BYU Religious Education’s Investment in Its Students

A major theme over the years at the Faith Promoting Rumor blog has been the department of Religious Education at Brigham Young University. Because BYU is known around the world as a religious university with a dedication to promulgating knowledge about the current and past state of religion in society, as well as training and preparing it students for the workforce, it would be natural to expect the university to house a department analogous to, say, the department of Theology at Notre Dame University, the department of Religious Studies at Brandeis University, the department of Religion at Baylor University, or the Catholic University of America’s School of Theology and Religious Studies.

This is not to say that BYU has to be “of the world,” but BYU itself recognizes the centrality of academic integrity and accredability to its mission. Since religion courses are part of the “University Core” of requirements (basically BYU’s general education requirements), one might assume that BYU is investing in a pool of professors in Religious Education that have training and expertise directly relating to the courses that they teach. This is important because BYU understands that it is training students to go on to jobs around the world, as well as prepare undergraduates for graduate work at prestigious universities around the globe. Two signs on campus at BYU intentionally welcome visitors and newcomers with the following slogans: “Enter to learn, Go Forth to Serve,” and “The World is Our Campus.” Coming at the question of how BYU invests in its students through the selection of faculty in Religious Education from the perspective that BYU is part of a broader academic community, it should go without saying that BYU would want to select only those who have the most relevant training for teaching students at the university level about religion in both its Church History and Doctrine and Ancient Scripture departments.

What would a potential faculty member in this sense look like? What makes them prepared to teach these courses? The requirements included in job postings at BYU for full-time faculty positions are all pretty similar: a potential hire must have a PhD in the specific area of expertise for the job or in a related field; they must be willing to teach a certain number of courses a year; they must be actively publishing research in their area of specialization; and most job descriptions end with the range of specializations that would qualify the person for the position. This list is both a good and a bad thing when it comes to Religious Education at the university. A quick description of the course requirements in the department will help to clarify.

First, according to the university’s website, all religion courses required for graduation must be taken at the Provo campus. No courses taken at other BYU campuses or in LDS Institutes qualify. The number of religion credits may vary depending on the number of transfer credits each student has, but all incoming freshman at the university will be required to take 14 credits in Religious Education (which amounts to seven classes altogether). Among those fourteen, and for every student regardless of credits transferred, it is required that each student takes four specific courses (with their departments): The Eternal Family (Church History and Doctrine), Foundations of the Restoration (Church History and Doctrine), Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel  (Ancient Scripture), and Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon (Ancient Scripture). There are exceptions to the requirements of the first, third, and fourth courses—you can substitute them for other courses—but the differences are minimal.

The content taught in these courses—courses again required of every student that wishes to graduate from BYU—suggests that students should be able to expect a short list of specific qualities they would find in their professors. The professors (1) will have a PhD from an accredited university that is relevant to the course, (2) will be engaging with other specialists in their field by researching, writing, and publishing their work that allows others to engage with and critique what they have found or are arguing, and (3) that the university and department have done their due diligence in selecting the very best from a broad range of applicants. Unfortunately, it appears that departmental politics and a lengthy history of an aversion to “worldly” academic study have allowed a certain perspective to retain authority in Religious Education in regards to hiring new faculty members. This is seen among other things, for instance, in the fact that many of the faculty members in Religious Education who have received Continuing Faculty Status (BYU’s soft version of academic tenure) have been allowed to do so despite having little to no peer-reviewed publications in their respective fields.

Currently, there are 74 faculty members, 1 visiting faculty, and 24 part-time or Seminaries & Institutes employees listed on the faculty directory. Of the 74 faculty 6 of them are women (8%), a dismal number given the fact that many qualified women have applied for job openings and been rejected on grounds that might question the role of sexism if they took place in other university settings. While there are several faculty members in the department who have degrees that are relevant to the subject matter they teach, many of them have doctoral degrees in Computer Science, Educational Leadership, Family Studies, or, in one case, claims to have a PhD in Biblical Studies from an unaccredited bible college, ultimately a degree that would not count as fulfilling the PhD requirement in the job posting at BYU today. Many other faculty members were trained in Early American History, Religious Studies, Early Christianity, Archaeology, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible, etc. Not all of these faculty members continue to engage directly with their fields upon getting hired at BYU, though, a focus that one would expect to find in any other academic setting.

