Firing faculty: some educated guesses

Like most media outlets, Inside Higher Ed isn’t well equipped to report stories about BYU-Idaho – it doesn’t entirely understand that BYU and BYU-Idaho are two different schools, for example. But if I had to read between the lines and make an educated guess, this is what I think is happening.

The [Ecclesiastical Clearance Office], commonly called the ECO, was created in 2020. Penrod, the church spokesperson, has said its role is to help ensure that “employees in the Church Educational System commit to maintain gospel standards as part of their employment, including an annual ecclesiastical endorsement from their local bishop.”

So the CES administration has a centralized office for handling employee ecclesiastical endorsements. Whatever your outlook on the current situation, you can probably imagine situations where this would be a good idea for a large, multi-campus educational system for secondary and university students. In some cases, if someone shouldn’t be working at BYU, you wouldn’t want them teaching seminary, either. A centralized office also offers additional benefits, some you might like, some you might not. It would offer a way to standardize criteria so approval doesn’t come down to the whims of a local bishop or a particular college administrator. Also, it probably collects information in addition to the bishop’s endorsement and other church records. I assume that would include relevant online activities or social media posts and relevant student or parental complaints.  You might not like the potential use of that information, but having a central collection point isn’t in itself a bad idea.

* * *

BYU Idaho did not respond to a request for comment about the nonrenewals. BYU in Utah referred questions to Idaho. […]

Lindsay Larson Call—herself a member of the LDS church—received a call from a BYU Idaho employee she didn’t know who told that her years working as an online instructor of family studies and as an instructor evaluation specialist had come to an end. The caller reportedly said he had nothing to do the with the decision and that he’d been given a list of names of employees who failed to obtain “ecclesiastical clearance” from the church’s Ecclesiastical Clearance Office.

My educated guess is that somewhere in that inscrutable level of BYU-Idaho administration above the college deans and below the president, someone isn’t doing his job. Reading between the lines a bit, this sounds like Salt Lake saying All we can do is provide information, but we can’t and won’t make decisions about academic hiring, and Provo saying Do whatever you want up there in…Idaho Falls or wherever, but leave us out of it. A low-level staffer can be pressed into being the bearer of bad news, but can’t take responsibility for a decision made at the VP level.

The problem isn’t that someone has made a decision not to rehire some adjunct faculty members, because making personnel decisions is unavoidable. Over at BCC, Sam Brunson points out that firing adjuncts harms employees, but every personnel decision harms someone. Hiring one person means not hiring someone else. The problem isn’t entirely that the decisions are opaque (although that’s definitely not good), because even murky edge cases require you to make a decision. And the problem isn’t even that an administrator may have made a mistake in these particular cases, although that’s certainly possible. People and institutions invariably make mistakes, but the necessity of making a decision persists even when you have incomplete information.

The problem is that forcing a low-level staff member to be the bearer of bad news lets control over the message slip away and creates the system-wide uncertainty that’s a much bigger problem than any hiring decision, and now Inside Higher Ed has some questions. Someone with one of the nicer offices in the Kimball building makes these decisions, and that person needs to own them. It may not be easy to convey just the right message to the affected staff member and if necessary to the press, but BYU-Idaho has some first-rate people in communications and they could probably come up with something workable. Sam’s absolutely correct that cryptic standards are a problem, which is why the administrator with the nice office needs to say something like The church’s teachings about family and gender are mission critical for us and we need absolute confidence in how our faculty approach them, and so in a few cases we’ve decided to take new directions in who we use in teaching roles despite the excellent service of these wonderful individuals; we acknowledge that we don’t have perfect information, and so we’d be happy to re-examine a decision when it comes to hiring in future semesters. For things that are this important, follow the example of the Gatekeeper at the gate: he employeth no servant there.

* * *

Taylor Petrey, chair of religion studies at Kalamazoo College, who studies Mormonism, told Inside Higher Ed that the recent “firings are extremely concerning for Latter-day Saint educators and put the reputation of BYU in significant risk.” Not since the American Association of University Professors censured BYU in the late 1990s “has the institution faced such a significant threat to academic freedom and its standing as a legitimate institution of higher education,” he added.

