from church leaders who already seemed to believe the worst about the department? Fox said that after the letter writer had complained to him in person about Evenson’s work, he had purchased and read the book, which he found “perplexing,” even if the writing was “very sophisticated.” Thayer, when Evenson asked for his opinion of Altmann’s Tongue, said he thought some of the stories were likely to be anthologized and widely republished and discussed; others, however, were less to his tastes. If Fox and, to a lesser extent, Thayer-members of a university English department—found the stories problematic, then Evenson was likely heading for trouble with school officials and board members. This “collision course,” Fox warned, could be averted if Evenson agreed to change the direction his fiction was taking. Evenson balked again. If his fiction was now an issue with the university, and could jeopardize his review, why hadn’t anyone made that point sooner? If these things would eventually pose problems for his continuing status, he wondered, shouldn’t he have been warned of this before he was hired? Hadn’t the book actually helped him get the job? The meeting left these questions unresolved, and Fox asked Evenson to respond in writing to the student. Their conversation surrounding the letter, he emphasized, was to remain confidential.
A few days later Evenson gave Fox a thirteen-page response to the student. His response, which both defended his fiction and questioned the student’s characterization of the English department, was written with the assumption that it would be read by those administrators and church leaders who had seen the student’s letter. Evenson categorically denied making the statements the letter writer had attributed to him: they lacked “the cadences of my speech,” he said, and held “meaning[s] often skewed so as to fit the image of me you seem to have derived from a confrontational reading of the book.” The substance of the alleged statements seemed unfamiliar as well. Rather than assuming that his readers enjoyed violence, for example, he argued that he had publicly “claimed just the opposite. My work,” he explained. “offers a violence that cannot be enjoyed—it is a response to the kind of glamorization of violence that television and movies provide.” He explained that, growing up in Utah, he had found it troubling that many of his peers justified watching movies that were ‘‘‘only violent’ [p.330]rather than depicting sex …. It seems to me that we need to wake up, to realize what we are watching.”
Evenson argued that his work fit into a literary tradition dating at least to eighteenth-century figures such as Tobias Smollett or William Godwin, in which authors portray “insanity and evil” as a way to teach their audiences “what their lives might be like if they compromised their moral codes and continue to create for themselves a world without Christ.” Working out of this tradition, he explained, he saw himself as the direct opposite of such recent movies as Natural Born Killers “that have made violence a pleasant pill to swallow.”
After addressing similar concerns, Evenson concluded by turning to the accusations made about the English department. “One of the main reasons that I came to teach at BYU,” he wrote, “is because I knew that here I would be able to speak openly about the scriptures and the gospel.” His scores on evaluation categories such as “gospel insights” and “spiritually inspiring,” he added, should stand as proof that his classes are “hospitable to religious discussion.” Further, the “vast majority” of his colleagues shared similar values and commitment to the church. “From the way you phrase this [complaint],” he wrote, “it seems clear that for you conservative [political] philosophy is synonymous with following the teachings of God while liberal falls under the teachings of the devil.” By “elid[ing] a religious philosophy into a political position,” the anonymous writer became vulnerable to letting “one’s politics … take over one’s religious values, and fraternal love and kindness [might]be the first things to go out the window.” Evenson ended by offering to meet confidentially with the student: “I think the amount of intrigue you believe to be going on in the English department is exaggerated, but I will not put you in a position of any risk.”92
In early January 1995, having heard nothing more about the matter, Evenson approached Fox to see if his letter had prompted any response from either the student or administrators or board members. He was surprised to learn that Fox had not submitted a report (of their meeting and Evenson’s response) to academic vice president Britsch. Evenson had assumed that his response would be read by the chain of administrators and trustees who had passed down the anonymous letter. Fox asked Evenson to type up the notes he had taken on their 15 November meeting, which he would then submit with a report to the administration along with Evenson’s response to the student.
As Evenson was pursuing this matter with Fox, he received a request from his local stake president, Ron Smith, for an interview about his fiction. Earlier Evenson had discussed the book with his bishop, who had seen the Deseret News article, then purchased and read the book. While the bishop had been uncomfortable with the stories—and had even mentioned, at one point, possible church action against Evenson for them—through a series of formal and informal meetings it had become clear that the bishop felt Even-[p.331]son’s motives were upright. The stake president, however, had called Evenson on instructions from the area president who presided over him. For Evenson, this news created some concern. This pattern of investigation by local and area leaders had been established in cases leading to the disciplinary actions against the “September Six.” Although Evenson’s stake president was cordial and ultimately supportive, Evenson remained concerned about the blurring of ecclesiastical and academic authorities. Hadn’t the discussions surrounding the adoption of the academic freedom document assured faculty members that ecclesiastical and academic matters would remain separate?
Wary of what he and others saw as bureaucratic intrigue surrounding other academic freedom cases, Evenson asked Fox on 23 January 1995 for a copy of the cover letter he had submitted with Evenson’s notes and response. Fox agreed and provided Evenson with a copy a few days later. Fox’s memo, dated 16 January, and addressed to Associate Provost Todd Britsch, radically altered Evenson’s understanding of his situation. For one thing, Church Commissioner of Education and general authority Henry B. Eyring had met with Fox over this issue prior to Fox’s and Thayer’s meeting with Evenson. Also, Fox said he had told Evenson that “an impressionable and unstable reader” might find in Altmann’s Tongue the impetus to act out the violent scenarios they contained. Fox felt that this argument warranted consideration in light of a recent nationally publicized murder case in which a teenager had imitated scenes from the movie Natural Born Killers. (The comparison to Oliver Stone’s controversial movie may have been particularly irksome; Evenson regularly used it as an example of what he aimed not to do. Because the movie’s screenplay was co-written by a fellow BYU alumnus, however, observers regularly linked the two writers.93) The memo also offered the detail that the student writer was female (Evenson would learn in the coming weeks that she was a female graduate student who had returned to BYU after some years away from school); Evenson, unaware of her identity, had used a male pronoun to refer to the letter writer. Evenson was most surprised, though, by Fox’s statement that the “bottom line is that he knows this book is unacceptable coming from a BYU faculty member and that further publications like it will bring repercussions.” This line left Evenson stunned; in his mind he had never agreed not to publish further stories like those in his first collection. He had taken his meeting with Fox and Thayer to indicate only that Fox and an anonymous student were uncomfortable with the book. Perhaps angry at the student’s implications about the department as a whole, Fox was forceful about the dangers of anonymous complaints: “We feel no obligation,” he wrote, “to respond [to them]; they are like terrorist acts sometimes, often seen as misleading and exaggerated to those accused [and] … they violate university grievance policies and [Doctrine and Covenants] 42:88”—the instruction to church members to resolve disputes candidly face to face.
[p.332]Fox’s strong words about anonymous letters rang hollow to Evenson in the face of the preceding paragraphs. (After all, he felt, Fox had known the identity of the student from the beginning.) If the student’s letter had not rendered his stories suspicious, or had not brought the book to the attention of authorities, would it have posed a problem for him? Hadn’t this whole situation shown that, contrary to Fox’s conclusion, the university and department did pay close attention to anonymous complaints? How could he have agreed not to publish further material like Altmann’s Tongue when he had not yet had a chance to defend his book to those who were concerned about it?
In the two weeks that followed, Evenson pressed Fox, Dean Randall Jones, and Associate Provost Britsch to know if future works like Altmann’s Tongue would bring action against him. The very wording of Fox’s phrase in the memo unsettled Evenson: “The bottom line is that he knows that this book is unacceptable. … “ Unacceptable to whom? To Fox? Board members? Had Fox thought that Evenson had agreed with this? Or was Fox simply staving off criticism by appearing to have reprimanded and warned Evenson?
In a 25 January letter to Britsch, hoping to clarify “potential misunderstandings” that may have resulted from Fox’s memo, Evenson pressed for answers to these questions. “I acknowledge that Altmann’s Tongue is one of the most difficult books ever written by a Mormon,” he wrote, “but I also think it is one of the most uncompromisingly moral books as well, and many people have agreed …. I have no reservations about having published it and do not think it unacceptable.” Regarding Fox’s use of that word, he continued:
My understanding was that as we met Jay was simply giving his personal opinion, and I took it as such. If he has been told by others to convey to me this information, I would like to know. In addition, if there is such an opinion among university administrators and the Board, I need to know on what that opinion is grounded. And is it the considered opinion of the Board as a body, or the opinion of one or two individual members of the Board?
Evenson informed Britsch that his next work would be different from Altmann’s Tongue, yet still “difficult.” How would his decision to proceed with publication be represented to trustees? Would his defense have to travel to them through the administration, only to arrive distorted? “If I and my work are going to be discussed by university leaders,” he told Britsch, “I would like to be included in these discussions so as to be fairly represented.”94
This letter, with a copy sent to department chair Fox, triggered immediate responses: In a memo to Britsch, which Fox showed to Evenson, Fox withdrew the statement that Evenson had been put on notice. Writing to Evenson, Fox explained: “No one has directed me to tell you if you continue with the problematic content you will be fired. Everyone in authority that I have talked to has conveyed his concerns graciously and sensitively and has asked me how I thought we should proceed. Because I share some of their [p.333]concerns and because I value you as a colleague, I told them I wanted to talk to you about the matter. If I had felt differently, I would simply have said, sorry I disagree, I’m not going to do anything about this.” Fox also offered further explanation about the anonymous letter, implying that some leaders had expressed concern independent of the student complaint. The student, he said, claimed to have “acted on her own, that other faculty were not involved. Most of the readers I have talked to learned about your work through the article in the Deseret News the previous fall.”95
A few days later, on 2 February, Evenson met with Fox and Dean Jones at Jones’s invitation. The dean had read Altmann’s Tongue and drew comparisons between it and Kafka, among others, though he presented several arguments why he believed the book to be unfit for a BYU professor to have written. BYU, like any institution or community, he said, had certain expectations and limitations; the violence in Altmann, he felt, placed it outside those expectations. (By analogy Jones claimed that at Brandeis University a faculty member could not voice support for the Palestine Liberation Organization.) Evenson attempted again to explain how the violence functioned to deglamorize Hollywood-style violence. Jones countered that he had a hard time understanding this because he had never seen a violent movie. Evenson asked if administrators and trustees objected to specific stories or to the book as a whole. Jones replied that the objections were to any instance of graphic violence. Evenson answered that he did not consider the violence graphic, that rather than reveling in details his description was precise, calculated, controlled. Perhaps the book was not for unsophisticated readers, he suggested, but a university audience should be capable of a certain degree of sophistication.