There is a saying sometimes heard in the halls of Religious Education soon after a new hire is beginning to settle in: the faculty members there have a “higher purpose” in their teaching and that “it takes about five years to wash away the PhD.” This is unfortunate because if not for the PhD degree faculty members never would have been hired by the university in the first place. The effect of this mentality is seen on the CVs of the majority of the professors in the department (if they have a CV at all!). Most of them play inside baseball to the extent that they are not even engaging with the academic conversations of their fellow Mormon scholars but mostly writing and publishing the same thing over and over again for a devotional Mormon audience in Deseret Book (and its smaller imprints), Cedar Fort, self-publishing, or other related venues that allow them to circumvent the very foundation of the training that made them qualified for their jobs: peer-review.

To what extent does BYU ‘s department of Religious Education invest in their students? Currently it is not in providing faculty high in academic quality. To be sure, as previously mentioned, there are wonderful exceptions to that rule, but of the 74 faculty members how many of them fulfill the description in the regular job posting? The department also focuses on student evaluations that presumably show the high quality of spiritual engagement students are receiving, but I am skeptical that the evaluations really say what the department heads think they say. It is much easier for undergraduate students to take a 2 credit course that, if taken by the right professor, will have a minimal impact on their time and reading schedules, potentially freeing up time to socialize and do other things. One or two of those professors might also provide an abundance of hugs to their students, creeping out some students and exciting others. Stating in a course evaluation that one class was more or less “spiritual” might actually mean that it was more or less like their experience in church attendance where little intellectual effort is required. How can the department heads be sure that the evaluations actually represent the perfect blend of both spiritual and intellectual development, especially when many of the courses taught by less-qualified faculty present content more closely related to a glorified seminary or institute class? LDS youth experience a four-year cycle of information at church that becomes more and more familiar to them as they get older, and it is obvious why the focus is more devotional than intellectual at church. At a university, though, in a department where every student has to take and pay for required courses, students should expect to learn new things they’ve never heard before and be stretched intellectually. If department heads would look closer at the evaluations they might notice a trend in non-Religious Education courses about how students felt more fulfilled learning new things and experiencing the world a little differently for once.

The majority of the faculty in Religious Education voted against the current curriculum taught in Religious Education several years ago but it was implemented anyway. One might hope for a future BYU Religious Education where faculty members are better trained and vetted from relevant doctoral fields. These scholars would ideally work in a better version of Religious Education that focuses on the intellectual development of its students in ways similar to related departments at Notre Dame, Brandeis, Baylor, and the Catholic University of America. It would only take the realization of a few of the administrators at BYU and in the department of Religious Education to make these much needed changes. Unfortunately, echoing Thomas W. Simpson’s recent work on the history of Mormonism and its response to higher education, this “seems destined to elude [them] until the millennium, indefinitely postponed, comes at last.”

20 Replies to “BYU Religious Education’s Investment in Its Students”

  1. If you are wondering whether this post is too harsh, take the first five professors in alphabetical order from the Religious Education faculty page, note their academic degrees, relevant publications if CV or other info is available, and compare them to first five professors in a similar department at BYU (History, English, etc.).

    Here is what the first five look like:

    1. Kenneth L. Alford: PhD in Computer Science, George Mason University, teaches courses in Church History, D&C, Foundations of the Restoration, lots of publications, many insider Mormon baseball, many in areas far afield.

    2. Terry Ball: PhD in Archaeobotany, BYU (appears to be a program that was crafted for him to get a PhD, no sign that it exists or ever existed independently), teaches courses on BoM, NT, OT, Isaiah, no publications/no CV available.

    3. Alexander L. Baugh: PhD in American History, BYU (appears to be a program that was made for him to get a PhD, not a functioning program now), lots of relevant publications and teaching.

