John Gee’s Book is only a Symptom of Serious Intellectual Disease at BYU

A few recent posts have called attention to a deeply problematic, unethical, and even possibly traumatizing book authored by John Gee and published by BYU Religious Education (RelEd) through the Religious Studies Center (RSC), jointly with Deseret Book. Gee holds one of the few endowed chairs at BYU–in Gee’s case, the William (Bill) Gay Research [!!] Professorship, now housed in the department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages. He was moved there recently from the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, which itself was, when Gee was appointed, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). I will leave the other posts to do the work of pointing out the atrocious, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims the book makes on virtually every page. But John Gee is not The Problem. What is, and what I want to focus on here, is the system that allowed this book to be produced, because in a healthy system, this book never would have made it past the editor’s desk, let alone to peer review.

Even if it had followed the standards of peer review in RelEd’s own “Rank and Status Document”, it would never have seen the light of day. This (theoretically binding) document, adopted in 2017, reports that all publications that shall count for faculty as “Gospel Scholarship” (more on this below), “indicates a double-blind review performed by scholars whose specific area of expertise, as demonstrated through their own quality publications, overlaps with the proposed publication in question. This is the standard employed by the Religious Studies Center publishing office, and generally constitutes the standard expected of all publications counted for advancement” (“Rank and Status Document,” 2017, p. 4, emphasis added). It is a standard recognized by LDS second-in-command President Dallin Oaks, who said in 2018 that “expertise in one field should not be taken as expertise on truth in other subjects” (here). Clearly it is not the standard employed in this case; we can assume that the editor, whose responsibility it is to make sure these standards are upheld, was asleep at the wheel in one way or another, or, worse, and more likely in my opinion, deliberately avoided rigorous review.

The BYU Religious Studies Center has been helmed since 2018 by Scott Esplin, a full professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine who received both his graduate degrees from BYU in “Educational Leadership and Foundations”. Esplin was appointed by Dean Daniel Judd, who himself was also educated at BYU, with a PhD in Counseling Psychology, an MA in Family Science from BYU, and a prior career in the Church Seminaries and Institutes program, as is the case with many faculty in Religious Education. 

I note their graduate degrees because it highlights the fact that they have no graduate training outside BYU between them. So far as one can tell from the Web, neither of them has any publications outside of LDS and BYU venues to speak of [EDIT: see note, below], where such standards are likely to be more rigorously followed. So it comes as little surprise that Esplin failed 1) to recognize immediately the potential pitfalls of publishing a book that makes outrageous claims, presuming he read the MS at all, 2) of publishing a book by an author with exactly zero training or expertise in the subject matter about which he was writing, nor is it surprising that he failed 3) to engage actual experts in social science research to vet the manuscript. Gee had no business writing such a manuscript, but it is Esplin who ultimately failed. And before him, Judd, because he promoted a party-liner, and not the healthiest candidate for the job, which would have been one among the handful in his “College”* who have professional experience in actual research and publishing in academic venues outside of BYU and the Church. 

I do not say this to pick on these men particularly, because the fault lies not only with them. For all I know they are fine humans, full of personal integrity. Rather, the problem is deeply rooted in a system chock full of unchecked privilege and power. To further illustrate this: Daniel Judd is not only dean of Religious Education and ultimately in charge of the RSC, he is also on the board of Deseret Book and a former general authority of the church. Scott Esplin is enmeshed in the LDS administration as well, including, sources tell me, a current appointment on the Church Correlation Committee, which oversees all LDS Church publications, which means that, given how his employment at BYU is tied to his standing in the Church, the Church can easily exert its influence in Esplin’s oversight of the RSC. 

How these men (like most of their predecessors) end up in key leadership positions in a division of Religious Education without a hint of religious studies training, let alone outside BYU, is a question that should prompt some serious soul searching in the BYU administration building. The existence of the Religious Studies Center itself is both the result and the engine of a series of perverse incentives within a system that needs the status and prestige (and salaries) of a university, but that has for decades now mostly avoided rigorous engagement with the academy. But because the majority of these faculty have little-to-no incentive to participate in conversations outside the academy (also because they possess little training that would allow them to do so), they are a pond that, without an influx of freshwater, festers and sickens those who drink from it.