Jones emphasized that he was not threatening Evenson’s job, but he also warned that he would not be able to support Evenson at his third-year review if he chose to continue publishing similar work. Evenson pressed for further information: could someone give him explicit instructions about what criteria would be used in his review to help him decide about publishing his second book? In particular he wanted clarification on Fox’s language in his 16 January memo to Britsch; Fox said he felt he had adequately addressed those concerns. “For me,” Evenson recorded the next day, “the most important thing I gained from this meeting was the impression that both Jay Fox and Dean Jones are unable to see the moral content of Altmann’s Tongue, are unable to accept it on a personal level. … If I am to make a decision to abandon a year’s worth of work (my second book), I feel I must have more substantial and more cogent objections.”96
The day after he met with Jones and Fox, Evenson asked the department chair again for clarification about the words “unacceptable” and “repercussions.”97 Fox declined. Frustrated, Evenson told him he would like to make this confidential matter known to some of his colleagues, to seek their advice. According to Evenson, Fox gave his consent. However, after Even-[p.334]son distributed copies of the anonymous letter, his response, and his notes on the November meeting with Fox and Thayer, Fox said he considered such action in violation of their agreement of confidentiality.98 As a result of the distribution of these materials, copies were eventually sent to Associated Press reporter Vern Anderson, resulting in an article in early February.
The wave of publicity that quickly surrounded Evenson threw the case into high gear. With Evenson on one side defending the morality of his stories, and the anonymous student on the other labeling his stories as “poison,” the Associated Press placed BYU, via spokesperson Brent Harker, in the middle. “Obviously we as an institution are struggling with it,” Harker said. “This is tough. Brian is a gifted writer, the publisher is a premier publisher and Brian’s objectives and purposes are sincere …. This is a moral act for him.”99 A week later Harker told the student newspaper the same thing: Evenson intended the work “to lower our tolerance for violence.”100 Still, Harker said he wondered if portraying violence could serve to discourage it; the university, when confronted with the suggestion that his next book might rival Altmann’s Tongue in violent content, was not sure how to react. “Whether we’re going to be associated with that work, at this point it’s undecided,” Harker said. “It’s a difficult challenge for us.” According to the A.P. story, Harker noted that trustees had “strong opinions about the work and [about] several complaints lodged against it.”101 Harker’s strongest statements were given to a reporter at the church-owned Deseret News. “This is a difficult dilemma to an institution like us that has an honor code,” Harker told the News. “It’s a question of degree. We must now decide when violence becomes obscene, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”102
The news stories recorded reactions from one of Evenson’s colleagues. BYU fiction writer Bruce Jorgensen described the anxiety he felt as an artist “when I see another writer getting censured.” He pointed to concerns many faculty members felt when such credence was given to anonymous complaints: church counsel, he said, was to deal with offenses on a personal level.103 Evenson’s editor at Knopf, Gordon Lish (who also edits a literary journal, The Quarterly, which had published some of Evenson’s stories), agreed with Jorgensen and raised the stakes by hailing Evenson as someone who “will produce himself as one of the major writers of the 21st century.” Lish castigated BYU for creating the controversy: “They want the man to think thoughts that would be congruent with their wishes,” he said, “which I find so entirely hostile to what it is to be an American and what it is to be an artist …. I would think it also would be hostile to the notions of what it is to be a Christian.”104 At least one BYU employee writing to the school newspaper agreed: “Will we blind ourselves to the merits of a work because it contains depictions of human cruelty and suffering? Even the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon—which have value not only as scripture but also as literature—fall into that category.”105
As the news stories unfolded, on 13 February Fox left a message on [p.335]Evenson’s answering machine indicating that the anonymous letter writer had agreed to meet with him. Evenson gave Fox permission to pass his response on to the student, but then the student backed out, and Evenson never met her. Fox, however, had already told BYU spokesman Brent Harker that the meeting was planned; citing Harker, local media erroneously reported that the meeting had taken place.106
On 14 February Evenson met with Todd Britsch. The next day he wrote Britsch a follow-up memo addressing “potential misunderstandings” that could arise from recent news stories, and from the Deseret News coverage in particular. The largest error, Evenson pointed out, was that the News reported that he was holding off on publishing his second book. “I have not agreed to this,” he reported, “and in fact [I] currently have my agent showing the book around.” Second, Evenson expressed concern over Harker’s invocation of the honor code and his mention of “obscenity.” Noting that Harker had in other interviews avoided framing the discussion in this way, Evenson felt it important to state that such an approach would “only open a can of worms, and I am certain that finally you will find such a position untenable both in the eyes of many at this university and in the eyes of other universities.” Evenson repeated to Britsch a point he had made to the News reporter, that “I quite frankly see this as an issue of academic freedom, for both myself and the University.” (In the article he had been paraphrased as saying that his case could “set a precedent that BYU professors will be required to follow for years to come.”)107
Throughout the last week of February, Evenson continued to press for clarifications from Jones and Fox. He sent Fox a series of memos and notes he had been sitting on for some time, including notes of their 2 February meeting, which he asked Fox to review and amend as needed.108 In a cover letter, Evenson expressed concerns he still harbored about Fox’s statements. For example, Fox continued to maintain that “many readers” would not accept Evenson’s explanation of his writing, yet Evenson had received only one complaint, aside from the anonymous letter. (That complaint came from a faculty member who did not accept Evenson’s reasoning behind the book’s violence but nonetheless defended his right to enter such work into the university marketplace.) “I have been told that there are members of the Board who object to the book,” he wrote, but he had never received their complaints either. He also took exception to Fox’s comparison of his book, which Fox had not read completely, to Natural Born Killers, which Fox had not seen. But Evenson’s gravest concern was that the university had voiced objections without saying who, ultimately, was making such decisions about his case. “I am trying to discover,” he told Fox, “what the University’s expectations are …. I think I deserve to be given a clearer idea of why you and others object to Altmann’s Tongue, of whether those objections are official or ‘personal’ positions, and whether I will be given an effective opportunity to answer these objections.”109
[p.336]On 21 February Randall Jones decided to respond. He took an informal tone, making it clear that he was giving friendly advice, not an official statement. “You are an exceptionally gifted writer,” he sought to reassure Evenson, and again drew comparisons to Kafka and others. Altmann’s Tongue, he wrote, “is elegant in its simplicity yet powerful in the message its [sic] conveys.” Still, he felt, the message itself was the source of the problem. “Remove the violence,” he wrote, “and nothing is left. I do not accept your premise that the reader is moved to accept a higher moral alternative …. Although I admire the artistic ability, I am not left with the same feeling that I experience with other types of literature that I choose to read.” While Jones said he did not feel Evenson’s case centered on the honor code or academic freedom, he did warn Evenson that, when deciding on his third year review, “those who are called on to make a decision” would likely ask: “Do we want to invest our resources in a faculty member whose chosen theme for his creative work is violence[?]” At this stage, Jones wrote, he could not predict how decision-makers would answer that question. “I do know, however,” he added, “that because of all the publicity that has been generated over the past several months there are a lot of people who are watching the case very carefully.” Jones had difficulty finishing the memo, and set it aside for over a week. On 4 March he sent it anyway, since a meeting was being planned with Evenson, Fox, Jones, President Rex Lee, and Provost Bruce Hafen; it remained, like Evenson’s dilemma, inconclusive.110
The 6 March meeting with the president and provost came at Evenson’s request, and followed his correspondence and meetings with Todd Britsch. Also present were Evenson’s father, William, a professor of physics at BYU who had served under President Jeffrey Holland as an academic vice president. Brian Evenson would later describe the meeting as “cordial, especially at the beginning,” with Hafen taking the administrative lead based on what seemed to the Evensons to be a carefully calculated position.111 Hafen invited Brian to speak first, since he had requested the meeting. Evenson distributed a list of typed questions he hoped to have answered. His goal, according to the handout, was “[t]o understand the University’s and the Board’s expectations for my writing with sufficient clarity that we can let the matter rest and go on to more productive work.”112 After the group had reviewed the sheet, Evenson called attention to the first question: “Has my reply to the anonymous letter satisfied the Board?”
Hafen’s answer surprised him: What the board thought, the provost said, was not at issue. Evenson responded that, from his position as a faculty member, what the board thought certainly was the matter at hand, as it would most likely be the determining factor in his case. Furthermore, he had been led by Britsch to believe that the board’s reaction was what this meeting would primarily focus on. Hafen said he could tell Evenson only what he thought about the situation. Besides, Hafen maintained, the concern over Evenson’s work originated within the university.
[p.337]Evenson responded that Britsch, in particular, had led him to believe that the matter originated “up the line” in response to the student letter. Wrong, Hafen said. The concern had originated with him, after a student had discussed Evenson’s book with him. Evenson asked if that student was Hafen’s daughter, who had been in the same creative writing seminar from Leslie Norris that had included the anonymous student. If so, Hafen’s daughter had struggled with Evenson’s fiction, but her class journal entries indicated that she had come to accept Evenson’s explanation even though his work was not something she would emulate. Hafen indicated that the student he referred to was indeed his daughter, and that she had not yet decided if she thought Evenson’s writing was, as he argued, moral. He did know, though, he added forcefully, that he spoke for all administrators in the room when he said the work was not appropriate for a BYU professor. Evenson should not expect to stay past his third-year review, Hafen added, unless he changed the content of his fiction.
This was the clearest statement yet against Altmann’s Tongue by anyone representing the university. William Evenson countered that the Academic Freedom Statement protected work that might seem “unsettling,” as long as it did not attack the church or violate the honor code. Hafen responded, as he had in 1993 to Cecilia Konchar Farr and David Knowlton, that junior faculty are not protected under the Academic Freedom Statement; faculty without continuing status, he said, are governed only by Rank and Status policy. He sent for a copy, then read to the group passages that suggest a candidate will be judged not only on teaching, scholarship, and citizenship, but also on the “quality of the faculty member’s overall affirmative contribution to the University.” By associating his fiction with the university, Hafen said, the book’s dust jacket potentially subjected the university to harm.
Evenson pointed out again that he had not seen the dust jacket prior to publication. Surely, William Evenson added, the university could not hold itself responsible for everything produced by its faculty—what of a science experiment that, after publication, proved to have been flawed? Hafen responded that professors had a special obligation not to offend church members; this Obligation, he said, was part of the university’s institutional academic freedom, its right to determine its own mission. (In line with this, Jay Fox suggested at one point that Altmann’s Tongue be shown to a group of Mormons to see if they found it acceptable.) Hafen added that the dust jacket’s references to the LDS church and BYU seemed derogatory; by thus associating the stories with BYU, he implied, Evenson’s publishers ran the risk of offending church members.