    4. Daniel Becerra: PhD in Religion (Early Christianity), Duke, new hire so relatively fewer publications, some balance between academic and insider publications, appears to work on patristics rather than NT.

    5. Dan Belnap: PhD in Northwest Semitics, University of Chicago, aside from published dissertation in something close to a vanity press no evidence any engagement with academic field, all insider publications.

    So among the first five by alphabetical order, you have two profs with suspicious looking PhDs from BYU and one of those in Archaeobotany, one with a Computer Science degree, one with a relevant degree but completely inactive in his field, and one with a relevant degree and pointed in the right direction for publications.

    Don’t believe me yet? Let’s do this again. On the faculty page scroll down to any line and stop. Do the same for the first five. Here is another example:

    1. Eric D. Huntsman: PhD in Ancient History and Classics, University of Pennsylvania, tons of publications and all but one are insider Mormon and the one that isn’t is over a decade old in what appears to be a third or fourth tier journal.

    2. Daniel K. Judd (Dean of Religious Education): PhD in Counseling Psychology, BYU, no publication info/CV. The Dean (!) has what appears to be a specially granted PhD from BYU and no public record of publications.

    3. Frank F. Judd: PhD in New Testament, UNC Chapel Hill, no CV/no public list of publications. Judd appears to have not engaged his field of training in the two decades since receiving his PhD.

    4. Byran B. Korth: PhD in Human Development and Family Studies, Auburn University, specializes in early childhood development, lots of publications in field, but a field very, very far from OT/NT/BoM/etc.

    5. Jared Ludlow: PhD in Near Eastern Religions, UC-Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union, published dissertation, no further academic publications indicated/no CV.

    So in this five you have one person with a BYU PhD that is suspect (the DEAN!), and 4 with legitimate PhDs. Of those, one is in Ancient History and Classics but has not been active in either Ancient History or Classics and does Mormon themed NT stuff having never published an academic article or chapter on NT. Another has a legit NT PhD from a premier program but who has never, apparently, participated in or contributed to that field. One works on childhood development which is neither anything remotely related to religious studies nor too close to, you know, adult college students. Another has a relevant degree but after getting the dissertation published with a decent press (Sheffield) has gone missing in his field.

    Let’s do it again. Scroll down some more, stop at random, first five from left to right:

    1. Joshua Sears: PhD Hebrew Bible, UT Austin, pretty new hire, no publications in academic field but 5 with insider Mormon venues.

    2. David Rolph Seely: PhD in Ancient and Biblical Studies, Michigan, no public information on publications/no CV.

    3. Avram R. Shannon: PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Ohio State, fairly recent hire, no public info on publications/no CV.

    4. Andrew C. Skinner: PhD in Near Eastern and European History, University of Denver, states that he has authored or co-authored over 100 publications, but these aren’t available and thus difficult to assess their weight in his field of training.

    5. Hank Smith: PhD in Educational Leadership, BYU, no public info on publications/no CV.

    In this group you have another BYU PhD and one that is not at all relevant. The others have relevant training but are either too young in their careers or too reticent to publicize work to assess.

    Keep repeating this process. There will probably be some groupings that fare much better. But still, this is shocking. Go anywhere else at BYU and you will find prof after prof trained in fields relevant to their departments and publishing in their fields.

    The rules seem to be different for hiring, tenuring, and promoting faculty in the college of Religious Education. It is so bizarre.

    1. Don’t forget the high prevalence of those who were full-time CES employees (released time seminary and/or institute). It always looked to me that CES employees had the inside track. I was a faculty member in a “hard science” department At BYU years ago. The College of Religion was an embarrassment then and more so now. Good observations.

  2. KLC,

    Do you think that people with questionable PhDs or with, say, English PhDs, should be teaching at BYU’s Marriott School of Business? If yes, why? If not, why?

