BYU’s recent policy changes that appear to be geared towards reinforcing the institution’s Latter-day Saint character are causing consternation in some circles, so I thought now would be a good time to be the bad guy and make a case for why proactive faculty boundary maintenance is needed for an institution like BYU to fulfill its mission. Like a lot of other people, I get the sense that recent changes are bellwethers for future shifts to come, so this will probably be a relevant topic for the next little while.
First, a common response is that a religiously sponsored institution can positively reinforce its religious mission while still allowing faculty to challenge the teachings of the sponsoring institution. However, the whole idea of a religious institution of higher education is the belief that a synthesis of the faith’s framework and the traditional academic venture is synergistic in some way. Challenging the faith’s framework itself doesn’t fit into that; using that framework as a lens through which to view academic learning does.
If you don’t hold to the premise that religious institutions are right to perform any boundary maintenance, if you’re okay with an anti-Mormon teaching a religion class as long as they have an MDiv, then this is the part in a “choose your own adventure” book where it tells you to skip to the end, but as a parting note I would just add that there’s plenty of ideological boundary maintenance in secular universities as well.
Next, if we can assume that some boundary maintenance is warranted, it raises the question about which boundaries to maintain. Many of the same people who bemoan the boundary maintenance of BYU today are themselves the beneficiaries of the wars fought at BYU in the 20th century over issues like Book of Mormon historicity. People can take it for granted that they can send their children to BYU today and assume that an authority figure in the classroom won’t subtly imply that Joseph Smith made it all up because of battles over this issue that were fought and won decades ago.
I believe we’re going through another wave of boundary maintenance now. While Book of Mormon historicity is now more or less settled as an issue at the BYUs, the same is not true in the case of, for example, the Church’s theological position on human sexuality. Anybody who has spent time immersed in the sectors of BYU which are at least adjacent to these issues is aware of the fact that a not-insignificant contingent of BYU faculty fundamentally disagree with the Church on the theology (and yes I’m talking about theology, not politics, for which there is a much wider berth understandably).
(As a side note and to pre-empt a common criticism, you can disagree with the salience of Proclamation on the Family issues for the Church leadership, but it’s clear that human sexuality is the hot issue of the day, and that it is just as germane for the left as the right right now, so it’s disingenuous to attack Church leadership as being obsessed with these issues.)
Consequently, if we assume that 1) religious universities have the moral as well as legal right to perform active boundary maintenance on their faculty, 2) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now emphasizing Proclamation on the Family principles because of their contemporary salience (among other things), and 3) there are in fact a not-insignificant number of faculty who have doctrinal disagreements with the brethren on sexuality issues (and, more importantly, students can sense said discordance), then it logically follows that the new initiatives, which I along with many on the left assume are geared towards these issues, make sense. Of course, I’m sure most on the other side would dispute the Church’s position for # 2, but if you fundamentally disagree with the Church on this issue theologically maybe that’s where the discussion should go instead of pretending that we’re acting from the same first principles.
As a closing note, it is clear that boundary maintenance is an inexact process administratively, and there are false positives as well as false negatives. I won’t name names, but I know absolutely orthodox faculty candidates who had problems with the General Authority interview, and I’ve known closet non-believing, wannabe Martin Luthers of Morminism who passed every litmus test.
However, some of the the inexactness is a natural consequence of the fact that when the lines are precisely delineated those who are trying to “reform” the Church know how to dance around and actively try to circumvent them, so I’m okay with a little bit of subjectivity when it comes to gatekeeping. There will be false positives and false negatives, but the administrative solutions are sometimes necessary when relying on one-off gatekeeping isn’t enough for keeping BYU on the same wavelength as the brethren.