William Evenson responded again: But isn’t this exactly what individual academic freedom protects professors from—uninformed and unprofessional objections from outside? Wouldn’t his stories have to be demonstrably damaging to the church or BYU? Hafen and Lee replied again that junior faculty were not protected by the Academic Freedom Statement. [p.338]Still, they said, such judgments were subjective: as courts had said of pornography, you cannot define it, but you know it when you see it. Someone has to make such judgments, administrators maintained, and in this case they judged Evenson’s work to have crossed a line of acceptability. Hafen told Evenson to consider himself officially “put on notice.”
Hafen continued by asserting that BYU has a “special mission,” and faculty members are obligated to fit themselves into that mission or leave. To receive continuing status, he said, you must not only produce good work, but show you are a good fit for the university. And, he added, in what William Evenson took to be a “transparent attempt to intimidate” his son, faculty members who fit in at BYU do not resolve controversies by going to the media. The press, he said, is more than willing to embarrass the university; they search for controversies to expose in an attempt to damage the school. Going public may cause a professor’s loyalty to be called into question.113
“The end result of the meeting,” Evenson wrote afterward, “is that I feel the situation here is essentially hopeless.” It was clear that administrators on all levels would refuse to back him if he published his second book in the form it now stood—as potentially disturbing as his first book. “I am convinced,” he added, “that for … [the] administration institutional freedom means a great deal but that individual academic freedom is no more than a spectre[.] … I think the future for academic freedom at BYU is very weak indeed.”
That weekend an account of the meeting turned up in another Associated Press article, along with news that Evenson had just received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts on the merit of his story “The Munich Window: A Persecution,” from Altmann’s Tongue. The news story quoted both Brian and William Evenson about the meeting, but BYU spokesperson Brent Harker said that neither Lee nor Hafen would submit to an interview since they considered the meeting confidential. According to the article, Evenson was both relieved and troubled by the meeting. On one hand, he knew now exactly where he stood. On the other, he was bothered by the administration’s argument that neither the board nor the anonymous student letter had played a significant role in the case. William Evenson implied that he found those arguments hard to believe: “They were looking over their shoulders,” he said of the administrators, although “[t]hey took some pains to try to deny that was the case.” The article reported that Evenson was determined to see his next book through to publication, and that he had started looking for jobs elsewhere. “I am very tempted to stay,” Evenson said, “because I think BYU needs to be accountable for these kinds of things like other universities.”114
Expectedly, the article in the Deseret News (which appeared a day later than the A.P. story) contained more strongly worded quotes from Harker. Where a month earlier he had seemed to withhold judgment, he now represented a position the university was willing to take: “In this publishing ven-[p.339]ture,” Harker told the News, “the university is a party to what goes on. The cover of Altmann’s Tongue mentions BYU, so the institution is very much involved. Does the institution have no [academic] freedom and the individual have all the freedom? We don’t want this kind of stuff coming out of this institution. We are not talking about literature in general. We’re talking about extreme, brutal, sadistic and violent depictions of violence.” Harker also backed up Hafen’s contention that untenured faculty were not protected by the school’s academic freedom policies. Evenson told the News that he would take the matter up with accreditation officials who would visit the campus the following year. The administration, he told the Daily Universe the following week, was “making decisions that might compromise the reputation of the school.”115
University administrators clearly believed Evenson had violated their warning not to talk to the press about the 6 March meeting. Further, they felt the news stories distorted the meeting—which they wanted to frame as friendly advice given at Evenson’s request, not as an ultimatum or as a decision in a review that would not take place for another two years.116 Evenson and his father, though, felt that Hafen’s warning had not been the same thing as an agreement of confidentiality to which they had consented. (“I am clear,” William Evenson dictated in a memo to himself that summer, “that neither Brian nor I would have agreed to a stipulation of confidentiality at that point, even if it had been requested.”117)
The most extensive coverage of Evenson’s interactions with the administration came at the end of the month in back-to-back interviews in Student Review with Evenson and Brent Harker and in a lengthy interview with Evenson in a local entertainment magazine, the Event. In these articles Evenson mentioned how the situation was affecting him personally. When asked about the nihilism in his fiction, he cited his early introduction to Kafka by his father, which, he said, “started to interest me because I felt it was so alien to my experience growing up in Utah …. But I’ve come to realize,” he added, “that there’s a lot about the culture [here] that is pretty dark, that is kept pretty hidden.” Is some of that darkness evident in your current situation? The interviewer asked. Evenson laughed. “I’ve been disappointed,” he answered, “that some of the people who have objected to it have been people who … should be better readers. People in the English department, the chair of the English department, for instance.”118
For Harker’s part, the extended interview format—unusual for a BYU spokesperson—left him contradicting himself. Where he and administrators had been at pains to deflect attention from the initial response given to student complaints (“No anonymous letter can bring down the wrath of the administration,” he had told the Event. “That’s not an accurate picture of what’s happening”), in his long interview with Student Review he narrated an account that involved both “people” below who had complained (in addi-[p.340]tion to the anonymous student letter) and concerned trustees, in contrast to Hafen’s insistence that board members’ views were not relevant.
“The people who had concerns,” Harker told the Review, “took [them] directly to the board of trustees and the members of the board saw it and expressed concerns about it.” Still, he said, the board followed procedure by placing the matter in the hands of the department and college. “The board wasn’t saying ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that.’ They have strong opinions about the book but they’re saying, ‘This is a decision that you have to make on your department level.’’’ When the Review pressed him on how much influence even their “unstated” concerns could exert, Harker said that their opinions do not affect “the future of faculty.” When asked how Evenson’s case could impact BYU, he replied that “you have to think about the [university’s] various audiences. Our most important audience is the board of trustees,” followed by “the students and the tithe-paying members. … These controversies that come and go,” he added, “affect different audiences in different ways. They tend to reinforce the support of the tithe payers and tend to alienate a certain segment of the public that doesn’t like us anyway, and never paid a penny to support the institution.” When the interviewer responded that some tithe-payers and students may not approve of limiting Evenson’s academic freedom, Harker replied that “we don’t want to upset them, but we don’t want to deviate from our [religious] mission.”119
Others on campus were not as quick to assume opposition between religious identity and academic freedom. Eager to demonstrate how a difficult work like Evenson’s could profit from debate and analysis in a religious context, several faculty members prepared critical treatments of individual stories for presentation at the university’s annual Symposium on Literature and Belief, held at the end of March. The German department, teasing out the implications in Evenson’s book that Altmann’s Tongue was in part a commentary on the violence of the Holocaust (Altmann, they noted, was an alias for the Nazi officer Klaus Barbie), sponsored a faculty brown bag discussion. Much of the debate in these settings concentrated on approaching Evenson’s difficult stories in a religious context. German professor Scott Abbott’s contribution, which used Evenson’s title story to comment on the state of academic freedom at BYU, was published in April in Student Review. “What if the university,” he asked, “while hosting the recent conference on the Holocaust, had issued a press release praising Evenson for the unblinking moral stance of [his work]? What if we as a community of scholars were to thank and reward Evenson for his warning that the Altmanns or Barbies of the 1940s weren’t the last to speak the language of violence? What if our vision of a university were not pale and timid, but included learning to read (and even write) difficult and challenging literary texts?”120
In July Evenson announced that he was taking a year’s leave from the school for a position at Oklahoma State University. A year later he resigned when the position there became permanent. His case, providing several [p.341]months of intense campus and local controversy, helped to resurrect BYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, whose purpose is to protect academic freedom. (See chap. 9 for a full history of the local AAUP.) While his initial departure was not technically a resignation, BYU spokesman Harker and Evenson both treated it as such. Harker continued to insist that academic freedom and religious education were compatible: “The university’s sense of mission and Brian’s sense of mission were quite divergent,” he told the Associated Press. “He has chosen to take his own destiny in his hands, which he had indicated might happen in the beginning of this controversy. We wish him well.” Evenson, saying he did not expect to return to Provo, told reporters that the on-going actions against Gail Turley Houston would “lessen the university,” adding, “I don’t think I want my name associated with BYU.”121
Houston’s Sixth-Year Review: The Construction of a Heretic
As dust settled following Evenson’s departure, Mormon feminists took note in September 1995 when the church’s president Gordon B. Hinckley read, as part of his address to a semi-annual all-church women’s conference, a document titled The Family: A Proclamation to the World (which quickly gained the popular designation “The Proclamation on the Family”). Intended as a concise, forceful statement of the church’s views on gender and marriage roles—and widely interpreted by liberal Mormons as a battle cry against feminism and gay marriage—the proclamation asserted that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” While the edict broke no new ground doctrinally, some observers noted the clarity of such sentences as “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose,” which was understood by many as an indictment of homosexuality (which church leaders often characterize as “gender confusion”) and a foreshadowing of the proclamation’s emphasis on traditional marriage roles. “By divine design,” the statement declares a few paragraphs later, “fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and the protection of their families. Mothers,” by contrast, “are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” Though the statement disclaims that “Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation,” some church members viewed the proclamation as an authoritative text designed to be used against dissenters—feminists in particular.
In late November Gail Turley Houston began to receive the first reports on the progress of her continuing status review. The situation looked mixed. To be sure, an overwhelming majority of her colleagues within the [p.342]department had voted that she receive continuing status and be promoted, but nine of the forty-seven faculty eligible to vote had recommended she be fired—a large enough number to be noticed by anyone at higher levels hoping to dismiss her.122 Given the high profile she had maintained the previous year, and knowing already from her third-year review that an antagonistic review committee could turn a handful of complaints into accusations of disloyalty, Houston saw trouble ahead. Earlier, as controversy had begun to engulf her colleague Brian Evenson, Houston had accepted a position on the first board elected by the campus’s new AAUP chapter. When, in early 1996 Merrill Bateman’s first major edict as university president tightened the ecclesiastical endorsement process for faculty members, some observers became convinced that academic freedom issues could only become more heated (see chap. 9). Houston’s review process would not be smooth, and many people, who could do nothing more than sit and wait, knew it. On Houston’s part, at the end of December 1995, she interviewed for jobs at the national conference of the Modern Language Association. In February she received an offer from the University of New Mexico. Fearing the worst at BYU, she accepted, but kept the decision quiet and determined to follow her review to its conclusion.