  3. This post has been up for a couple days and hasn’t attracted many comments. Perhaps that’s because there just isn’t much to say. Based on standard criteria–credentials, publications, curriculum–BYU’s religion department is, with a few notable exceptions, an academic fraud, as anyone who looks at the data can see. One can only hope that someday an accrediting agency will give RelEd the attention it deserves. Because BYU is entirely incapable of changing things on its own. (See also, Title IX.)

    1. I’ve had an academic career that has included positions as a dean. I’ve been on accreditation teams and have reviewed a dozen or so programs/colleges/universities. Your question as to how BYU’s College of Religious Studies doesn’t sink the university’s regional accreditation has puzzled me for years. OP’s points about faculty qualifications to teach [suitabilty of degree, research productivity, professional development in field – listening to general conference does not work] are important components of an accreditation evaluation. The only thing I have come up with is that none of the courses in the CRS transfer to another university. I mean, someone mentioned BYU doesn’t accept BYUI religion courses. So, my guess is the NWCCU sees religion courses at BYU as a required harmless non academic experience. So NWCCU doesn’t make it an issue. The college faculty’s non-performance simply doesn’t allow them to be considered “academic” faculty under regional accreditation rules. That’s my professional opinion. Note: I have been On faculty at BYU but the majority of my career has been in the eastern and middle of the U.S.

  4. No doubt there are criticisms to be made, but I’m not buying anon’s cursory analysis. Just looking at Terry Ball, without even spending much time, I found anon’s summary to be severely lacking.

    Look in ResearchGate. You’ll find that Terry Ball has published nearly 30 scientific papers in peer reviewed journals, regularly over the past 15 years. That’s a lot more than none.

    No, there isn’t a formal “archaeobotany” program. You can look up his dissertation. His degree is in Botany and Range Science which is certainly not something “crafted to get him a PhD.” Archaeobotany is just a description of his area of study. There’s nothing bogus about a PhD in Botany.

    Perhaps one might question the relevance of botany to his area of teaching, but his MA in Ancient Near Eastern Studies is certainly relevant, and his particular area of botany might well have some relevance to Old Testament studies. Can’t we give the guy credit for a productive research program, probably without much support from his department in terms of funding and release time?

    Sure, you can go down a list and spend 30 seconds on each person, making stuff up about how unqualified they are. But if we’re going to criticize the scholarship, we ought to indulge in better scholarship ourselves.

      1. Ha! Yes of course you’re right. You got me. It’s only one. You made up nearly everything on the one I checked, but you couldn’t have done anything similar with any of the other fourteen. And it would be totally worth my time to check into all of them. I’m as shocked as you are that someone who teaches Church History has a degree in (can you believe it!) History! Obviously, they got a PhD program in History accredited and put in the catalog just for this one guy! Because the History Department is totally on board with ensuring that Religious Education has faculty with fake credentials. Same thing with Counseling Psychology. They made up a fake program and got it externally accredited just for this one guy so they could give him a fake PhD. We know it’s true because you say so. And if you say there’s no public record of publications, then I’m sure you must be right.
        https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2018-28095-001

    1. All of Terry’s publications are working on someone else’s research project at BYU. He has no personal research agenda in Botany, he had no post doc, and his PHD took less than 2 years to finish. In LDS scholarship he did very little that anyone will remember. That’s something.

  5. anon, what is a questionable PhD? I’d say it is one from a diploma mill. Other than that, I’m not qualified to be the judge of that question since there are so many nuances to an advanced degree and to why a university would judge a candidate qualified to be granted one. And yes, I would find it plausible to have an English PhD on a business school faculty, not likely but certainly plausible in an age of interdisciplinary study. But again, I’m not qualified to make a specific judgement about any given person, although I assume that the people hiring for that position and allocating salary and benefits for it are qualified. You’re just anon on the internet, why are you qualified to disagree?

    But that is ancillary to my original comment. This post and your addendum are nothing new for FPR, just the same tired tirade against BYU RelEd that you have done in the past. That’s the definition of an echo, thus my reply to RED.