Counterpoint: no, they aren’t, and no, they don’t. Taylor is a wonderful person and a great teacher and scholar, but he has only second-hand experience of BYU, while BYU-Idaho is a more exotic species altogether. It would be fair to say that the firings are extremely concerning to the Latter-day Saint educators that Taylor knows, while the reactions at BYU-Idaho will span the range from “This is a disaster” to “Interesting, but none of my business” to “It’s about time.” “University fires adjuncts” isn’t going to get clicks. Even “Mormon university fires Mormon adjuncts” isn’t going to raise many eyebrows. The implications of firing adjuncts for academic freedom are minimal. The thing about adjuncts is that we’re easily replaceable. The fired adjuncts will be replaced, and life will go on.

Sam mentions potential harm to students caused by inability to hire qualified instructors put off by uncertainty about the stability of a job. I don’t think there’s much risk of that, as the pool of people for whom working at a BYU campus is better than their current position is probably larger than you’d think. If it is an issue, there’s a proven solution: pay people a wage premium to compensate for the value of lessened long-term stability.

One area where I specifically disagree with Sam is his argument that students “won’t get the faith mentorship that they so desperately need.” It’s simply incorrect that the only people who “consider the wellbeing of the LGBTQ community” are people who disagree with or have doubts about the church’s teachings. I would say instead that fully accepting the church’s teachings on gender and family requires us to approach LGBTQ people with sympathy and understanding and concern for their wellbeing.

* * *

Both the BYU-Idaho faculty members named in the article taught online, and my educated guess – as an adjunct who teaches primarily online – is that it isn’t a coincidence. You may have noticed a general anxiety on a national level over the last few years about remote work. Employers are confronting the new reality with alarm, wondering what people are doing all day, and with no real way of monitoring their employees. At my thoroughly secular university, the levels of bureaucracy that must be navigated to get an online course approved are orders of magnitude greater than a traditional classroom course.

The other thing you have to understand is that BYU-Idaho is a large university staffed by a small town. People know their neighbors. This is often a good thing. Nowhere else has my dean been as accessible to me as when I was a temporary faculty member at BYU-Idaho. I rarely had any interaction with that inscrutable layer above the dean, but even they were members of someone’s brother’s ward. And like most small towns, people avoid conflict with their neighbors. When university employees of any type get fired, it generates a host of personal problems: key ward callings need to be filled, someone’s child’s best friend moves away, a spouse’s mission companion no longer lives down the road. Not so with remote online instructors, who are mostly faceless and far away. It’s quite possible for years to go by between my visits to my current campus, but I try to stop by at least a couple times a semester anyway to remind my colleagues who I am. With heightened anxiety about online work and dramatically reduced costs from letting someone go, any issue related to hiring is likely to affect online adjuncts first.

* * *

Where do online instructors formerly employed by BYU-Idaho go from here? As someone formerly employed there, I have some educated guesses.

The bad news is that you may never again find work as personally meaningful as teaching for BYU-Idaho. I hope you do, but I haven’t.

The good news is that it’s much easier to find a livable work-life balance with less meaningful work. You can look at it as merely losing a big client, which isn’t fun, but you can find new clients and even earn more than before without the siren call of meaningful work making disproportionate demands on your time. The job market is still strong and as an online adjunct, you have real skills that are relatively straightforward to monetize. Financially, I suspect everyone in the story will be okay.

Personally, there can be challenges. It can be difficult to have the church say, “You are not who we want teaching at our university right now.” In my case, it was “Our university would be better off without you, the program you spent a few years building, and the discipline you teach.” I still think that was the wrong call, and I certainly don’t want to prove to whoever made that decision that it was the right choice after all. I also still care about my former students, and it’s important to me that they weren’t taught by the guy who only showed up to church as long as he was getting paid.

26 comments for “Firing faculty: some educated guesses

  1. Most of your commentary is reasonable, except for the kicker of a last sentence. Assuming that the fired faculty “only showed up to church as long as [they were] getting paid” is quite the holier-than-thou insult and shows what you really think of those people. “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.” Did you only show up to church as long as you were getting paid?