On 19 March Houston received word from James Gordon, associate academic vice president and chair of the University Faculty Council on Rank and Status, that the advancement committee had requested information in addition to the material enclosed in her review file. The additional materials, he informed her, included correspondence she had carried out with her college dean following her provisional candidacy at her third-year review; her November 1992 Student Review essay on academic freedom; a 27 September 1993 memo in which she asked interested faculty to contribute to the “white roses campaign” in the wake of the September Six disciplinary cases (see chap. 7); a course handout on Victorian literature, based on material from her unpublished book manuscript on Queen Victoria, gender, and genre; and a tape recording of a 1994 Sunstone Symposium session sponsored by the Mormon Women’s Forum, in which she had participated. Gordon noted that Houston had been asked for the text of this talk by her department chair Jay Fox and had declined to provide it; he wanted her to explain why, and to offer the council recordings or text from any other talks she may have given at Sunstone or the Mormon Women’s Forum; Because these items were “sensitive,” Gordon wrote, and because the lower review levels had already made their decisions, Houston could elect to prevent the college and department committees from viewing them.123
The nature of these materials—especially the publications and presentations from unofficial Mormon magazines and conferences—suggested that a case was being assembled from them, that perhaps the normal review files had not offered those whose agenda it was to fire Houston enough leverage. Friends recalled Cecilia Konchar Farr’s firing—that the administration relied [p.343]on the work of the college committee in particular to build a case against her scholarship and loyalty to the church (see chap. 6). If such a case had not been possible against Houston, these friends speculated, perhaps charges would be leveled at Houston based on religious grounds. On 27 March Houston responded to the six items Gordon had mentioned, and wanted to “pose some questions of my own,” she wrote, “since it is very difficult for me to know what I am to say about these items when I have so little background on why they have been placed in my file.”
Houston agreed that the October 1993 correspondence with Dean Jones was appropriate for review and should be the only material from her third-year review to be considered (to which BYU’s attorneys had previously concurred). The Student Review essay, Gordon had implied, was being requested because it had been noted in Jones’s letter. Houston refined him to her explanation of the essay in the correspondence with Jones. Regarding the “white roses” memo, Houston noted that the presentation of the roses to the Church Office Building had been “a gesture of love for the church and its members.” The course handout, she continued, was already in her file in a revised form as part of her book manuscript, which was currently a finalist for an award from the National Women’s Studies Association. Finally, concerning the Sunstone presentation, Houston wrote that she had told the college committee, when asked, that her comments had taken up only a few minutes of the 90-minute session and hardly constituted “an academic document worthy of perusal.”
Turning to her own set of questions, Houston wondered why Gordon had termed these documents “sensitive.” “[I]f you believe that these documents have bearing on professional and academic matters regarding my file, then, by all means, please inform the college and department committees. However,” she continued, “if these documents are considered sensitive by you because of spiritual or religious implications, then I would feel uncomfortable having the university, college, or department make judgments about them. Indeed, I suppose that it is only appropriate that the Board and other General Authorities directly involved make a decision as to the spiritual and religious implications of these documents.”
She concluded with a string of additional questions: Who entered these items into her file, who determined that they were relevant, and how did Gordon obtain them? Why were they entered, if not to build or fortify a case against her? Does every candidate receive equal scrutiny? (Houston cited a colleague who had spoken at Sunstone several times without having that become an issue during her tenure review.) Finally, she wrote,
it grieves me to ask if a file has been kept on me over the last few years by university personnel. If so, what kind of file is it? In addition, it occurs to me to wonder why, if these are considered “sensitive documents,” the person entering them into my file didn’t bring them up sooner in order to handle matters when they occurred rather than wait three years to bring these is-[p.344]sues up? And why didn’t the person … bring these issues up to me personally, as required by University policy, before taking them to a committee that will make a tremendously important judgment affecting my career?124
To these questions, Gordon curtly responded on 1 April that university policy does not “provide that you receive the … information requested in your letter, but only that you have an opportunity to respond to the information that is included in your file.” His terse memo outlined the grounds on which the material was deemed “sensitive”: BYU’s “unique mission,” he explained, required that “rank and status policy include issues with religious implications.” This material, he added, was being considered sensitive because of its religious content, and so, according to her previously expressed wishes, he would not forward the material to the department or college committees, though the material would be reviewed by the university council. Gordon cited the same university policy on rank and status Bruce Hafen had used to confront Brian Evenson the previous year; the rank and status council would base its decision “not merely on the presence or absence of harm, but on the ‘quality of the faculty member’s overall affirmative contribution to the University’” (Gordon’s emphasis). In addition, Gordon disputed Houston’s assertion that her correspondence with Jones was to be the only material passed on from her previous review. The agreement with BYU’s attorney, he argued, had been that if Jones’s letter was included in her future review, her response would be included as well. The attorney “did not represent or agree that any other documents would be deleted or excluded in your sixth-year review.”125
Houston was, she replied the next day, “dismayed” by Gordon’s letter. Without knowing who was adding “sensitive” material to her files, she wrote, “[h low can I be assured that the decision-making process is fair? What I would deem a fair request,” she added, “is for me to know exactly why the person or persons who entered such items view these items as compromising my integrity as a BYU faculty member?” Regarding the inclusion of third-year review material other than the Jones correspondence, she included a memo from then-English department chair Neal Lambert agreeing that her third-year review files would not be considered in her final sixth year review. “To do otherwise,” she argued to Gordon, “taints the process and the good faith agreement between the parties officially representing the University and myself.”126
Still dismayed by Gordon’s unwillingness to answer her questions about who had inserted the additional material into her files, Houston consulted friends and legal advisors, Fred Gedicks in particular. The inclusion of the material, she assumed, writing an 8 April memo to Gordon, was a way of justifying a judgment of her spirituality. “This puts me in a peculiar position,” she wrote. “I have to defend myself against charges, innuendoes, or interpretations based upon these documents but no one has informed me [p.345]what those charges, innuendoes, or interpretations are.” Still she made some attempt at response: the Sunstone panel, she explained, “took place within two years of my mother’s unexpected death” and was an act of “soul searching” that “helped me to maintain my faith.” The course handouts, she explained, were intended as both background reading for students and as models of current literary practices. The “white roses” event, she argued, was interpreted by the church-owned newspaper as a “message of love [and] hope” and accepted by a church leader in that spirit.127 (A few days later Dean Jones would write to the rank and status committee that he accepted all of the explanations Houston offered except possibly that regarding the Sunstone address.128)
Along with her memo, Houston sent Gordon a letter from Fred Gedicks arguing for her right to a more thorough explanation of why extra materials were placed in her review file. “A right to respond,” he wrote, “is meaningless unless a candidate knows the criticism or problem to which he or she is responding.” Failure to disclose such reasons, he continued, was not only “inconsistent with elementary notions of fairness and due process, but it would violate the [university’s] Policy itself.”129 Gedicks’s entry into the fray must have been difficult: several of the key players on the administration’s team, after all—Gordon in particular—were his colleagues at the law school.
Cutting VOICE’s Clothesline
As Houston’s correspondence with Gordon continued to unfold, VOICE hosted its annual Clothesline Project during the first week of April 1996. In January the group’s probation had been lifted, and VOICE resumed its regular status as an official campus club.130 When VOICE approached BYUSA about continuing to co-sponsor the Clothesline, however, the organization declined after a unanimous vote, citing some members’ reservations about whether the event facilitated healing or simply channeled unhealthy anger.131 The group found an unexpected source of support, however, in the campus newspaper’s long interview with VOICE leader Suzanne Kemeny in March and an in-house editorial supporting Clothesline during the week of the exhibit. “Some within the BYU community,” the editorial read in part, “have expressed discomfort with or disdain for” the project, or are “uncomfortable with its stark, angry images and harrowing tales. Members of the community would be better served to feel uncomfortable with the preponderance of rape and violence within Provo and every community that would seem to be immune from such problems.” (The editorial did not, however, mention that VOICE was the project’s sponsor.)132 As in 1995 the exhibit was held indoors in the student center, although in a garden court more visible than the art gallery used the previous year. After a review by administrators, five of the over 100 shirts were withheld.
While most of the week passed without incident, by Thursday opposi-[p.346]tion was mounting from predictable sources: Perry Smith of the DittoHead Conservative Club and the local Eagle Forum. Smith protested the event to school administrators and, receiving what he considered an inadequate response, asked listeners to his local Rush Limbaugh-style talk-radio show to telephone or fax complaints to President Bateman’s office. He also contacted Eagle Forum leaders, who attended the event on Thursday and, dissembling their identities and intentions, obtained permission from VOICE members to photograph some of the shirts for what they said were personal reasons. Eagle Forum members joined Smith in his radio campaign, and on Thursday evening they distributed photographs of the T-shirts at a banquet inaugurating BYU’s largest fundraising campaign ever, and asked potential donors to complain about the exhibit.
The following day President Bateman and other administrators showed up unexpectedly at the exhibit. One student later recalled seeing “fire in [Bateman’s] eyes.” After hurriedly examining several of the shirts, Bateman announced that over half, in his view, denigrated “sacred ordinances,” such as LDS temple marriage, or were antagonistic toward the church’s priesthood. (The most frequently referenced shirt, for example, read “SUICIDE can seem better than living (?) through a temple marriage!”) At one point Bateman stood toe-to-toe with VOICE advisor Brandie Siegfried, whom he had never met, and told her that he knew what her “real agenda” was. Although Bateman wanted the display shut down immediately, other administrators persuaded him to leave it up for the few remaining hours. He did, however, require event organizers to take down all shirts with LDS content and to restrict access to the exhibit to students. He also told them not to speak to the media about the incident. While Bateman later claimed that the university fundraiser had nothing to do with his response to the exhibit, VOICE members say that he asked them why they had chosen to display the shirts at the same time the capital campaign was slated to begin. They interpreted his injunction to limit entry to students as a move to keep potential donors away. Only a few people on campus were aware of the Clothesline incident at the time.