The RSC’s publications regularly include a significant number of contributions by faculty members (and others in the Seminaries and Institutes program who hope to be RelEd faculty someday) who have no expertise nor training in the things they write about. When the RSC does engage peer reviewers outside a narrow slice of party-liners within RelEd, those who recommend against publication are allegedly regularly ignored or overridden (say multiple sources). And, most troubling from a professional standpoint, the kinds of publications that are RSC staples were written into the “rank and status document” (elsewhere known as “promotion and tenure”**) for Religious Education, under the label of “Gospel Scholarship”. The 2017 “Rank and Status Document” referenced above says that “Gospel Scholarship is defined herein as peer-reviewed work published in journals and other venues whose principal readership is Latter-day Saints, who, while they may be interested in the field of study represented in the publication and even teach in gospel-related settings, generally do not have advanced degrees in the field and are not actively publishing in the field” (4). I will say more in a different post about the thicket of problems inherent in this definition, but for now we can take their definition at face value: it’s directed at Latter-day Saints outside the academy. They go on to note the primary venues for such publishing, whose institutional affiliation I’ll note in brackets: “Religious Educator [RSC], Sperry Symposia [RSC], Church History Symposia [RSC], BYU Studies Quarterly [BYU, edited by Religious Education professor Steven Harper], Journal of Book of Mormon Studies [edited by RelEd prof. Joseph Spencer, published by UI Press], and Latter-day Saint presses such as Deseret Book and Covenant Communications” (4). Thus all primary “Gospel Scholarship” venues flow through Religious Education, and the majority of them through Scott Esplin and the Dean’s office. 

To achieve BYU’s version of tenure (i.e., to not get fired after 6 years), all professors in RelEd are now required to produce nearly as much “Gospel Scholarship” as they do (actual) scholarship–more, if they choose. RelEd requires 5 publications for “tenure”, at least 2 of which must be “Gospel Scholarship.” (Were he in RelEd, John Gee could have used his book for promotion!) This means that Esplin, who serves at the pleasure of the Dean and sits on the Correlation Committee that oversees all Church publications, has a heavy and singular hand in deciding who gets promoted, practically speaking. This is probably unprecedented in the academy, or very nearly so–that a dean and his appointee quite literally control virtually all of the venues of publication that are required for tenure in their own institutions (especially when one considers that even the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies is directed by a junior faculty member, who needs his dean’s approval for advancement). Let that sink in for a second. Imagine if you had had friction, or disagreements with them of any kind, or if they were holding grudges since you were hired over their objections or in place of their favorite candidate. They could see to your firing without actually having to pull the trigger. And this is to say nothing of what this circular system does to the quality of the publications. For that, we need look no further than John Gee’s latest travesty. There is a reason the academy has standards that try to avoid the exact kinds of structures erected in this closed system at BYU.

If I were a BYU administrator, and I cared about the reputation and accreditation of BYU, the publication of Gee’s trainwreck would be a clear signal that it is time for Esplin, and probably Judd, to return to the faculty ranks. There’s a lot at stake, and these men seem not to understand just how much nor how complicit they are in it. As long as BYU Religious Education continues to turn its nose up at robust scholarly processes, real peer review, and basic academic standards, it will continue to produce dreck like this that hurts individuals and the church. It calls into question the viability of Religious Education at BYU. And it will continue to call into question the extent to which BYU is deserving of the accreditation it enjoys as an institution of higher learning with a high emphasis on research.

———

ERRATUM: Quinten Sorenson notes, in the comments, that Esplin does have publications outside BYU, including a book from University of Illinois Press (which has a close relationship with BYU and publishes the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies), and a few articles in non-LDS venues. As I say in the comments, even though this is a fairly thin record still for a full professor at an R2 university, it’s all the more reason he should have known better when it comes to Gee.

*For reasons unclear to me, BYU does not call Religious Education a “College”, as it does the other units with deans at the university. It may be related to the fact that it doesn’t grant degrees, but there may be other reasons related to accreditation. Ancient Scripture and Church History and Doctrine, however, are called “Departments.”

