On Academic Freedom at BYU, Part 1: The BYU Statement

[Part two; part three]

The question of academic freedom at Brigham Young University provides an interesting case study in the dynamics of power and the pursuit of truth and the consequences of the concentration of power in a theologically defined hierarchy. Part 1 will explore the principles of academic freedom at BYU as expressed in its statement dated 1 April 1993 (available online, though a version dated Sept 14, 1992 was still handed to new faculty as of the end of the first decade of the 2000s, if not still today.) Part 2 will focus on its implementation specifically under the current Academic Vice President.

The fast answer to the question is to say, simply, that since without tenure there can be no serious academic freedom, and BYU has no tenure, there can be no genuine academic freedom at BYU. Its equivalent of tenure, “Continuing Faculty Status,” attests to the lack of academic freedom, since it allows professors to be fired for their academic activity that goes against the administration’s sense of what is tolerable at the institution. Nevertheless, it is worth digging into the administration’s attempt to make sense of their concept of academic freedom in the framework of the broader academy.

I should begin by saying that, judging from my own interaction with BYU faculty, it is probable that most professors at BYU would acknowledge that they not only have day-to-day freedom to pursue their intellectual agendas, they have ample—even amazing—resources to do their research. This is indeed one of the great attractions of BYU, and one that assuages the anxiety some have for enshrining a denominational university on their CV (though many do not feel at all this anxiety). But there are special cases in which academic freedom is clearly suppressed, obviously in the study of religion and of topics that are strongly connected to LDS theology, such as gay rights and women’s ordination. This is not an insignificant exception because it places constraints on the academic exploration of issues crucial to LDS thought, seriously hamstringing BYU’s ability to lead out in the conversations taking place thereabout. In order to approach this issue, I will start with BYU’s statement on academic freedom. (The following will make better sense if one read the full statement first, and perhaps even compare the AAUP’s Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.)

The BYU Statement on Academic Freedom (SAF) is intensively concerned to articulate how BYU seeks two “types” of academic freedom special to private universities with distinctive missions: “individual” and “institutional” Academic Freedom. Perhaps it is better to say “individual” versus “institutional” academic freedom, since the document sees the two as existing in significant tension. The individual, in this construct, is free “to teach and research without interference” while the institution is free “from outside control”. The first major section, which takes up just over one page of the nine-page document, enumerates the spiritual as well as intellectual basis for individual academic freedom. The virtues of individual academic freedom are extolled as existing in harmony with the restored gospel, with principles of agency, and without it, says the SAF, BYU could not rightly be called a university.

The next section, which runs for almost 3 pages, elaborates on the freedom of the University to maintain its LDS identity. “BYU claims the right to maintain this identity by the appropriate exercise of its institutional academic freedom” (4; emphasis mine). It recognizes that in academic inquiry there is friction, and it even goes so far as to say that “it is not expected that the faculty will agree on every point of doctrine” (4). What is expected, however, is “that questions will be raised in ways that seek to strengthen rather than undermine faith,” and “that faculty members will be sensitive to the difference between matters that are appropriate for public discussion and those that are better discussed in private” (4). According to the SAF, the benefits of institutional freedom are, unironically, the articulation of pluralistic modes of knowing, the countering of (secular) dogmatism, and the preservation of religious freedom. This section closes by acknowledging that absolute institutional freedom invites abuse and must “establish principles and procedures that help minimize conflict” (6).

Next the relationship between individual and the institutional freedoms are explored. “Neither freedom is unlimited.” Individuals are always limited in what they can say at universities (e.g., racist expression and even religious expression at state universities). And if left unchecked, “BYU could cease to be a genuine university, devoid of the exploratory environment … and with little room for disagreement and questioning” (7). Further, while on the one hand “each faculty member is fully accountable to the University,” on the other “limitations… must be narrowly drawn … because the Board [of Trustees] wish to set policy for an institution that legitimately may be called a university” (7).

Here the rubber hits the road, as “reasonable limitations” are exemplified. Note that the examples spell out limitations exclusively on the faculty member and not on the University administration or Board: “Examples would include expression with students or in public that: 1) contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy; 2) deliberately attacks or derides the Church or its general leaders; or 3) violates the Honor code” (emphasis mine). No provision or example is given for violation of the reasonable limitations on institutional freedom, though the document makes an appeal to the LDS canon at D&C 121, that “these principles shall be interpreted and applied with persuasion, gentleness, meekness, kindness, and love unfeigned … and through established procedures that include faculty review. The ultimate responsibility to determine harm to the University mission or the Church, however, remains vested in the University’s governing bodies—including the University president and central administration and, finally, the Board of Trustees” (7-8; emphasis mine).

The document concludes with an assertion that “reasonable limitations” mediate the competing claims, even though no institutional limitations are enumerated. It claims that “in practice, instances in which limitations are invoked against individual faculty conduct or expression are few and infrequent” (8). It goes on to say that this is because 1) individual academic freedom is presumptive, but institutional intervention is exceptional, 2) university posture is one of trust, 3) faculty posture is one of loyalty, and 4) tone of the BYU community is charitable. The final paragraph claims that “BYU offers a far richer and more complete kind of academic freedom than is possible in secular universities because to seek knowledge in the light of revealed truth is, for believers, to be free indeed” (9; emphasis mine).