Within a few days, VOICE’s two male advisors wrote Bateman hoping to explain their positions and, if possible, to stave off any long-term action against VOICE or the Clothesline Project. (Brandie Siegfried, who did not sign the letter, had left town on a research trip to Los Angeles.) The “scene” that had occurred, they assured Bateman, was not due to any neglect of policy or irresponsibility on VOICE’s part, but to “other people on campus intent on the demise of VOICE.” If a few people misunderstood the exhibit’s intent, they wrote, they were in the minority: most of the written comments left by visitors made it clear that “the vast majority of viewers”—including guests from other campuses—“learned a very important lesson.” Indeed, one faculty member had attended the event with a group of non-Mormon colleagues from around the country, many of whom reported that they had [p.347]been “forced to rethink their somewhat condescending conceptualization of who Mormons are based on the honesty and spirituality they observed in the exhibit.” Because other people had misunderstood the project’s intentions, though, the advisors were contemplating ways to improve the project and prevent such misunderstanding in the future. On a more personal note, however, they referred to “the deep hurt the students felt” after Bateman’s surprise visit: “They are deeply committed to making the world a better place, they worked hard on this project, and they followed guidelines …. Some kind words of concern and regret,” they wrote, “would go far in building the students’ confidence that BYU is a place of love and support.”
When the story finally broke a few months later, Bateman told one reporter that when he entered the student center’s garden court, the exhibit’s anti-church bias “was very clear.” He denied, though, that he had required members to remove shirts from the display, and in one interview noted clumsily that organizers were “well-meaning.” In the same set of articles, VOICE advisor Larry Young told reporters that “one of the ironies of this situation is that they [VOICE] were silenced by people seeking to do good,”133 and that, “if Christ had been walking on the campus that day, he would have gravitated to the student members of VOICE who were huddled in the corner in tears.”134
In the weeks that followed the incident itself, discussion of the Clothesline Project continued in the local press, although with no mention of the debacle involving Bateman. On 7 April the Provo Daily Herald carried side-by-side opinion pieces by Perry Smith and VOICE member Janet Garrard. Smith repeated charges he had made over the previous two years that VOICE used the Clothesline Project as a way of attacking the church. Later in the month the paper printed a rebuttal of Smith’s arguments by BYU physics professor Kent Hanison, a longtime advocate for abused women and co-editor of a church-published book on abuse in Mormon contexts. (For Harrison’s earlier activity with women’s issues on campus, see chap. 2.) Harrison argued that opposition to VOICE, like Smith’s, could blind church members to the very real problems of abuse in Mormon communities. “[T]o ignore” these problems, he wrote, “is ultimately to do the church more damage than to acknowledge their existence [and] treat them.”135
Among those on campus who had heard of the Clothesline incident, several expressed concern that the project might be permanently removed from campus. Chemistry professor Juliana Boerio-Goates, one of the university’s few non-Mormon faculty members, wrote to Bateman about her involvement with the Clothesline Project sponsored by the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women. She had, she wrote, visited VOICE’s display and, unlike Perry Smith, did not find the shirts to be antagonistic toward the LDS church. While she sensed that some people’s suffering was heightened because their abusers had violated trusts that came with church membership or leadership callings, she said she “did not read a condemnation of all priesthood holders [p.348]in those shirts.” Responding to Smith’s Herald editorial, she argued that he “impugns, without adequate justification, the motives of others whose opinions he dislikes,” and questioned his character, citing a newspaper interview from the previous year, in which Smith, without apparent remorse, talked about lying to security guards to get into a Rush Limbaugh press party. She told Bateman that her own teenage daughter, raised in a part-Mormon family (Boerie-Goates’s husband is a Mormon BYU professor), might some day be a VOICE member. “My observation,” she wrote, “is that BYU exhibits a pervasive neglect of the concerns of moderate women and a guaranteed tendency to respond favorably to the strident cries of the far right. … My worry is that these actions will push my daughter and others like her away from their moderate positions toward more radical ones.”136
In private discussion and correspondence over the next month, it became clear that Bateman and other administrators believed with Smith that VOICE was attacking the church. Bateman responded to Boerio-Goates that when he visited the garden court his “concern was that many of the shirts had a double message …. [T]oo many of the messages (more than 50%) denigrated sacred ordinances, covenants, and priesthood.” After consulting with “moderate women who are professionals in the field,” he wrote, he was Convinced that BYU needed to improve its support of abused women, but felt that the Clothesline Project was “not a very effective” way to approach healing.137 (The same week Alan Wilkins repeated this assessment of Clothesline to Gail Turley Houston.) Over the next several months Bateman received mail from abuse survivors defending the Clothesline Project and its role in confronting abuse. One such letter came from a BYU professor whose daughter, a college student, had been raped while on a date with a fellow student.138 Despite such support, when VOICE proposed the Clothesline Project as part of a “Prevention of and Healing from Abuse Week” in early 1997, the administration vetoed the exhibit and mandated that the proposed event last one day only. VOICE expressed regret and moved the display to St. Mary’s Episcopal church in Provo.139
Houston’s Review Concludes
The controversy surrounding Bateman’s visit to the Clothesline Project was only one of the events that left some faculty feeling particularly dismal during April 1996. The English department had lost a string of feminist job candidates to administrative vetoes. Houston’s colleagues still waited for results of her review, and Houston herself remained locked in conflict with Vice President James Gordon as she sought information about the additional items placed in her file. “If they don’t approve Gail,” wrote a faculty member to a friend in early April, “I’m just going to blow. And then they’ll go after me.” A few days later the same person wrote despairingly that “this university is becoming such a ruthless totalitarian state [that] it’s very dangerous to respond. If they pick you out as a target, you lose your job. And [p.349]most of us can’t afford to lose our jobs, not having another to go to …. [I]t’s interesting that there is basically a new horror story every day,” the professor continued. “And when you think Bateman hasn’t even been inaugurated yet. It’s going to be some really ugly times around here.”140
A week and a half after Houston repeated her request for additional information, and without having heard from Gordon again, she received an 18 April memo from Alan Wilkins informing her that the Faculty Council on Rank and Status had voted to deny her continuing status. The next step in the review process, Wilkins informed her, was for him to assess the council’s report and Houston’s file and make a recommendation to Provost Hafen and President Bateman. Before he communicated a final decision, though, Wilkins felt persuaded by Houston’s and Gedicks’s arguments to Gordon that she deserved a fuller hearing on the additional material that had been inserted into her file.141 Wilkins spent the remainder of his memo addressing the additional pieces of evidence, suggesting how each was viewed by the administration. At this point Houston’s suspicions seemed confirmed about the administration’s modus operandi in inserting the extra material. Each piece helped construct a case, it began to appear, that portrayed Houston as antagonistic to the LDS church and its all-male priesthood. “They’re trying to make me out to be an apostate because I believe in Mother in Heaven,” she wrote a friend that week. “They are saying that I believe that gender is constructed therefore I have gone directly against the First Presidency’s Proclamation on the Family which says that gender is eternal. They think I sympathize with apostates because I was behind the ‘white roses’ campaign. They think I ‘subtly’ attack the Mormon view of woman and the family because I do research on Victorian gender ideology.”
Wilkins’s memo does seem to support such an interpretation. His questions suggested ways in which each piece of evidence would be used against her. He traced the “significant pattern of student concern”—those of her students who wrote negative evaluations—that had been noted as early as her third-year review, and he dismissed the overwhelming majority of high evaluations with the same line of reasoning the administration had used against Cecilia Konchar Farr: the high averages exist “because you have a certain following of students who tend to take your classes and that other students self-select out of your classes.”142 In response to her Student Review essay, he called attention to the passages that had troubled other administrators at the third-year review: How, he wanted to know, could she justify her statement that BYU professors needed the freedom of “inhabiting a position of doubt, even antagonistic disbelief’ in view of written expectations that BYU “students must know where [their teachers] stand on the most important issues of life.” This expectation, he continued, drawing on an official statement known as “The Aims of a BYU Education,” resonates with [p.350]“the common purpose of all education at BYU—to build [students’ personal testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Wilkins reminded Houston that BYU’s Academic Freedom Statement, together with these “aims,” prohibits faculty members from expression that “contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy.” In her Student Review essay, he continued, Houston referred in passing to the fact that she prays to heavenly parents. “Does this contradict fundamental Church doctrine that we should pray only to Heavenly Father?” The white roses memo, he went on, referred to the September Six excommunications and disfellowshipments as a “purge,” and her solicitation of money for the roses “could also be seen as an expression of sympathy for the views of individuals who are being disciplined by the Church for apostasy.” Regarding her course handout on Victorian sexuality, he asked simply: “Is this document intended as a subtle criticism of Church teachings about women and family?” Moving on to Houston’s 1994 Sunstone presentation, he again implied that its contents could be construed as violating “fundamental Church doctrine”—and hence the school’s Academic Freedom Statement—regarding “marriage, family, the role of women, and not extending the priesthood to women.” The presentation, he also suggested, could be seen as expressing sympathy for the excommunicants. Do these statements, he asked, “reject the right of prophets to proclaim doctrine and priesthood leaders to teach about the role of women?” As with the Student Review article, he noted, in the Sunstone presentation Houston implies she prays to Heavenly Mother as well as Heavenly Father. Finally, Wilkins (unlike Gordon) drew attention to her book manuscript on Queen Victoria as an additional piece of questionable material. “This book suggests,” he asserted, “that gender is a social construction …. Does this contradict fundamental Church doctrine that men and women have different roles and that ‘gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose?’ [sic]” Wilkins noted that the church’s official proclamation on the family was issued in 1995, after Houston had written her book, but added that “Church doctrine that men and women have different roles was clear before then.”143
Wilkins’s memo was devastating. It contained, Houston believed, the core arguments the administration would use to justify her firing. The implications Wilkins made about the items inserted in Houston’s files also had broad implications for faculty in general, and as Houston sought advice from colleagues, including fellow members of the local AAUP, word about Wilkins’s memo spread. What seemed clear to AAUP members and some others was that their original fears about the vagueness of the category “fundamental Church doctrine or policy” in the school’s Academic Freedom
Statement left the university with enough latitude to interpret virtually any tenet or perspective on Mormonism as “fundamental.” (For this reason, the national AAUP decided a week later to investigate BYU [see chap. 9].)144 For [p.351]example, while faculty members in 1992 had been told that “fundamental” doctrines were few and theologically foundational, Wilkins’s memo implied that “fundamental” doctrines could include pronouncements from church leaders that had no place in the canon of accepted scripture. The injunction against praying to Heavenly Mother had come from First Presidency member Gordon B. Hinckley only in 1991, and, while presented in a general church women’s meeting, was phrased, many people believed, in ways that suggested Hinckley was issuing his own views on the subject rather than finalizing a doctrinal position. More troubling were the implications of Wilkins’s designation of The Family: A Proclamation to the World and unspecified other teachings about “essential gender roles” as “fundamental Church doctrine.” In the short time since the proclamation had been issued, the document quickly absorbed by mainstream Mormon culture—had come to be regarded with concern by church members who held more liberal views on gender and gay rights issues. That it had been invoked as “fundamental Church doctrine” sent a shock wave through portions of the Mormon community.145
