BYU in the Memory of the AAUP

Among the other academic spam that I get are regular emails from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which is always eager to remind me of their fights for academic freedom, higher salaries for professors, and various trendy and hip progressive causes. Today, the AAUP sent out an email commemorating the ten year anniversary of its censure of BYU. I thought that readers might enjoy a trip down memory lane to the bad-old-days of Mormon intellectual life in the 1990s and a view of events through outside eyes:

The emails we have sent out to faculty across the country to date have all dealt with current issues in the academy. It has always been our intention, however, to provide occasional lessons about AAUP history, especially when the past is still with us.

This year is the tenth anniversary of one of the AAUP’s more remarkable cases–the 1998 censure of Brigham Young University. The full report is on our Web site. Let me give you a few highlights in the hope they will draw you there.

A young faculty member was up for tenure at BYU. Though there was some discomfort with her feminist interests, her department gave her a strong recommendation based on her teaching, research, and citizenship, and that view was endorsed by the college. At the next level up–the University Faculty Council–the tone changed. Objections were voiced that she had violated the tenets of the Mormon Church, most notably by publicly acknowledging that she prayed to “Heavenly Mother as well as Heavenly Father.” Hardly a confession that would earn you a newspaper headline in most American cities, but at BYU it led the Council to claim she had weakened the moral fiber of the university. They recommended against tenure and the BYU president concurred.

The AAUP requires that any doctrinal limitations on academic freedom be laid out clearly in writing. We concluded that BYU had failed to do so adequately. Her statements on prayer constituted descriptions of her personal vision, not advocacy. The university also did not grant a hearing that adequately investigated her allegations that her academic freedom had been violated and that she was a victim of discrimination based on her sex.

To the extent displeasure with her feminism had contributed to the tenure denial, her academic freedom had indeed been violated. But we could not get the BYU administration to reverse its decision. Our annual meeting voted to censure them in 1998.

There are many lessons in this case still relevant today. We often forget that very different value systems can prevail across thousands of American campuses. Continued vigilance is necessary to sustain national standards for academic freedom. That is the task the AAUP has taken on since

Cary Nelson, AAUP President

23 comments for “BYU in the Memory of the AAUP

  1. Steve Evans
    September 23, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Good times indeed. The AAUP’s conclusion that there are many lessons still relevant today is an interesting one.

  2. September 23, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Gail Turley Houston appears to be the director of women studies at the University of New Mexico. If that is true then I would consider it a good ending. I am more concerned about Mormon study professors who do have less professional alternatives.

  3. quinn
    September 23, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    what is “academic freedom” any?

  4. quinn
    September 23, 2008 at 12:52 pm


  5. Kylie Turley
    September 23, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Was it Cecelia Farr or Gail Houston that this particular censure was regarding? Maybe Cecelia was a few years earlier? My memory is hazy.

  6. September 23, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    From Wikipedia, Kylie:

    For example, in 1993, BYU revoked the continuing status to Cecilia Konchar Farr, who had publicly advocated a pro-choice position on abortion. Farr was hired as an English instructor and some felt her positions of pro-choice were irrelevant to her assignment with the school.[5] And to David Knowlton, who had discussed the church’s missionary system at an independent Mormon forum.[5] In 1996, BYU dismissed Gail T. Houston, a feminist who advocated prayer to a Heavenly Mother, despite positive votes from her English Department and the College Committee.[5] Also in 1996, professor Brian Evenson resigned in protest after receiving a warning from BYU administration over some violent images in one of his short stories.[5]

  7. Morgan
    September 23, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    \”We often forget that very different value systems can prevail across thousands of American campuses. Continued vigilance is necessary to sustain national standards for academic freedom.\”

    What is wrong with \”different value systems\” and why do we need \”national standards for academic freedom\” (other than to give the AAUP a modicum of relevance)? I am bemused that a call for academic freedom to teach \’x\’ in the name of intellectual diversity requires that we bulldoze over alternative value system \’y\’.

    Not that being told by a graduate professor that my BYU degree is tarnished because of the AAUP\’s censure has in any way made me defensive about the AAUP\’s conclusions, or cynical about its determination to single out my alma mater in the name of imposing its standards of acadmic freedom. [/sarcasm off]

  8. Ray
    September 23, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Yeah, Morgan, let’s preach tolerance and freedom by censuring those who see things differently. Radical liberals really are radical conservatives with different friends.

  9. September 23, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    It is worth noting that formally at least the AAUP censured BYU not for placing restrictions the publishing and advocacy of professors per se, but rather for failing to have clear guidelines about the contours of their limitations. To the extent that the AAUP forced BYU to be more explicit about their policies — and BYU is now more explicit about the limits of academic freedom — I suspect that to that extent the censure had a positive effect. Oddly enough my colleague at William & Mary, Bill Van Alstyne, was chairman of the committee that investigated BYU and ultimately recommended censure. Shortly after I got hired here, I found myself at a dinner party getting grilled by Bill about BYU’s policies. Good times.