Several things strike one familiar with abuses of academic freedom as odd, besides the fact that academic freedom is usually understood to apply to individuals, because the individuals are in a more vulnerable position with respect to the institution. This explains the document’s strange shift from speaking about freedom from outside control to freedom to take action against its own faculty. Academic freedom is usually understood and discussed as a protected freedom of the individual scholar from institutional concerns and machinations when it comes to their research agenda. The raison d’être of academic freedom as the vital professional value in higher education is precisely to protect the process of inquiry from “instances in which a scholar’s right to pursue his or her research freely has been compromised by an overweening administration” (Stanley Fish, “Academic Freedom Against Itself,” The New York Times, 10/28/2013). Academic freedom does not apply to an institution’s ability to protect itself against potentially damaging inquiry; precisely the opposite—it is the thing that the very concept was developed to prevent! In order to protect free inquiry, the scholar must be insulated from institutional threats, from megalomaniacal administrators, from Boards who might not want to be embarrassed even if the eye of inquiry is turned on them, etc. More important, it hopes to guarantee a greater proximity to truth because it allows even—and especially—unpopular positions to be investigated and argued without fear of reprisal. It thus becomes clear as the statement develops that if BYU’s main concern is “outside control”, the term “outside” is defined not as entities outside the university that threaten its viability, but the individual faculty members themselves. Unless, of course, it means freedom from an outside entity’s objection to the dismissal or censuring of a professor whose research or teaching agenda is not in harmony with the (potentially) shifting ideals of the Board. Still, that’s not academic freedom.

Also odd is the admonition that while faculty are allowed to hold a whole range of opinions–even doctrinal differences–they must draw a line between discussions appropriate for private and public consumption. Academic freedom is not the freedom to hold private opinions. It is specifically concerned with the domain of public inquiry and discourse: speaking at public conferences, publishing the results of inquiry in public venues, speaking to the press as experts. The unusual public/private distinction seems to say that while academic inquiry per se is encouraged, the audience for its results must be restricted in cases that should be obvious to the researcher but which will be determined by the administration. The ideal of circumspection when it comes to public discourse is probably a good one for all researchers to follow, but academic freedom it ain’t.

It is a deceptive rhetorical strategy for BYU (and the people they cite, who are likely of the minority opinion) to co-opt the label “academic freedom” and apply it to an institution (à la Citizens United). No institution of higher education to my knowledge censures its faculty for racist speech and calls it institutional academic freedom. It is hard not to get the sense that the real purpose of the SAF is not to articulate the means by which to foster an environment of (what is the usual, basic understanding of) academic freedom, but rather to establish a basis of institutional self-preservation and justification for inevitable action taken against individuals. Again, no examples or stipulations are made for adjudicating, preventing, and rectifying institutional abuses of academic freedom, and it is unclear whether this has ever happened in the history of BYU. This is clear in the much greater length of the discussion of institutional freedom, in the many lines drawn around individual freedom, in the institution’s ultimate authority to determine what constitutes harm to the Church, and in the total absence of provisions for protection of the individual. In the BYU SAF, the institution comes out with more rights than does the individual, who has rights only until the institution decides to take them away. Exactly the sort of thing the notion of academic freedom is supposed to protect. The institution is not an individual needing protection to pursue her own research, it is a non-personal entity seeking the power to stifle voices it disagrees with by disciplining its instructors. It is not seeking the freedom to bring a greater range of epistemological voices to the table; precisely the opposite. The ideal of pluralism, explicitly cited in the SAF, only applies to the institution, not to individuals. The conclusion that BYU in fact has a much greater form of academic freedom seems highly unjustified.

Boiled down, the message is this: You, the individual, have the freedom to ask whichever questions you want, and we have the freedom to fire you if we feel threatened by them. You might want to pursue questions freely, but you had better be ready to let your family starve for it. This is not academic freedom. There can be no true academic freedom at BYU as long as the guarantee even of the more limited individual freedom the document tries to establish is left only to the whims and judgments of administrative bureaucrats while the individual has no solid recourse for appeal or advocacy. Nothing guarantees the individual academic freedom at BYU besides the goodwill of the administration, the very ones from whom academic freedom is supposed to guarantee protection. The current climate, in which the Church clearly deems certain topics to be off-limits for its employees if not its members, is the very situation in which academic freedom is most needed and, arguably, could best move even the church priorities forward in clear-headed ways. This document tries, I believe unsuccessfully, to navigate between legitimacy in the form of accreditation, on the one hand, and control over their employees’ academic agendas on the other.

To those who would say that this is all theoretical navel-gazing relevant in the 90s but no longer an issue, I cite a few recent developments as exemplary of current practice (see also TT’s “Friendly Fire on Mormon Scholars“). 1) In the past 5 years a professor who had been exploring the sociological dimensions of homosexuality at BYU as well as researching immigration was fired. One of his denial letters cited the fact that he was “advancing a liberal agenda”. Clearly, liberal agendas fall outside the benefits of a plurality of voices. 2) BYU requires anyone in certain disciplines organizing a conference involving outside researchers to submit the roster to the central administration for approval/veto. Each name is vetted and in some cases people are banned from participating. 3) The active role of the Academic Vice President in terminating the candidacy of applicants both as a way of limiting the range of voices present and controlling those already in the door. But this will take longer to unpack and will be the subject of part 2.