  6. KLC,

    You are just as anonymous as anyone posting here, so you can retire that chestnut. Let’s try this again: are you able to find any of the faculty in Rel Ed that you cause you wonder about their qualifications or disciplinary fit? If you cannot, that tells me that you are an ideologue and not a serious interlocutor. As for diploma mill PhDs, Rel Ed literally has one on their faculty and he currently is a full professor! For my part, I can point to several fully qualified, academically active, well situated professors in Rel Ed. If you can’t do the opposite, you are not playing by the rules of the academy. And whatever English professor you might find tenured in a top 30 business school would be an exception that proves what I am saying.

  7. BYU grad who later went to lots of presentations by the Bay Area Mormon Studies council. I learned so much more from the latter. Huge puzzle pieces clicking together about history and how it situates my and my family’s experiences, and our place and reputation in society more generally. I wish I had gotten real scholarship about Mormonism earlier at BYU! Also makes me think about common refrains among now-ex-Mormons about feelings of humiliation and betrayal when they learned late from outside sources key details about Mormon history etc. Could be avoided you know!

  8. I cannot speak meaningfully about the current department. But 40 years ago I was a TA to a religion prof. And back then there was a sub rosa internal battle for the soul of the Department. This was long before you had people with terminal degrees in things like Instructional Technology. Back then the battle lines were between profs with relevant terminal degrees and CES transfer personnel. I remember secret meetings to plot strategy against the CES onslaught (I of course as a lowly undergrad was not privy to the actual meetings, but I knew about them.) My prof had a student transfer to Utah, they wouldn’t accept his BYU religion credits, we sent them the syllabus to my prof’s class and they immediately reversed their decision for that one class.

    But as I said that was ages ago and my old boss has long been retired. That group may have won some battles, but perhaps they lost the war. I’m just not close enough to it anymore to have a good sense of the current departmental politics.

  9. Kevin,

    Really interesting to hear of the battles fought in previous generation! What is also interesting is that not a one of those people from that era were serious scholars in their fields of training. They were all peddling just another version of CES stuff, though perhaps with a veneer of intellectual rigor. Until very recently, Rel Ed faculty have been entirely uninvolved in the professional world, and what little academic output they managed was almost uniformly tied to some apologetic end. The heavy hitters of the 80s and 90s, the Kent Jacksons of the Rel Ed universe, had no more influence on their professional fields than the CES cadre they were at odds with.

  10. You dragged me into this!

    I started looking at their website and I couldn’t stop. It was like driving down the freeway and seeing a hideous crash. I wanted to speed up the traffic, but I couldn’t help myself. I just sat and wondered and watched the carnage. That being said, I think this post missed the most grotesque part of this “college”. Sifting through the Church History and Doctrine Department, which this post did less of, is even more shocking. Here are just a few items that I tracked: (I spent an hour or two, so please read!)

    1. Over half of the Doctrine Department was previously employed as seminary teachers.

    2. The majority (11) of those seminary teachers went on to get a PhD from BYU (either in Family Studies or a professional degree in education.)

    3. (Their dissertations are public, so I peaked at their online status.) Guy Dorius wrote an 84 pg. dissertation and Craig Manscill wrote a 65 pg. dissertation, but don’t worry the average page length was around 140 pgs., somewhere in the ballpark of the number of pages the rest of the BYU faculty wrote in their master’s thesis.

    4. There is also no change in this pattern once they get hired. Some of them publish (Brent Top is apparently on the board of Deseret Book and a prolific author for them). Yet, none of them participate in the academy or publishing in peer reviewed journals. Most of their publications are from the Religious Studies Center, which the “college” runs! The head the RSC is the head of the College! Can you say “conflict of interest?”

    To work for the Doctrine Department, according to patterns in the past, you need the following:

    1. You need to be a seminary teacher.
    2. You need to have the shortest possible professional doctorate (usually in education) that still calls the degree a “phd”.
    3. Don’t spend time on learning how to write, research, or participate in the academy. You’ll apparently never need to.

    Dizzy from my inspection of their website, I’m still wondering if the Doctrine Department was imported as part time cadre from the University of Phoenix. I am also blown away by the fact that The Scripture Department is actually very professionalized in comparison to the Doctrine Department.