**BYU doesn’t have tenure; it has instead a thing called “Continuing Faculty Status”, which allows professors of all statuses to be fired at any time, usually if they have run afoul of honor code or ecclesiastical endorsement. 

23 Replies to “John Gee’s Book is only a Symptom of Serious Intellectual Disease at BYU”

  1. “neither of them has any publications outside of LDS and BYU venues to speak of, where such standards are likely to be more rigorously followed.”

    The very first (and most recent) publication listed on Esplin’s CV is a book published with the University of Illinois Press in 2018. The first (and most recent) journal article listed was in American Catholic Studies. Other recent publications on his CV were in The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association, Journal of Educational Administration and History, and History of Education. None of these are LDS or BYU venues. He also, according to his CV, has presented internationally at conferences in Spain, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland (only one of which was at a LDS-centric venue).

    Sure, his CV won’t knock your socks off, but it’s more impressive than, say, Brain Hauglid’s track record outside LDS/BYU venues. And it’s hard imagine you are arguing in good faith when you apparently did not even do Esplin the basic courtesy of glancing at his CV before publicly blasting his publication record.

    1. I can see how this post underestimated Esplin’s publication record, but that’s not really the point.

      He is the Director of the RSC and a member of the Correlation Committee. He could have 12 Oxford Press books and he still shouldn’t be in those positions at the same time.

      Esplin seems great to me, but it doesn’t explain why as a moral, ethical, smart person he doesn’t see the conflict of interest he is perpetuating.

      1. I went to BYU 20 years ago, so much could have changed, but I guess I assumed the religion professors were not really held to the same standard as other professors. Do you think BYU really wants religious studies professors that are going to do critical studies? They don’t. They want people to teach religion classes and publish faith promoting and correlation approved materials.

        The department is in a bit of a tricky situation. They want to pay the profs more and have the appearance of fair play with other profs in like Engineering or sciences. They also want faculty that will basically only publish correlation department approved materials. The rules for advancement and promotion are silly in this light. The cross fertilization between official church, CES, publishing, and faculty is inevitable as long as the department is set up with the restrictions that they have to have.

    2. Okay, fair enough, and I appreciate the rebuttal. I’ll make a note of my error in the post. I don’t see a 2018 UIP book on the CV I’m looking at, but I’m not disputing it’s there. Important to note here that UIP and BYU have very close ties, so this isn’t a surprise. As for the articles, I do see the American Catholic Studies article, but the vast majority are RSC and other LDS publications. Not great for a full professor at an R2 university, but the point stands. As Thinking Clearly notes, the number of outside publications isn’t the most important thing in the post–it was my attempt to be charitable for a catastrophic oversight. If he is indeed as experienced with rigorous non-LDS publications, all the more reason for him to have known better before greenlighting Gee!

  2. Thinking Clearly already pointed this out, but ClosetedRelEdProf didn’t seem too convinced that it was worth further research.

    Someone really ought to defrock this person’s Googling credentials.

    It seems like ClosetedRelEdProf might be guilty of similar kinds of bias or under-training of which she/he/they accuse Esplin and Judd.

    The RSC better not put ClosetedRelEdProf on its review committee or she/he/they might let the next Gee project through too! My – non PhD trained – Google search yielded these results for just a few of Judd’s non-BYU, non-Church publications:

    Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Religion (McGraw-Hill Dushkin, 2003)

    “Clinical and Pastoral Implications of the Ministry of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation,” Open Theology, 2 (2016): 324-337

    Grace, legalism, and mental health: Examining direct and mediating relationships. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 12(1) (2017), 26–35.

    If ClosetedRelEdProf “is indeed as experienced with rigorous non-LDS publications, all the more reason for [her/him/they] to have known better before greenlighting [this post]!”

  3. What is sad/funny about this is that there is a constituency at BYU that wants less academic freedom and more spiritual and ideological conformity. There is a petition floating around the internet and on FARMS podcast, blog, and social media. They are terrified that liberal professors are corrupting the youth and I am sure would love more correlation controlled faculty leadership.