To academics in the social sciences and the humanities—many of whom depended on “social construction” models similar to those employed by Houston in her work—Wilkins’s contention that her book violated the “fundamental” doctrine in the proclamation on the family was particularly troubling. Houston’s response to Wilkins included a letter from four BYU sociologists who addressed this issue specifically. Drawing on scholars and theorists ranging from “the neo-conservative sociologist” Peter Berger (on the editorial board of the journal First Things with BYU provost Bruce Hafen), who coined the term “social construction” in a classic text from the late 1960s, to the contemporary and widely influential Pierre Bourdieu, the four BYU professors argued that, if Houston were to be criticized for describing gender using a model of social construction, then many of her colleagues would similarly be held accountable. Social construction, they argued from various disciplinary perspectives, “is the term we use to denote that part of the variation [in men’s and women’s roles from culture to culture] is created by social institutions rather than by biology. We must teach this if students are to understand the material they read, to participate in the discourse of the society they live in, and especially if they are preparing to do graduate training at other institutions.” This perspective could only violate the proclamation, they wrote, if “an extremely narrow and deterministic [understanding of gender] is applied,” one that denied any environmental influence. “The day that discussion of such issues becomes a threat to this institution,” they wrote, “is the day this institution ceases to be a university.” Regarding Houston in particular, they asked “whether the desire to protect the University’s interests has led to a process that devalues the positive contributions made by a faculty member and seeks for potential problems[,] that rests upon ‘evidence’ that would demand that action be taken against hundreds of additional faculty members.”146
[p.352]Houston’s own eleven-page, single-spaced response to Wilkins reads like a combination legal defense, religious manifesto, and literary essay, drawing interchangeably on university policy statements, Mormon religious writing, and excerpts from Victorian literature. The letter included extensive arguments defending the positions taken in her Student Review essay and in her book manuscript on Queen Victoria. While most of the point-by-point rebuttal repeated defenses she had previously made, she did present additional evidence. Her claims, she wrote, that the review took an antifeminist tone—by giving too much credence to student complaints about her feminism—should be understood in the context of BYU’s own self-study, part of the school’s preparation for its once-a-decade accreditation review. In the words of the self-study, “Concerns still exist with regard to the degree of professional respect accorded to women” on campus, resulting in “tensions” that “make recruiting women faculty, staff, and students more difficult and sometimes affect retention of women who have come to the University.” Next, regarding Wilkins’s suggestion that her high evaluations may be due to a “following” of students, she cited a statistical evaluation of her enrollment lists showing “that the overwhelming majority of students in my classes are new to me.” Concerning the question of prayer to Heavenly Mother, she explained that her spiritual journey had led her toward personal exploration of this aspect of Mormon doctrine before President Hinckley had suggested any impropriety in doing so. This exploration, she wrote, was tied closely to the dysfunctional family of her own childhood, and “it was healing to know” from church teachings “that Heavenly Father and Mother are the model parents that the Church so strongly endorses and which I lacked as I was growing up.” She cited church founder Joseph Smith’s quest for knowledge about God as a model, and quoted statements from past church presidents referring to “heavenly parents.”
Houston’s gravest concerns, though, stemmed from what she perceived as an attempt on the part of the rank and status committee to pass judgment on her commitment to the church and her spirituality in general. Shifting from an academic tone to one more personal, she wrote near the conclusion:
Somehow it feels like I have left the rank and status process and have entered into a bizarre twilight zone, if you will. Suddenly I am being judged according to a new standard and seem to have been hauled into a modern day inquisition masquerading as a bishop’s court that is without a bishop—and it definitely does not feel like a court of love. I say this because if it were a court of love and you were my spiritual judges, you would want to get to know me personally and know my spirit. I have only talked with you, Alan Wilkins, once or twice. And I have only met one or two of the members of the University Rank & Status Committee. Ethically, then, how can the Rank and Status Committee rationalize making sacred judgments about my soul, when most of them have never met me or talked with me face to face?
[p.353]Such a course, she continued, violated both “Christian behavior” and the school’s “Procedures for Termination and Academic Freedom Grievances,” which encouraged tolerance, kindness, and charity, as well as BYU’s academic freedom policy, which called for “a separation of ecclesiastical and academic matters,” Did the committee know that Houston held a current temple recommend? Why had it ignored her academic and community work to focus instead on the items inserted into her file late in the review? “I cannot help but wonder,” she continued, “if members of the University Rank & Status Committee already decided that they did not want me to get tenure and then started trying to put together a case that would ‘construct’ me as an apostate, an incredibly violent, inaccurate tack to take.” Recalling the persecution of early Mormons—including “pre-arranged sentence[ s]” in American courts—she closed with an admonition “not to practice that kind of religious persecution that was practiced on the early Mormon pioneers because of their faithfulness to Joseph Smith’s revelation about gender.”147
Houston’s charges that the university council did not know her personally apparently struck home with Wilkins. On 3 May Houston met with Wilkins at his office, accompanied by her husband, Michael Amundsen, and Aileen Clyde, a counselor in the church’s general Relief Society presidency and a longtime women’s advocate.148 When they arrived at Wilkins’s office, they waited while he finished another appointment. He then ushered them inside, commenting as they found seats that his letter had indeed reflected the concerns that led the rank and status council to reject her candidacy, but that he had not intended his questions about the additional material in her file as accusations. Houston asked why, then, the focus of so much correspondence had been on those few items introduced late in the review, and why her contributions to the community had not been recognized more. “There’s a place for me here,” she emphasized. She could appeal, for example, to students on the margins—women, especially—whose experiences might drive them away from Mormonism without someone to show them that they are a valuable part of the community. Couldn’t the university simply disagree with some of her expressions, she wanted to know, and allow her to contribute as she had?
Wilkins conceded that she had contributed to the community, but returned to the issues raised by the additional material in her file. For nearly forty-five minutes (at which point Clyde excused herself to return to the BYU women’s conference), they discussed the issue of gender construction and the proclamation on the family. Responding to the letter from the four BYU sociologists, Wilkins acknowledged that the idea of gender construction in itself was not the problem. He used it, he said, in his own courses. The problem was with the phrase she used in her book (and course handout) regarding “a multiplicity of genders and sexualities.” The church’s proclamation, he contended, held up a strict two-sex model. (The BYU sociologists had noted in their letter, though, that even when the term “sex” is [p.354]used to denote “biological makeup,” scientists “are confronted with situations where sex is ambiguous, as with hermaphrodites and transsexuals.”149) Was she disputing, he wanted to know, the church’s contention that men and women have fixed, separate roles? Was she questioning the church’s stance on homosexuality? Houston reminded him that her book was about Victorian literature, not Mormon positions on gender or sexuality. Still, she said, if scientists were forced to confront more complex realities about human sexuality and biology, should Mormons shrink from that information, as if it were a threat to their faith?
Of course some ideas were up for academic investigation, Wilkins agreed. But everything? “What do you say to your students,” he asked, “when they ask you what is true?” Houston responded that she relies on a model derived from postmodernism. Life is full of complexities, she argued, adding that she tells students to “recognize that we do have much truth in this world, but that only God has the eternal all-truthful position.” Again he asked what she tells students when they want to know what “truths” to rely on. She responded that she tells them to rely on the gospel principle of personal revelation, that in a world of “multi-valued” constructions of truth, they could, like Mormon founder Joseph Smith, ask God for personal answers to their questions.
Such personal beliefs become problematic, Wilkins suggested, when they are presented publicly. He turned to the example of her Sunstone talk. Her statements about patriarchy seemed to denigrate the church’s all-male priesthood; such statements hurt the university and church. Houston conceded that her comments had been “blunt,” but said that, as with the Clothesline Project (which had included a T-shirt designed by Houston as a victim of child abuse), the messages are not intended as attacks on the church but on ways in which the larger culture’s views on masculinity had “infiltrated the priesthood.” (Houston later recalled that at the mention of the Clothesline Project Wilkins had bristled.) Wilkins contended that church leaders were among the most vocal opponents of abuse, that the Mormon priesthood operated to prevent and repudiate abuse. Houston contended that she had not suggested otherwise, but had noted places where Mormon rhetoric on gender could contribute to unrealistic ideals or could so harshly dichotomize familial roles that men neglected their families.
At this point, Houston recalled later, “I bore my testimony realizing that he was going to fire me and that we weren’t agreeing with each other. I could just tell intellectually and spiritually that the decision had already been made and that I wasn’t going to say whatever it was that he needed to hear to retain me.” She was in tears. Did it not all come down to testimony? She asked. Couldn’t she be simultaneously true to the church, a believing member, and also “point out truthfully” as a “feminist and a Christian” the places where “the power hunger and domination of masculinity in the world [were] seeping into the church”?
[p.355]Now Wilkins was also crying, she recalled. He told her that he knew the difficulty of the position she was describing Janice Allred, he explained, was his sister-in-law, and he had watched in pain as she was recently excommunicated over her views of feminist theology (see chap. 7). He added that more dialogue was needed on feminist issues between BYU and the trustees, faculty and the university; BYU had, in the past, said problematic things about campus feminists (by this, he seemed to refer to Cecilia Konchar Farr, Houston thought). But—and here, she noted, he seemed most disturbed—the situation would not be improved by feminists “going to the press.” The issues needed to be treated within the university community. Twice, she recalled, he used the metaphor of the university as a “glass house.”
As the meeting wound down, Wilkins told her that his decision would not be easy, that he would make it a matter of prayer and fasting. Houston said, as they left, that she knew she “was sometimes a blunt person, and that I would continue to be honest about women’s issues,” but that she felt she and Wilkins had “come together as brother and sister.” As they exited his office, she heard the secretary ask Wilkins ifhe were ready for his next meeting. “Not really,” he said. “But I guess that’s beside the point.”150
A week passed. Then, during a brief meeting on 9 May, Wilkins told Houston that, after fasting and praying, he had decided to recommend to the president and provost against Houston’s continuing status. He said he could see she had a strong relationship with God, that she wanted to heal from an early abusive home life, but that she had not yet moved past the anger stemming from her abuse, and so she and BYU were not a “good match.” Wilkins connected what he perceived as her anger to the recent Clothesline Project. President Bateman had recently consulted with some women on campus, he said, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, the director of the Women’s Research Institute, and Leslie Feinauer, a family sciences professor and director of BYU’s comprehensive clinic, who had agreed, he said, that the anger of abuse survivors needed to be dealt with in private. Women students also needed, he said, faculty models who had “gotten over their anger,” implying that she had not. Wilkins was obviously worn down. He asked Houston to consider withdrawing her candidacy, thereby saving the university committee the trouble of agreeing on the text of her firing letter. She would also help the university avoid negative publicity, he added.