  11. What you have done here is the equivalent of demanding that the Physics Department should live up to publication standards of the History Department. You have taken, what is clearly an apple, and become angry about the fact that it is not an orange.

    Religious Education fosters profound teachers and Gospel Scholars. If the goal, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints demands that it is the goal of Religious Education, is to teach of Christ and build the Kingdom, there is evidence that they are succeeding. Judge them on their own standard, not what you want their standard to be.

    They teach the entire student population (32K) and help each student become a better Latter-day Saint. They also publish well! Just because they don’t publish in the Journals you value does not mean that their publications are any less rigorous, thoughtful, or important.

  12. No, this is not the equivalent of a comparison between the Physics Department and the History Department; it’s a comparison with departments of Religion at religious universities such as Notre Dame, Brandeis, and Baylor–institutions of higher education that should be BYU’s peers. Religious Education at the Y does many good things for the students there, but for the most part they do not provide opportunities for an academic study of scripture or religion that is remotely like academic approaches elsewhere–even at universities that deeply value faith and discipleship–or like the academic approaches offered in any other department on campus that adheres to mainstream disciplinary standards. What Religious Education does provide is the equivalent of LDS Seminary or Institute, which is not necessarily a bad thing at a Church-sponsored institution, but the classes are not deserving of university credit, and most of the instructors are not deserving of university faculty status. A sequence of non-credit institute classes, required of students for graduation, would be more academically honest.

  13. This post and the ensuing comments have been a delight to read. Genuine concerns have been raised and defensive postures have been taken. As someone who has held an academic position, I think what confuses so many, and I wish that Rel. Ed. would respond to this question, is how they justify their standing at a university. The defensive statements by “Proud Religion Educator” are not wrong, but they demonstrate that the Rel. Ed. department does not belong at a university, but rather at one of the church’s seminaries or institutes. Outsiders like myself are concerned that the top earners in the department are making $135,000-150,000+ per annum plus benefits (approximately $30,000-40,000 per year, depending on what is counted) for an institute quality performance. I realize that the Mormon church is fantastically wealthy as recent disclosures have shown, but such financial flexing is embarrassing.

    I know that many will think this is harsh, but I believe one of the major challenges facing Rel. Ed. is the choice of deans. In many cases, the least qualified individual has been chosen. Starting as far back as Robert Millet, followed by Andrew Skinner, Terry Ball, Brent Top, and now Dan Judd, these men have been and continue to be anti-academic in their vision of Rel. Ed. They proudly denounce academic inquiry and publication in academic venues and they further parade publications in Deseret Book, the Ensign, and other faith-oriented publications. The academy, in their rhetoric, is fallen, useless, and a waste of time. Being full university citizens is something they openly debate the value of, and some openly criticize other BYU campus entities like Humanities and English. Moreover, some of these men accrue titles to sell more books. They lead tours, take cruises, and speak for money. As a Latter-day Saint, frankly it is disgusting to watch the cadre of Rel. Ed. faculty who embark on an all out money making tour while peddling Jesus and the feel good, soft gospel.

    Finally, many may not be aware of the other major problem facing Rel. Ed., but it is the simple fact that any statement by a deceased or living general authority is fair game for a major revision or change in department direction. If a general authority visits campus, think Holland and the Maxwell Institute debacle, any statement issued becomes the new club used against other Rel. Ed. colleagues who have differing views. Imagine what that must be like for a tradition like ours that is so completely imbalanced and unstable. We have quotes proclaiming everything and its opposite, which means that any new administrator may find the light in the quote of his choosing and move forward. This will always mean that Rel. Ed. can rely on a tradition that has been critical of women working, of ethnic minorities, of academics, of LBTGQ individuals, and basically any marginalized group or academic pursuit. It’s a disaster that happened a long time ago, and the current approach is costing the church millions per annum. Add on travel costs, research funding, office supplies, and related costs, and each member of the department costs the church about $200,000 per year to keep this circus going on in the tent.

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