    Can you imagine their reaction if there were religion faculty with divergent beliefs, publications, or teachings.

    The department is designed to be an arm of CES and correlation committees, not an independent academic institution.

    1. Very well said. Having a religious faculty with differing beliefs and world views is needed at BYU. The same, correlated, only faith-promoting work, trying to be passed off as academic devalues true, robust work done within academia at BYU.

  4. The more I think I about it, the more the original post’s mistake about Esplin’s CV and publication record simply underscores the problem. Sure, the poster got that wrong and should have done due diligence, but it only makes Esplin’s editorial actions on Gee’s book all the worse. Esplin is no parvenu here. He knows how the guild works, its standards, its processes, its ethics.

    So if you are caught up in the OP’s blasting of Esplin’s CV, fine, roll with that for a bit. But then acknowledge the real problem and realize it is much worse when done in cold blood rather than naivete.

    Also, from what I have heard, Gee’s book was rejected from RSC a few years ago under a different director/editor. Why did the RSC in its current iteration revive a project that the previous admin dismissed as unpublishable? For readers perhaps with better info, is this accurate? There is more to the story, I think.

  5. Dear ClostedRelEdProf:

    If there are, as you say, only a handful of Rel Ed faculty who have experience with genuine academic research and publishing, aren’t you concerned that your pseudonymity is a thin disguise, because, surely, you are one of the handful?

  6. Dear Nat, I’ll worry about my pseudonymity when BYU worries about their opacity. Til then, this is how their game is played.

  7. Was it just an oversight that the Mormon Studies Review, published by the UI press, was left off the list?:
    “They go on to note the primary venues for such publishing, whose institutional affiliation I’ll note in brackets: “Religious Educator [RSC], Sperry Symposia [RSC], Church History Symposia [RSC], BYU Studies Quarterly [BYU, edited by Religious Education professor Steven Harper], Journal of Book of Mormon Studies [edited by RelEd prof. Joseph Spencer, published by UI Press], and Latter-day Saint presses such as Deseret Book and Covenant Communications” (4). ”
    Or is it because the “principal readership” of Mormon Studies Review may not be “Latter-day Saints, who, while they may be interested in the field of study represented in the publication and even teach in gospel-related settings, generally do not have advanced degrees in the field and are not actively publishing in the field.”
    So in other words, serious academic scholarship on Mormonism is not encouraged at BYU. Not surprising, but sad.

    1. Good question, Lurker, and I’m not sure. No list is comprehensive, but RelEd powers that be haven’t always loved the contents of the MSR. It could also be, however, that they simply consider it “Scholarship” instead of “Gospel Scholarship”

  8. This post by ClosetedReledProf and a previous post by BYU Alum bring up a number of questions that have puzzled me for years (ever since my BYU student and then faculty days).

    Namely, how does BYU manage accreditation by NWCCU? Specifically, the credentials of many of the Religious Studies (not a College; not a School; it’s simply Religious Studies and yet with a Dean??) faculty really don’t have the professional qualifications to teach “Religious Studies” at the university level. That is, at any other university or college other than BYU or Liberty University and those of similar ilk. I have considerable experience at R1 Universities with regional accrediting agencies, particularly SACS. These agencies, of which there are six, are to ensure adherence to hundreds of standards.

    Here is my confusion with BYU Religious Studies (RS). During an accreditation a particularly important area is faculty qualifications. Do each of them have a terminal degree within field? If yes, do they demonstrate currency within the teaching area (research, publications, professional development). Even having a PhD in field only goes so far. Professional stagnation is a red flag. The last time I looked at the c.v. of each of the RS faculty (3 yrs ago) more than half had degrees unrelated to the teaching of theology/religious studies (American literature, computer science, accounting, lots of educational leadership, and so forth). The common thread appeared to be prior service in the CES. It’s obvious the RS faculty are not like any other university faculty anywhere. Since when is a church calling, having a “beautiful” wife/husband, and large number of children part of a professional bio? Even those with degrees in field for a normal religious studies program, for the most part, have few recent scientific publications.