    Incidentally, as a Mormon academic who sometimes writes on Mormon topics and is employed by a non-Mormon institution, I hope that my fellow Mormons would not be too eager to pooh-pooh academic freedom. Among other things it protects my ability to do research on Mormonism in the face of potential hostility toward Mormonism from academic authorities. It is important to remember that BYU and Utah are not good paradigms for which to think about the situation of Mormons generally. Most of the time we are a tiny minority in a sometimes hostile world.

  10. September 23, 2008 at 4:09 pm


  11. Jonathan Green
    September 23, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I kinda like the AAUP, although this particular incident doesn’t strike me as something to crow about. As for a good definition of academic freedom, I find myself saying, yet again: what Stanley Fish said.

  12. Ben H
    September 23, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    This discussion has persuaded me that it would be well worth reading the AAUP report in more depth. I also received this email today with some surprise. I appreciated the direct statement that censure was for imposing a standard that had not been made clear. In the past I have heard much less careful versions of the story than I would hope the AAUP report would be. It has always seemed like a bottomless case of “he said/she said” to sort out any of these cases, and I have always known people sympathetic to both sides, making it extra confusing. Maybe after I grade this stack of papers I can read that report . . .

  13. September 23, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    “Her statements on prayer constituted descriptions of her personal vision, not advocacy.”

    If I understand this correctly, so long as preface your diatribes against the church with “this is my personal opinion; please don’t do what I do,” then you’re okay. A whole lot of crazy teaching could be justified that way. You’d just have to start every class with “this is my personal vision,” whatever that means.

    It kind of reminds me of what non-lawyers think the rules of defamation are. I met a guy once at a dinner party who asked me this question: “I can’t say, ‘So and so stole my watch’, but I can say ‘In my opinion, I think so and so stole my watch, right? Then it’s not defamation.'” I tried my best to disabuse him of this theory, but he stuck to it.

  14. Left Field
    September 23, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    I got the email too. I can only assume that they’re also sending it to people who *aren’t* BYU alumni?

  15. Craig H.
    September 23, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    I’m not sure you’re being entirely fair jimbob. You’re linking her statement of belief to any diatribe (“bitter, abusive denunciation”) against the church, and that seems an unfair association to me. And you’re suggesting that allowing her belief will lead us down the slippery slope of teachers saying all sorts of crazy things. It discounts the seriousness teachers put into their work, and it assumes that teachers should merely recount impersonal things. Every class is implicitly a teacher’s vision, whether you say so explicitly or not. I do agree that teachers should not use the classroom as a private bully pulpit, but I don’t think most do. Although influenced of course by their personal vision, most, in my experience, try hard to be responsible and to teach students to develop their own ability to think. And most hardly assume that their students will believe what they say anyway!

  16. Nate Oman
    September 23, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    “I appreciated the direct statement that censure was for imposing a standard that had not been made clear.”

    Talking with Bill Van Alstyne and reading some of the stuff that Cary Nelson has written, I think that the AAUP is actually pretty conflicted on this. Ostensibly what they care about is certain minimum standards of academic freedom and clear rules regarding doctrinal restrictions. On the other hand, I know that at least some folks involved with the AAUP regard the “clear rules” approach as at best a leverage point to make religious institutions behave more like secular institutions. Hence, those institutions that try to invoke the “clear rules” exception may well find that it is moving target designed to give the AAUP power to secularize their intellectual culture. Bill, for example, told me point blank that religious institutions need to make a choice to either “behave like a univeristy” or else declare to the world that they are seminaries. This, however, is a dicotomy in which a university that does not wish to be a seminary but does wish to place limitations on the sorts of discussions that it sponsors through its faculty has no place.

    I should add that while Van Alstyne is a curmugeonly soul in general and with regard to religion in particular, he has a number of ties to BYU through former students on the faculty there and regards it as a serious academic institution. I think that he operates with a set of binary categories that don’t work well for what BYU is trying to do, but he’s not an anti-Mormon and has been consistently supportive of my Mormon-themed research. I also know that over the years at William and Mary and before that at Duke that he has mentored a fair number of Mormon students.

    Without taking any position on the merits of what happened to particular faculty members in the past, I do think that BYU is better off being explicit about the limitations that it wishes to impose and more formal in its decision making procedures. I think that it has good reasons for limiting the kinds of discussions that it sponsors or facilitates, but I don’t think that it or the church was well served by letting those limitations be set in an ad hoc way by administrators.

  17. September 23, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    As a graduate student at a very secular university, I can speak some re: academic freedom. Frankly, we delude ourselves if we think that BYU is this dark dungeon of intellectual freedom whereas the bastions of light and wisdoms are to be found in secularism. The system I am a part of is JUST as stringent as far as what it will and won’t tolerate. The power structure is alive and well.