Houston was accompanied at this meeting by Bert Wilson, her former department chair, who had been a principal player in Cecilia Konchar Farr’s defense (see chap. 6). Wilson still wanted answers to specifics in Houston’s case. It seemed clear that much of what the administration had used to fire Houston was based on the references to Mother in Heaven in her Sunstone talk and in the Student Review. But why had the Student Review essay been brought up again, Wilson wanted to know, when the matter had been resolved following her third-year review? Wilson also warned that firing Houston would, ironically, damage the faith of many students the university was [p.356]purportedly trying to protect. It would also further harm the school’s reputation. Even if the three of them kept totally silent about this meeting, Wilson argued, the press would still cover her firing. Wilkins responded that the press did not understand how to deal with issues this complex. When it became clear that Houston had no intention of withdrawing her candidacy, Wilkins asked her for advice on approaching the letter. All Houston asked for, she recalled In her notes of the meeting, was that they not attack her professional reputation as they had Cecilia Konchar Farr’s and David Knowlton’s. “Just tell the truth,” she said.151
The following day Houston sent Wilkins a letter regarding their meeting and his decision to uphold the council’s recommendation that she be fired. Relieved, in some ways, of the burden of defending herself, she turned the letter into a comment on the entire review process. In particular she addressed Wilkins’s implication that her inappropriateness stemmed in part from anger that signaled, to Wilkins, an incomplete healing from abuse: “I was extremely honest with you last week,” she wrote,
about the violence I had experienced from men and the spiritual means I was using to heal from those experiences …. [But] … Yesterday you implied that you are rejecting my application for tenure because, as you put it, I am not healed yet and therefore not a good match for BYU. I am troubled by the implication of this statement …. Does this imply that God’s purpose of healing the afflicted is no longer necessary at BYU because everyone here is healed? Or has Christ’s message suddenly been overturned so that we only succor those who are already healed and eject the rest?
Wilkins had asked her to consider what the university council should write in her termination letter. Perhaps they could answer the question, she suggested, of whether the university is afraid of powerful women. Or perhaps the letter could make public the role played by the school’s board of trustees. Regarding Wilkins’s repeated characterization of BYU as a “glass house,” Houston reminded him that glass was made from sand—the substance Jesus warned his New Testament followers against building their foundations on: “No where does Christ refer to the kingdom [of God] as a glass house, and I can’t imagine him wanting ‘The Lord’s University’ to be constituted of such flimsy stuff. In my mind, the University that you envision in your metaphor is a shallow, fearful, paltry thing.”152
By mid-May copies of Houston’s longest response to Wilkins (dated 25 April) had circulated widely on Mormon Internet discussion lists and interested students were starting to hear rumblings about her impending dismissal. Houston began to make plans to seek legal counsel if it seemed grounds existed for a lawsuit. Some faculty members, along with VOICE leaders, contemplated possible protest strategies, including a replication of the white roses event, this time with flowers sent to the university to ask for an end to the firing of feminists. A group of BYU alumni, mostly graduate [p.357]students and faculty members at other institutions, drafted statements protesting Houston’s firing to submit to professional organizations and perhaps the Chronicle of Higher Education. While neither of these proposed protests came about, the local AAUP had submitted a large set of files on several recent academic freedom cases, including Houston’s, to the national AAUP. This action would result in the most thorough inquiry into academic freedom issues in BYU’s history (see chap. 9).
Houston’s Firing and Immediate Aftermath
When the letter from James Gordon (dated 5 June) arrived on Thursday, 6 June, notifying Houston she had been fired, the weeks of anticipation and preparation for response did not soften the impact. The letter was delivered by Dean Randall Jones and English department chair Jay Fox. Holding it, knowing its contents, she told English department faculty later that month, she could not read it and simply cried. Her husband arrived a few minutes later, and she asked him to perform for her a “priesthood blessing” of comfort, “because I had to teach in an hour and a half, and I wanted to teach and be a professional and not cry in class.”153 When she finally read the letter, she was disappointed to find that, even following the openness of her meetings with Wilkins, the dismissal was phrased in terms that implied she was antagonistic to the church. (Among the things she had realized and recorded following her 3 May meeting with Wilkins was “That Alan Wilkins knows … I have a testimony.”) Gordon’s letter acknowledged her excellence in the three areas evaluated-teaching, scholarship, citizenship—but quickly turned to the grounds for her dismissal: “The genesis of our grave concerns and ultimate recommendations to deny continuing faculty status and rank advancement,” he wrote, ‘‘was the number and severity of occasions when your actions and words on and off campus, even following your third-year review, were perceived as harmful to tenets held by the Church and the university. We feel that not only have these activities failed to strengthen the moral vigor of the university, they have enervated its very fiber.” After noting what was again referred to as “a significant pattern of student concern about your teaching,” he continued with what Houston saw as his most severe paragraphs. They also, she noted, were nearly an exact replica of Wilkins’s 18 April memo, which he had maintained was not an attack but a series of questions. Here the questions had been turned into accusations of religious misconduct:
In addition, you have engaged in a pattern of publicly contradicting fundamental Church doctrine and deliberately attacking the Church. You have made public statements, orally and in writing, that approvingly and positively describe the practice of praying to Heavenly Mother as well as Heavenly Father. Your public affirmations of this practice contradict fundamental Church doctrine that we should pray only to Heavenly Father. You have publicly attacked the Church for its view of gender roles. You [p.358]have made public statements that are interpreted to contradict and oppose fundamental Church doctrine about not extending the priesthood to women. You have made public statements that seem to reject the right of prophets to proclaim doctrine and priesthood leaders to teach about the role of women. You have publicly expressed gratitude for and agreement with individuals who have been excommunicated or disciplined by the Church for apostasy. You have attacked the Church for conducting certain disciplinary actions and have solicited others to participate in a public protest against those disciplinary actions.
You have publicly announced that you disagree with the expectations of BYU faculty set forth in university policy. You have disputed the view that BYU faculty should be models of spirituality to their students. You have argued that BYU should not remove the possibility of “inhabiting a position of doubt, even antagonistic disbelief’ among faculty. Your third-year review expressed concern about your essay that made these statements. Nevertheless, your behavior both before and after your third-year review is consistent with your views. In essence, your position and the influence of that position on students are incompatible with the mission of Brigham Young University.
Noting her “many gifts” and that she has “much to offer as a teacher and scholar,” as well as his pleasure that she had a job offer from another institution, he wished her well and ended the letter. Earlier in the letter Gordon had maintained that “as a council we searched tirelessly for evidence in support of your continuation at BYU,” but, Houston felt, the letter seemed to make it clear that more effort had gone into building a careful case against her.
The difference between the administration’s handling of Houston’s firing and of those fired three years earlier was evident in the letter of dismissal itself and in the press attention that immediately followed.154 Where administrators had in 1993 maintained that Cecilia Konchar Farr and David Knowlton were let go for failing to produce academically (only to admit to some religious motivations later), with Houston they argued on religious grounds from the start. As Wilkins had implied, the university had rendered itself vulnerable to charges of being disingenuous in earlier reviews; claiming religious uniqueness was apparently, in the end, a tenable and easier position to defend. Still, a disparity of opinion existed on campus over whether the administration’s characterization of Houston as a heretic was accurate, or whether there were other motivations for forcing her out. Houston, certainly, felt misrepresented in subsequent media coverage.
Houston argued that the charge that she had “attacked” the church was a ruse to distract people’s attention from BYU’s real hostility toward feminism in general. “You can stay at BYU if you’re a feminist and shut up,” she told the campus newspaper, “but if you want to speak strongly and speak your opinion you aren’t able to stick around.”155 And while Houston was grateful her academic reputation had not been called into question, she was [p.359]clearly disturbed at being characterized as antagonistic toward the church: for the school “to question my commitment to the Gospel is impossible for me to understand,” she said.156 BYU maintained exactly that: “There are many feminists who teach here,” James Gordon assured reporters. “There is a difference,” though, he continued, “between being a feminist and attacking the church.”157 In either case, Houston told friends and reporters alike that being fired was harder than she had anticipated, even though she was assured a job in New Mexico. “It’s a shock you’re not prepared for,” she told the Universe, one that left her “grieving for what’s happening—not only for myself but for what I see happening at this university.”158
Unlike the firings three years earlier, no large-scale demonstrations were forthcoming. Supporters cited their exhaustion and an increased sense of fear. The local AAUP did, within a few weeks, place an annotated version of Houston’s letter of dismissal on its Web site, countering Gordon and the university council point by point.159 Some students were quick to publish responses. Senior English major Lana Robison, for example, who had taken classes from Houston and worked with her on a student literacy project, echoed Houston’s expression of grief. Speaking “for many students who wholeheartedly protest the dismissal of Gail Turley Houston,” she took Gordon and the council to task for judging the spirituality of someone most of them had never met, something she claimed was more damaging to students than Houston’s alleged apostasy. “By not reflecting genuine and loving concern for Houston personally,” she wrote, “the council itself contradicts the mission of BYU and frays the fibers of an institution based on Christ-centered principles.” Those who knew Houston best, she added, had voted to retain her. And, countering Wilkins’s private assertion that Houston’s unresolved anger made her unfit for BYU, Robison characterized Houston as having “a unique and rare gift of compassion in relation to the issues faced by women … a desperately needed [gift] at a university where women make up half of the student population but … only 17% of the faculty.”160
Houston’s supporters in the English department met on 17 June to listen to her describe the review process and the results.161 She detailed and responded to the specific charges in her dismissal letter and answered questions about the repercussions her case would have on academic freedom at the university. Houston emphasized what she saw as the conflation of academic and ecclesiastical authority by the faculty council. When her review reached the university level, she told colleagues, “suddenly the … process turned into a bishop’s court,” and while she granted their right to judge her academic work without knowing her personally, if they “examine me on spiritual grounds and set themselves up as my ecclesiastical judges … then they are obligated to know me, and not just superficially, but know my soul, and they are obligated to love me.” In contrast to the judgment on her Mormonism passed by the faculty council, she noted that her local church lead-[p.360]ers had renewed her temple recommend only a week after she received her dismissal notice.162
In early July Houston’s friends held a farewell celebration at a local park. Close to fifty students, faculty members, and others read statements of appreciation, including several from friends and BYU graduates across the country. Several faculty members spoke, including AAUP members Scott Abbott, Bill Evenson, and Bert Wilson. English professor and AAUP member Susan Howe found it difficult to express her sense of loss: “shocked and saddened” by Houston’s firing, Howe said she could not “even talk about it now. I can hardly understand why [Houston was dismissed, a decision that] could only be made by someone who doesn’t know Gail.” Of Houston’s activism, she said: “While I’m thinking and pondering, Gail can organize three committees, write five letters, and get a whole lot more done.”163 Brian Evenson, who had been on leave in Oklahoma for a year, told a Daily Universe reporter that the decision to fire Houston “will cause damage to the university.”164 Houston’s supporters presented her with flowers, and local singer Lisa Arrington performed several numbers, including the Mormon hymn “O My Father” (despite the title, the most popular articulation of the Mormon doctrine of a heavenly mother), “Amazing Grace,” a Mormon suffragist anthem titled “Woman, Rise!” and “The Lord of the Dance,” based on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” To the last song, Houston invited the crowd of 100 to dance together, which they did until nearly ten o’clock that evening. In August Houston appealed the university’s decision, only to be turned down. She began teaching that fall at the University of New Mexico.