    The courses taught are correlated, approved, and then correlated again by “Church HQ”. In other words, it really doesn’t matter what the degree is in since no degree is really necessary. Staff at BYU teach Book of Mormon courses.

    Here’s what I think is happening that gives BYU an accreditation “Pass” in regards to Religious Education. RS first and foremost is not an academic unit and NWCCU does not consider it an academic unit. This is by Church design. The credits don’t transfer to any other university. The RS “degree” requiring the highly curated coursework is for seminary/institute instructors.

    When accreditation comes around I’m pretty sure none of the hordes of site visitors go near the Joseph Smith Building. No need. It’s not an academic unit. As far as the real academic faculty at BYU who, for the most part, have to play by academy rules: You’re kind of the fool. And some of you teach a BoM class.

    Don’t show this to the RS faculty, they’re working on that Liahona article and think it’s a pub.

  9. A very interesting OP, but I think it’s overlooking something crucial: Gee’s book *has been pulled* from the RSC website. You simply cannot buy it from that venue. Why did that happen? The OP writes that, “in a healthy system, this book never would have made it past the editor’s desk, let alone to peer review.” Well, sure, but come on. This is Mormonism, and this is Mopologetics we’re talking about here. Peer review has always been something of a “cover story.”

    One of the things that’s interesting to me in all of this is the fact that the world of RS and the world of Mopologetics normally don’t get along that well, though they do overlap. It’s an awkward relationship in much the same way that the Mopologists’ relationship to the “new” Maxwell Institute is an awkward relationship. So why did they agree to get on board with Gee’s book? Was this some kind of a “hail mary”?

    Whatever the case may be, we can’t ignore the fact that RSC pulled the book. You can still buy it on Amazon and at FAIR Mormon, but at RSC? Not so much. If it is a “peer review” disaster, as you argue, then why is it still being flogged by “Interpreter,” “Sic et Non,” and FAIR Mormon? If it is truly a “peer review eyesore,” then RSC seemingly has realized this fact, whereas FAIR and “Interpreter” have not. So, weirdly, the whole incident winds up being an incredibly damning indictment of “peer review” in Mopologetic venues.

    In other words: business as usual.

    What I mean to point out is that–in my humble opinion–there are a lot of competing interests here. I get the optimistic desire to change the academic culture and standards at BYU, but no blog post is going to make a dent in any of that. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to speculate on the culture and politics. At the very least, it makes for interesting reading.

  10. I am the editorial director at BYU Studies and want to make a clarification. You are trying to make a connection between BYU Studies and Religious Ed that is, in actuality, quite tenuous. Steven Harper is a part-time faculty member in Religious Ed, but his other half-time appointment is as editor in chief of BYU Studies. In this second role, he reports directly to the academic vice president’s office. I have worked at BYU Studies for 14 years, and I can attest that RelEd has no input at all in our publishing decisions. Because BYU Studies Quarterly is a multidisciplinary journal, we publish on topics as varied as physics, music, history, engineering, economics, law, and art. Consequently, we rely on double-blind peer reviews from experts in a number of disciplines. The decision on whether to publish an article hinges on the quality of the scholarship and current needs of the journal (right now we are turning away some quality articles because we have a surplus of material we have committed to publish). So, whatever political or other issues may exist in RelEd, they have no bearing (unless coincidentally) on what BYU Studies does or does not publish. We publish articles now and then by RelEd faculty, but their scholarship must pass the same peer review process as every other article.

    1. I have questions regarding BYU Studies.
      1. Are any of the reviewers from outside a BYU?
      2. Are any of the reviewers not LDS?
      3. How are reviewers chosen?

      Thank you in advance for your response.

  11. Daniel Judd is eminently qualified in the fields that Gee’s book ventures into–and I can’t imagine that he believes Gee’s work to be “dreck.”

  12. Here we are back to cowards willing to belittle and make false and questionable assertions to knock down someone getting more recognition than they are. It is cowardly to publish anonymously. Give us your name so we can compare your credentials and publications. No matter. I have the resources to determine your identity and I will do so.

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