An Appeal to the BYU Board of Trustees: Please Trust Your Faculty

The appeal that follows is undergirded by a simple but unproven (at least not by me) set of assumptions that flows from my experience at BYU(-Provo) and with numerous BYU faculty currently employed. As I said at the end of part 2: The vast majority of BYU faculty members want BYU to succeed as a uniquely LDS university. They care very much about its students and their success in negotiating a transition to adulthood as faithful Latter-day Saints. They have deep experience stemming from their own negotiation of this transition, and they want to help their students do the same, to give them a better launch maybe than the professors themselves received. They want to help students in their search for truth and their mastery of skills and to deal with their doubts and questions in constructive ways.

My appeal is simple: Please, trust your faculty enough to invest power in them as a collective body, a power that they do not currently possess. It will make BYU a stronger, better institution, better able to deal with the rapidly changing landscape. It will allow for the rehabilitation of areas of inquiry vital to the mission of the University and Church that have atrophied because they have been denied the oxygen of accountability and appeal. It will create an ability to identify and rectify abuses of power among administration as well as faculty and create a stronger sense of commitment to the University and not just to the Church. It will look better to accreditation boards. And it will help avoid some of the scandals that have plagued the faculty (especially Religious Education) recently (see part 2).

A few changes would make a significant impact:

1. Increase the clarity of the vetting criteria. Departments and candidates need to know what will get them rejected before the departments even see their names. It is against the order of the Church and of God to hide the standards by which we are judged. It is wrong not to tell deans, departments, and candidates where the apparently bright lines lie and to assert, as did the AVP to at least one administrator, that he is not going to tell [departments] the line so that they don’t even come close to it. It flies in the face of D&C 121, not to mention just about everything we say about commandments, judgment, and self-improvement.

2. Allow the departments to choose their own candidates to interview. There are ample opportunities for serious conversations to be had about any problems that surface in the vetting process. Candidates interview with multiple department members, the department chair, the dean, the associate AVP, and a General Authority before they take up a position. And then once they receive a job offer, they are continuously monitored through ecclesiastical endorsements, annual reviews, third-year review, CFS review, and can be terminated or disciplined even after CFS.

Under the current office of Academic Vice President, departments see a list of applicants only after it has been vetted by this single office. The best candidates, which departments themselves often have recruited and urged to apply, are often not even given a chance to interview. Neither the department nor the candidate knows (in theory) that nor why they have been rejected from the list of potential interviewees. Neither party knows whether there may have been a mistake, an overweening bishop, a misunderstanding of the candidate’s portfolio, or something else that they may have done, said, or published that had them rejected. We know by happenstance that one criterion for rejection the AVP decided on—without informing any departments or candidates beforehand, and certainly not declaring it publicly—was whether the candidate had published in the journal Dialogue, regardless of the content of the article. This practice of course results in embarrassment to the department, confusion for the candidate, and ultimately damage to BYU’s reputation and strength.

3. If a candidate is rejected by the AVP, let the rejection letter come from the AVP office, and do not make departments send rejections to candidates they have not even evaluated. Candidates deserve to know at what level they have been rejected, if not the reasons for such.

4. Implement annual or semi-annual evaluations of the administration. Professors are evaluated at least every year from the “bottom-up” in student evaluations and from the “top-down” in their departments and colleges. The benefits of bottom-up evaluation are constantly cited in the use of student evaluations in the advancement process. These benefits would also make the administration stronger and more responsive, alert superiors to consistent problems as well as successes, and give faculty a voice. There is no reason not to allow faculty to evaluate their administrators.

5. Most important, invest real power in a Faculty Senate. The Faculty Advisory Council currently has, as its name suggests, only power to act in a weakly advisory capacity. Its recommendations are routinely and summarily dismissed by administrators, creating a vacuum of accountability. If you trust that the majority of your faculty will choose what is in the best interest of the University and its sponsors, a Faculty Senate would only increase the health of the institution by allowing egregious abuses of power to be identified and corrected. As it stands, the maintenance of an anemic FAC is a constant signal of mistrust between administration and faculty, and it hamstrings the ability of the faculty to act in ways that improve the institution because of their concern that they have no recourse if they run afoul of an administrator or colleague. It decreases the faculty’s ability to pursue truth and to strengthen the institution, to serve the students and the Church. If the faculty as a whole cannot be trusted with some amount of shared governance, one wonders what good can ultimately come from maintaining institutions of higher education in the Church. That much good does come from BYU suggests that the faculty can indeed be entrusted with more power. It would also increase the investment made by faculty in the university, a greater sense of a shared endeavor.

A healthy institution is better for the entire church, not to mention for the students and faculty who pursue the noble objectives of Brigham Young University. These relatively minor changes would go a long way toward improving the institutional health of BYU.

Sincerely,

JC

Academic Freedom at BYU, Part 2: The Role of the Academic Vice President

(Part 1 here; part 3 is now up).

Faculty issues at BYU are funneled through the office of the Academic Vice President. For our purposes it is important to know that the office of the AVP deals with faculty hiring and firing, promotion and “tenure” (“Continuing Faculty Status”*) and discipline. Thus when a department sends one of its own up for tenure, it will pass through the offices of the Chair, Dean, and AVP. Promotion can be vetoed at any of these levels, including the AVP. This is fairly standard procedure at universities, although in my experience the basically unappealable decision of the Dean or AVP at BYU, i.e., the way the power is wielded, is unusual and is related to the quasi-theological, top-down structure of BYU.