  2. I work at a university in Canada. We have a strong faculty union and academic freedom is built into our collective agreement. I’ve never been able to reconcile even the most general idea of academic freedom with the kind and degree of ecclesiatical oversight present at BYU. Of course I recognize that the vast majority of people who study and work there do so with the best of intentions and, clearly, often with the best of outcomes. Nevertheless, from the outside looking in, it sometimes seems like a grotesque parody to have a university where people are routinely sanctioned for changing and expressing their opinions.
    I suppose folks know what they’re signing up for when they start…

  3. We know that the Ecclesiastical Clearance Office was created two years ago, and we have a vague idea of its general purpose, which is described in the statement that Jonathan’s post quotes. What we don’t know is how the ECO does its job and how it functions in relation to other parts of the CES employment system. What’s most pertinent here is that CES employees have not been told how the ECO’s existence might reflect changing requirements for employees. It appears that there is now a new layer of review beyond the bishop’s ecclesiastical endorsement, but nobody has explained how this review works. The decision to keep this information mysterious has been made by the most senior people in CES. It’s a management decision about policy.

    The more significant problem here is that policy decision, not the negligence of an anonymous person with a nice office in the Kimball Building. However clumsy that mid-level functionary might have been, the decision to be less than forthright with the fired instructors seems consistent with the opacity of CES’s methods.

    Jared’s comment is interesting. One reason people are concerned about this situation is that they didn’t sign up for this. Whatever you might think about the de facto limitations on faculty expression that have existed at the BYUs, what is happening now is a change. The amount of surveillance and control is increasing to a level that is qualitatively different. In my view, it reflects a change in the fundamental purpose and aspirations of the institutions.

  4. Jonathan: Got it. Sorry for getting a little up in arms about that. Just an ordinary case of not recognizing a bit of self-deprecating humor on the internet. Cheers, have a nice day.

  5. I know Lindsay Call personally and would say she is about the faith type of Patrick Mason and as committed to building faith and of reaffirming church’s positions ie “officially we don’t know why some people have this trial or what will happen in the next life Or the answers to this issue but I know god loves all of his children” etc

    being a rexburg local I also know BYUI was not the source of the decision. Your speculation is wrong on that. The reason why adjuncts are hitting first is full time faculty have contract provisions keeping the ECO from burning them out anonymously like this, but they certainly are trying to tighten the reins as much as they can ……. as it looks like they’ve decided the reason their graduates are leaving is any type of lgbtq affirming or questioning messages in any shape or form. That is a choice that will help some Gen Zs I suppose and hurt others.

    I don’t mind not having faculty who publicly or in classroom disagree with the church . This is not that. And even if it were, Talking to them about it would be the … adult? Appropriate? Thing to do.

  6. Jared, “outside looking in” is a bigger factor here than people admit. Not a lot of the church’s online chattering class has spent much time at BYU-Idaho, so a lot of commentary gets based only on whatever outrage of the month floats to the top of Twitter. As for academic freedom – people get sanctioned at universities for saying quite a few things. The disagreement is just over what kind of speech deserves to be sanctioned.

    Loursat, in academic parlance, “above a dean” doesn’t describe a mid-level functionary. It’s the person with ultimate, buck-stops-here decision-making authority. If you decide not to rehire a long-time adjunct because the teaching evaluations are consistently low, for example, it’s still a department or college administrator who makes that call and has to take responsibility for it, not the students who fill out the surveys or the office that collates them. Part of taking responsibility means communicating what informed the decision.

    Change is certainly an issue, but I’d guess the change is more an effort to systematize and regularize what’s long been haphazard and informal.

  7. Jonathan, you have speculated that a person in BYU-Idaho’s administration made the decision not to rehire the instructors. If you are correct, then I would agree that “mid-level” does not describe that administrator. However, it appears highly probable that the decision was based on something that the ECO determined. If that’s the case, then “mid-level” is an appropriate word, since the administrator on campus was acting at the behest of someone with more senior authority in CES. This goes to the more significant problem: we don’t know who is really making these hiring decisions and we don’t know the basis for the decisions, because these facts are not being revealed to people whose jobs are on the line.

  8. Kristine A: I’d guess that the ECO isn’t sending yes-or-no guidance to the universities, but information in some other format. Maybe something as simple as a 10-point scale or percentage, maybe just a holistic description. I could be wrong about this, but probably only people who have seen the actual document know. Avoiding yes/no guidance would have some bureaucratically useful features, like plausibly leaving the ultimate decision with the campuses rather than putting the ECO squarely in the crosshairs of whatever controversy ensues. I imagine the whole process will be revised before it affects anyone with CFS status.