That July night, however, as friends and family, faculty and students, sang and danced, the sense of heaviness lifted slightly. A year later she jokingly compared, in an interview with Student Review, the spaciousness of her new office in Albuquerque to “the expansion of my soul” since leaving BYU.165 But it would be difficult to forget that, five years earlier in the same student magazine, she had suggested that, rather than limiting faculty members’ freedom of expression and belief, church and school leaders should guarantee that “the exquisite and profound love of the gospel and the process of scholarly search for the truth is nurtured in an atmosphere of trust.”166
3. On the Mormon doctrine of Heavenly Mother generally, see Linda P. Wilcox, “The Mormon Concept of a Mother in Heaven,” in Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds., Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 64-77. The [p.361]hymn “O My Father” was written by nineteenth-century Mormon women’s leader Eliza R. Snow, and is included in official church hymnals today.
11. Bohn, “Thinking Again About Intellectual Freedom,” Student Review, 24 Mar. 1993. Bohn’s article was also presented on 17 March as a lecture to the campus club VISION, a short-lived conservative response to VOICE that focused on preserving the authority of church leaders.
15. Peter Scarlet, “Does LDS Church Stifle Women? Conference will Explore Issue,” Salt Lake Tribune, 24 Apr. 1993. The article includes English department chair Neal Lambert’s denial that he warned the BYU participants to withdraw. Privately, however, several of the seventeen women said otherwise. One student told an L.A. Times reporter that she had been given reason to believe her student standing would be jeopardized if she participated. See Lynn Smith, “Protesting Patriarchy,” L.A. Times, 16 May 1993. Houston also publicly contradicted Lambert’s assertion when a year later she pulled out of Counterpoint again. See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Y. Teachers Pull Out of Feminist Conference,” Salt Lake Tribune, 29 Oct. 1994.
16. See Gail Turley Houston, “Creating Out of Chaos,” Exponent II 18 (1993): 3. Houston made a habit, for a time, of wearing the ribbon along with a Solidarity pin a fellow BYU professor had brought her from Poland.
23. For these attempts, see, for example, Houston to Britsch, 30 June 1993; Houston to Britsch, 12 July 1993, which outlines AAUP guidelines on review processes; Houston had met with Britsch on 8 July. She received the material, apparently, on 17 August. See Houston to Todd Britsch, Alan Wilkins, Steve Walker, Randall Jones, Richard Cracroft, and Neal Larubert, 17 Aug. 1993.
35. The dates of these meetings and memos are chronicled in a letter from Houston’s attorney, Elizabeth T. Dunning, to Claudia Harris, Houston’s faculty advocate during the appeal of her 1996 firing. See Dunning to Harris, 28 Aug. 1996.
55. Untitled agreement between VOICE and the United Club Council, 2 Mar. [p.363]1994, signed by David Fernandez (UCC), David Lucero (Student Leadership), and Katherine Burk Harrison and Linda Wilkins for VOICE.
67. Patrick D. Payfair, “Y. won’t allow feminist club to protest,” Deseret News, 2 Feb. 1995. See also Joan O’Brien, “Justice Won’t Hear the VOICE of Feminism on BYU Campus,” Salt Lake Tribune, 3 Feb. 1995.
73. Cowley to Linda Wilkins, 3 Mar. 1995. The memo was also copied individually to VOICE advisors. Brandie Siegfried took exception to Cowley addressing the memo to “Ms. Siegfried,” rather than using her professional title, and to his demand that advisors respond by a certain date they had not mutually agreed on. Neither mistake, she suggested, was appropriate in a letter from a student to a faculty member. See Siegfried to Cowley, 8 Mar. 1995.
76. Joan O’Brien, “Y. Feminists Go Too Far, Student Officials Say,” Salt Lake Tribune, 23 Mar. 1995. O’Brien’s article was distributed by the A.P. See also Betsy Stevenson, “BYUSA limits VOICE to avoid controversies,” Daily Universe, 24 Mar. 1995; Patrick D. Poyfair, “BYU student leaders take VOICE from Feminist Club,” Deseret News, 30 Mar. 1995; Mark Eddington, “VOICE student club muzzled,” Daily Herald, 30 Mar. 1995. Thanks to Jared Benson, Ed Carter, and Carmen Cole for help with these citations.
86. See Lara Candland, “A Glimpse at Brian Evenson” (interview), Student Review, 21 Sept. 1994; untitled review in Publisher’s Weekly, 22 Aug. 1994; untitled review in Kirkus Reviews, 1 Aug. 1994; Paul Swenson, “Utah Under Cover,” Salt Lake Tribune, 2 Oct. 1994.
93. See, for example, Marni Asplund-Campbell, “Evenson’s Tongue: A Conversation with Brian Evenson,” Student Review, Aug. 1995, 71-75; on Natural Born Killers screenwriter David Veloz, see Judy Brennan, “Mormons Get Part of ‘Born Killers’ Writer’s Pay,” Charlotte [NC] Observer, 19 Sept. 1994.
99. Vern Anderson (A.P.), “BYU Author in Limbo over Violent Book,” Daily Herald, 12 Feb. 1995. The story broke locally in an abridged form a day earlier in the Salt Lake Tribune as “Book Has BYU Author on Horns of a Dilemma.”
108. Evenson to Fox, 22 Feb. 1995. Attached to this memo were three documents: a letter from Evenson to Fox, dated 22 Feb.; an earlier letter to Fox, dated 3 Feb. (written the day after his meeting with Fox and Jones); and his notes to the 2 February meeting (dated 3 Feb.).
113. Throughout the meeting, Brian Evenson recalled, Fox and Jones remained relatively silent. Responding to Hafen’s and Lee’s “you know it when you see it” argument, Jones agreed that faculty members who “belong” at BYU cultivate a sense of appropriateness and willingly exercise self-censorship. Fox added at the end of the meeting, in response to Hafen’s comments about faculty members who speak to the media, that he considered it inappropriate that Evenson had shared portions of their correspondence and the student complaint with fellow faculty, something he and Evenson had already discussed privately. When Evenson responded that he felt he had received Fox’s permission to do so, Fox flatly denied it, implying that Evenson had leaked the documents. Evenson thus concluded that Fox was attempting to demonstrate his own loyalty to the administrators present.
117. William E. Evenson to “File,” 19 July 1995. The memo notes that William Evenson had been told by a department chair in the College of Humanities that on 7 April, in a meeting of department heads with Dean Randall Jones, Jones said that they had been forced by Brian Evenson to take a position early, that they would have preferred to wait until the third-year review. William Evenson disputes this suggestion, noting that the matter had escalated only after Brian Evenson received Jay Fox’s 16 January memo to Todd Britsch, which indicated that a decision had been made about the acceptability of his fiction prior to any meeting or review.
120. Abbott, “Introduction to Literary Analysis: Altmann’s Tongue and Academic Freedom,” Student Review, 21 Apr. 1995. Abbott’s piece was also presented at the March conferences mentioned above. See also Gary Browning, “The Moral/Religious Imagination in Brian Evenson’s ‘The Father, Unblinking,’” Symposium on Literature and Belief, 30 Mar. 1995; and Garold Davis, “One Person’s Reading of Brian Evenson’s ‘Killing Cats.’”
125. Gordon to Houston, 1 Apr. 1996. Gordon was citing University Policy on Rank and Status: Professorial section 3.1.10; the embedded quote comes from “Procedures for Termination and Academic Freedom Grievances,” n3.
126. Houston to Gordon, 2 Apr. 1996. Houston also included a memo Alan Wilkins had sent to all deans and department chairs on 20 October 1994, informing them that “provisional candidacy” had been removed from university advancement procedures, and that candidates affected by this change would only be required to submit a letter summarizing the third-year review. See Wilkins to Deans and Department Chairs, 20 Oct. 1994.
142. This item in Wilkins’s memo deserves fuller quotation and comment. Under item 1 he wrote: “As I look over your course evaluations, I notice a rather significant pattern of student concern that continues following your third-year review. Dean Jones apparently noticed a similar pattern. Some might argue that your averages in these areas are high because you have a certain following of students who tend to take your classes and that other students self-select out of your classes. That may be more true for some of the upper division classes than for others.” Thus Wilkins first points to a “significant” pattern that he views in a negative light—i.e., a pattern of students who complain about Houston’s feminism—then, in reference to jones’s memo, discusses the positive reviews rather than the “pattern of student concern,” with no apparent transition between the two. The reference to Jones makes little sense as well, since Wilkins uses it as evidence that the complaints continued beyond her third year, though Jones’s October 1993 memo deals only with the third year review.
145. Houston’s 25 April response to Wilkins, discussed below, circulated widely on liberal Mormon Internet discussion groups after it was shared on 14 May with BYU’s AAUP. Archives of these Internet groups suggest that the high point of discussion came at the end of May.
150. Though Houston thought her testimony might persuade Wilkins of her [p.367]sincerity, Michael Amundsen, Houston’s husband, did not view Wilkins’s emotion as sincere. See Houston to Bryan Waterman, electronic correspondence, 21 Mar. 1998.