AAUP 10 years later

This bounced into my in-box this morning… 


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


If you only have time to read part of the link, go to the last few pages which contain the conclusion, and interestingly, BYU’s two-page response. I’m still digesting all of this, but it seems complicated and in the end turns not on whether BYU can restrict academic freedom — the AAUP agrees this is OK —  but whether BYU’s described restrictions in this case were described clearly enough to warrant its actions.

I’ve not looked at BYU’s policies recently — are they any clearer today? Would Prof. Houston’s actions still be grounds for non-continuance were they carried out this year?

3 Replies to “AAUP 10 years later”

  1. Ah, and the real issue was collegiality, if I recall this case correctly, based on class and social status differences.

    My take was influenced by one of the more conservative members of the department who felt they should have kept her, and that her failure to make tenure had to do with publicly liberal members who complained about her behind her back.

    A sad story, all in all. I’ll have to check to see where she eventually landed.

    Ahh “Gail Turley Houston appears to be the director of women studies at the University of New Mexico”

    A good ending for her, all in all, for which I am grateful.

  2. This was certainly a fascinating case, and it was nice to revisit it and to read directly the report and the defense. It did seem that the AAUP fundamentally misunderstood, and continues to do so in the characterization of the event in this email, the issues in Mormonism that were at stake. For many, this was not some minor theological dispute, but had the potential to shake the very foundations of contemporary Mormonism. While I am not totally convinced that such things should not be taught, advocated, and discussed at a place like BYU, it did seem that the AAUP’s attempt to referee the issue by claiming that the standards were insufficiently clear was a reflection on their own misunderstanding, rather than the potential for any LDS to misunderstand.

  3. Yes, I found this case interesting as well, at a number of levels. I was saddened to see how ostracized Dr. Houston was — even the AAUP could see that there were problems. But I was also saddened to see how much it seemed that AAUP fundamentally couldn’t grasp what was at stake for a religious university. That the new email trumpeted their position so self-righteously suggests that they still don’t quite understand how they got it wrong.

    Every university has “untouchable” or “heretical” ideas, whether it is eugenics or the idea that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS or that 9/11 was secretly sponsored by the CIA. Espousal of such ideas can lead to ejection from the university, but with a approbation by most observers. I don’t follow the AAUP’s activities closely enough to know if they’ve been consistent in such cases, or highlighted their defense of such cases. Perhaps academic freedom is somewhat in the eyes of the beholder; the AAUP appears to not really accept religious views as capable of being normative for a community, then or now.

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