  9. The falsehood that holding a current temple rec means that you are “worthy” to be hired and keep your job for the church in any position has to go. Some leader in the past made it a policy and it can be easily removed as well. Should there be a level of belief and understanding between church and employee…sure but why temple rec level?? How about “we dont care that you are not a rec holder, but if we catch you teaching false doctrines we are going to have a sit down” type relationship with faculty? Non members basically live this way and work for some church positions, why not members? I am not a fan of the double standard.

    I really did not like signing the ecclesiastical endorsements for CES workers. I did not want to tell the truth and have someone lose their career over it. Where else are they going to teach seminary for a living….CES should take care of that on there own, leave us bishops out of it. CES is a business, not the church. IMO.

    If you are not aware, here is the true hierarchy of the church;
    Facilities Group
    The Brethren

  10. Facilities Group at the top of the hierarchy is *so* accurate….

    Cannot say that I am surprised by Jonathan’s defense of BYU-I and the ECO, based on his previous posts with regard to education issues. Totally disagree with most of the post’s arguments, but experience suggests that any response will just be condescendingly dismissed.

    I will say this, however: the experience of the BYU-I faculty who had their employment terminated has only added to the serious morale problem that exists on all of the BYU campuses. This is not supposition; this is based on first-hand knowledge from Provo and direct communication with colleagues in Rexburg and Laie. Even the most orthodox faculty worry about the potential of inadvertently doing or saying something innocuous that might lead to their dismissal.

  11. Loursat, I mean, maybe! But it would also mean that a VP-level administrator gets left holding the bag for a bunch of bad press being generated by firing decisions made in another state, which seems like an unstable situation. I don’t think it’s a matter of deference to the seniority of another administrator – organizationally, I think the authority stays on campus until you get to the Board of Trustees level. So it would mean being the face of bad press due to decisions that aren’t made within a mile of you on the organization chart.

  12. About a decade after my last BYU graduation, BYU-P dropped my degree program because they faced losing accreditation because they would not teach national standards for my profession. My BYU degree immediately became a liability. The assumption by hiring authorities was that graduating from BYU most likely meant that I would not work within those national standards.

    This is another of many articles I read that say the decisions being made at the schools will not negatively impact the students.

    My lived experience says otherwise.

  13. PWS:
    Was your BYU education out of step with national standards at the time you were receiving it, or did it only become out of step with national standards a decade later? A decade can be a long time as far as national standards are concerned. A decade plus 1 year before the present, President Obama was still claiming to be opposed to same-sex marriage.

  14. I agree with many points in the OP and found this a valuable read so thank you. Especially the part about owning your choices and not hiding behind the person paid a lower wage to answer the phones.

    I said this on Sam’s post and I’ll say it again. The BYUs can hire and fire whoever they want. They can also keep their hiring and firing rationales from those so affected. But that is not what Jesus would do. I expect the Church and any Church-adjacent organization to follow Jesus. I’m disappointed in the institutions’ handling of these decisions.

  15. A: When an adjunct who was once let go by BYU-Idaho writes about adjuncts being let go by BYU-Idaho, maybe the key issue isn’t showing due respect for the full professors and deference to their feelings? You have contractual protections adjuncts don’t have and a lot more institutional capital, so you might actually be in a position to improve the situation. But you’re going to have to come up with some more compelling reasons to make changes than faculty morale to convince whoever it is needs convincing. There are arguments that are satisfying to make, and then there are arguments that might actually persuade the target audience. As an adjunct in the middle of nowhere, I’m asking you to quickly dispense with the former and move on to the latter in all due haste.

    PWS, could you just name the program in question and the national standard you’re talking about? That would help. Conventional wisdom is that a decade after graduation, where you got your degree is not nearly as important as what you’ve been doing for the last ten years.

  16. re: [firing] “But that is not what Jesus would do.”

    We sometimes struggle between “father forgive them for they know not what they do” and “I never knew you: depart from me”.