    I attend graduate seminars all the time…and the fact that I, a believing LDS could talk about Derrida, Foucault, speak numerous languages and master bodies of literature, is befuddling to many. Needless to say, if I dared to express my views about the possibility that there is an unseen reality, I would be laughed out of the room. I hear professors rant about “them”–namely, the religious conservatives, how “we” shouldn’t underestimate “them” (this is while a vein pops out their forehead, the words coming out in blustering spurts). Snide remarks are made about Christian literature all the time–literature that I too find to be schmaltzy. Meanwhile, they study the writings of Hegel, Marx, Mbembe, and Gramsci with more holiness and sacredness than we study our scriptures. If they were to join the faith, they could out-school us in textual analysis any day. As one professor said to me: “We scholars value the word even more than those in scriptural studies do.”

    Similarly, if a professor were to dare say that women have natural instincts that are different from men (not saying I agree with that), then, as we saw with the Harvard president, they will be canned so fast it isn’t funny. To suggest that women make better mothers than men or that men make better businesspeople than women…all these ideas are nothing short of blasphemous to the Ivory Tower. And They (notice the capital “T”) will ensure that you undergo your own auto-de-fe to conform to their assumption. Yet one can drone on about America as a terrorist state ad nauseum without repercussions.

    For us to believe that the AAUP is the grand moderator of academic freedom is to simply accept a Derridean “structure of power” in academia. Let’s not fool ourselves.

  18. September 23, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Nate wrote “I don’t think that it or the church was well served by letting those limitations be set in an ad hoc way by administrators.”

    Indeed. But I think this kind of ad hoc action actually comes from something in our culture. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told something shouldn’t happen because it is “inappropriate.” When asked why or where the rule is written that applies, I soon discover that there isn’t a rule, its just “inappropriate” and shouldn’t be done.

    “Inappropriate” has somehow become almost an all-purpose reason for unwritten restrictions.

  19. Craig H.
    September 24, 2008 at 10:12 am

    Russell, I had a similar experience 25 years ago. My neck is still hurting from the shock induced by hearing one sort of academic discourse at BYU as an undergraduate, then going to grad school and hearing quite another. But it got me reflecting that rather than stop with pointing out that many institutions are just as limiting as BYU (with just the topics changed), as a sort of implicit justification that our sort is therefore okay, why not ponder the two models and try to come up with what we might consider an ideal academic environment? Some obviously already think that BYU offers that, and some think that others offer that, but if you’re someone who thinks that the two are essentially mirror images of each other, why not find a new image? What would a more genuine academic freedom look like?

  20. queuno
    September 24, 2008 at 11:09 am


    It was amazing to me how much clout my BYU undergrad degree (double major) had in the outside world and within academia when I started grad school. A couple of professors were falling over themselves to ask about how my department at BYU approached certain research things. It certainly wasn’t considered second-tier.

    Then again, the opinion the AAUP only really is relevant in a handful of disciplines, science and engineering certainly not among them.

  21. queuno
    September 24, 2008 at 11:22 am

    I’m not pooh-poohing the concept of academic freedom and its importance. But is it possible that we overrate its value to the university as a whole? Is it possible that problems with “academic freedom” are really problems with the academic industry?

    Did Stephen Jones get a fair shake from BYU after 9/11? Would *ANY* other university have treated him better? What about evolution-denialists? Or scientists who think the world is 6000 years old? Should they have academic freedom to teach and publish in science departments across the land?

    It seems to me that every university has a standard bias towards any number of subjects and that sometimes, faculty aren’t a good fit at a particular place. (My SIL tried to get hired at BYU in the 90s and had issues with this, I think. My brother is at BYU and is a good fit for what BYU wants. My father taught and did research at a state university and ran into these same issues in the 70s.)

  22. Russell Stevenson
    September 24, 2008 at 1:19 pm


    That is a valid point. Even if we fail to formulate a truer form of academic discourse, the endeavor is worthwhile. And as much as it grates my nerves that I have to kowtow to “the canon” of a particular school (kiss the ring, as it were), if our faith in seeing truth everywhere be sincere, then we are under a sacred obligation to be serious about having quite literally an “open canon.”

    Touche, Craig.

  23. David
    December 3, 2008 at 11:01 am

    From my experience, both as a student and now a professor, outside of BYU and the state of Utah, “academic freedom” more often than not means being able to pursue anything, as long as it is “progressive” or liberal-minded. Those of us with more conservative views (for example, that I believe in God, or that marriage be between one man and one women) would have our hands tied or be censured, either officially by the university or at least privately by our colleagues.

    To me, the AAUP represents balance and fairness to the extent that the ACLU does: each is quite willing to stand up for you, as long as your values or your cause is in line with their agenda. If not, you had better get out of their way.

    Every school has its own set of guidelines and regulations, all of which are manmade, and all of which have their flaws.

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