    The former he said to those foreigners who were mocking and torturing him. The latter he said to those who were members of the church who didn’t keep his commandments.

    Aside from what Jesus would do, it seems reasonable on an employment basis, the church needs to pay for performance on whatever dimensions they need for the job.

  17. Sute: I’m not arguing that Jesus wouldn’t fire people. I’m arguing that Jesus would have the courage and ethics to both own his decision and communicate it. Those let go should be told why. Thank you for allowing me to clarify.

    Of course we really can’t always know for sure what Jesus would do. But based on my experience with scripture, Jesus seemed comfortable providing reasons for the things he said and did.

  18. My program was a masters degree in Library Science. Censorship vs intellectual freedom was/is/likely always will be a difficult issue for the various BYU’s, a fact I did not recognize when I chose that degree. Honestly, it’s an issue for the various BYU’s in ways that go far beyond the accreditation of a single degree program. I think (obviously) that the issue can be resolved in ways that allow integrity and respect. But there is enough evidence against that as an official position that my degree remained suspect. It didn’t cause a lot of problems because I had a successful career by that point, but it was an issue I always had to address. The worst was a job offer from the Library of Congress that then was temporarily delayed while they checked more closely with my references. So not too horrible. But enough that I feel a lot of sympathy for recent graduates in fields that face similar issues.

  19. It’s possible that the challenges in job searches following the program closure were coincidental with the fact that I was then at a point where my job searches were outside the church culture areas. Obviously getting a degree from BYU wasn’t a problem when I applied for a job at one of the church libraries. So maybe the challenges would have been there regardless of the status of that program. Maybe the challenges were there simply because my degree was from BYU. I don’t know if that makes any real difference.

  20. I am still perplexed how people like Jonathan Green and others so readily reject the ecclesiastical authority of both local bishops and General Authorities. If the local bishop, who would know a congregant’s heart and life better than any shadowy ECO employee, and who has been delegated the spirit of discernment to stand as judge in Israel can be be trumped by the ECO office personnel, what is the point of anything? Same goes for General Authorities who conduct searching interviews of potential employees and must give their affirmation before hiring. And we know also that the ECO is now involved in the hiring process too, so the ECO in real time is countermanding the spiritual discernment of sitting General Authorities. Unless the ECO is being staffed by those who hold higher keys than Seventies, this is madness. Isn’t Clark Gilbert the head of the ECO? I don’t think he is a sitting General Authority, but I could be wrong. Support for the ECO and the opaque work it does is a slap in the face of priesthood authority. Part of me thinks that Jonathan Green and those agreeing with his take on these matters are deeply cynical and lack faith in church’s claims to priesthood and the way it functions. Help me understand how this is not the case. Where else in the church would we so easily ignore the considered judgments of sustained bishops and sustained General Authorities? Isn’t this often grounds for church discipline? But I am willing to be shown how my thinking on this is wrong.

  21. “Bishop roulette” is only bad when it works in a conservative/orthodox direction.

    When it works in favor of those who disagree with the General Authorities, it becomes a good thing.

  22. anon,

    As a blue collar guy I can imagine a scenario where I’d be judged worthy by my ecclesiastical leaders and still get fired from my job for one reason or another.

  23. Yes, Jack, but the difference is that when you get fired from a blue-collar job, you’re normally told why (e.g. gross incompetence, rude to customers, disrespectful to the boss, tardiness issues, etc.). Certainly it’s considered common courtesy to tell someone why you’re letting them go. These instructors were literally never told why they lost their jobs–and no one else knows how they can avoid tripping those same hidden wires. That’s the issue at hand here.

  24. J,

    I certainly agree with you–in principle at least. There may be more to this story–time will tell.

    That said, in responding to anon’s comment I was trying convey the idea that an ecclesiastical endorsement cannot *guarantee* one’s position at the university anymore than it can at the factory.

  25. Two. Two people in Idaho. That’s it. And they were adjuncts, and universities dismiss adjuncts all the time – it wasn’t anyone with continuing status. Yes, BYU-Idaho should be more transparent, but this is not a trend. BYU-Provo fired more football coaches.

    Disclaimer – I have a cousin who is a religion professor in Rexburg, and a nephew who just graduated from there, but I don’t have any children of my own in Rexburg.

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