The AVPresidency is currently held by a prolific professor of engineering.** I mention this because when it comes to the particular and sensitive issues surrounding religious education, history, sociology, or anthropology at BYU, he possesses no formal training (either in religion or in the Humanities). Again, this is of course not required of persons in analogous positions at other universities, but it is of increased importance at BYU given the particular concern it has with religious instruction, where all power to adjudicate issues of academic freedom and hiring and firing when it pertains to religion is placed in the hands of this person with no accountability to anyone below him.*** One assumes the AVP takes advice and recommendations from approved channels and trusted sources, though s/he need not as a rule.

One further note on hiring is necessary: BYU operates differently from most other universities of its size and reputation when it comes to the approval process for hiring. When any BYU department posts a job advert, a potential applicant will make application through BYU’s electronic jobs database, (again, not unusual in itself). What is different is what happens after the applicant submits her/his application. Before the departments are allowed even to give a conference or skype interview to an applicant, they must receive approval from the AVP, if not higher (I do not know whether it goes higher at the applicant stage; I assume not. I do not think this is standard procedure at secular schools; I think it’s even fairly unusual compared to BYU’s own recent past). The AVP regularly (and, in my experience, with greater frequency in the past few years) denies candidates, telling the departments whom they can interview. The AVP need not (and does not under normal circumstances) tell the department anything about why the candidate was denied. In some cases candidates have been denied notwithstanding the vocal protests of the dean of the college to which the person was applying. In other cases, such as in a recent unexplained denial of candidacy to a history department applicant, the AVP denied candidacy apparently because of bad personal blood between the administration and the candidate, though again the reasons are never disclosed. The AVP need not give any reason. In the last two rounds of hiring I am personally aware of about twelve excellent candidates, strongly desired by the departments, strongly desiring to teach at BYU, who were denied at the AVP level for reasons undisclosed. In some cases this obviously protects ecclesiastical information about the candidate. But it is also a most troubling shield from sunny antisepsis, especially given the room for abuse of this power.

In response to these denials, some faculty were able finally to ascertain from the AVP that one of the AVP’s criteria for denial was whether the candidate had published in the journal Dialogue, regardless of the content of the publication. Some faculty asked the AVP directly whether this was true, and the AVP confirmed that while he is AVP, no one who publishes in Dialogue would be approved for employment (or even for interview). I am not sure whether he still holds this to be the case, but the point is that it is a criterion that he chose, with no accountability even to the deans of the colleges. No appeal. No transparency. No discussion. Not even a memo informing the departments that Dialogue is anathema and so they would be advised to alert potential applicants not to apply there. Potentially excellent faculty members have unwittingly ended their BYU careers before even making it to interview.

Implications for Academic Freedom

To my knowledge this is not a direct violation of academic freedom (because the candidates are not employees of the university), although it clearly flies in the face of the spirit thereof. To be sure, I know of no instance in his term in which an employee was fired or denied tenure for having published in Dialogue or somewhere similar. But it is easy to see the effects this has on departments, and especially on Religious Education, in terms of their freedom to pursue and publish research. First of all, I know many candidates who would have made excellent faculty who simply did not apply, either to Religious Education or to History or Sociology because they have recently published in Dialogue. More important, many, if not most, existing faculty already at BYU (especially younger faculty in Religious Ed) will not even consider researching or publishing on some of the most important current topics (gay marriage, gender, women and priesthood, etc.) in this climate. This is especially salient at BYU, which already has no tenure status and so even senior faculty remain exposed (again, the thing the concept of academic freedom is supposed to prevent).

Thus not only do the recent denials of candidacy severely limit the kinds of applicants who will come and weaken BYU’s potential, they also serve as a clear and resounding shot across the bow of any BYU employee who would risk their and their family’s well being by applying themselves to the research and publish on some of the most pressing questions the Church faces. All because of the unassailable decisions made by an engineer in BYU’s administration building. It could be that he is enacting the wishes (explicit or assumed by him) of the Board, but we would never know, and he would be under no obligation to disclose that. From the current vantage point, it seems at best an unreflective and damaging zealotry, and at worst a bald-faced abuse of power. The point, however, is not to declaim such abuse, but rather to contemplate the reasons it can even exist. It is weaved into the fabric of BYU in such a way that makes one wonder whether academic freedom, especially when it concerns research on religion, is even a possibility there. The door to the very abuses academic freedom is supposed to protect (freedom from termination because of political whims or administrative offense) is therefore left wide open. Turn the eye of reason wherever you want, BYU seems to say, except inward or on the Church.

Suggestions for Remedy

My frustration in this post comes because, first, I would love BYU to lead out in important areas, especially in Religious Studies, and to be a healthier, stronger institution. I have no desire to see its demise. I think addressing some of these problems would go a long way toward the reduction of public embarrassments that were witnessed recently (Randy Bott, Alonzo Gaskill, RelEd Curriculum, illegal surveillance) and, more important, to the hiring of faculty who will enhance BYU’s reputation and better guide its students. The real shame of this structure is in the way it manifests a clear and continual antagonism and mistrust on the part of the administration toward its current faculty. In my experience the vast majority of BYU faculty members want BYU to succeed as a uniquely LDS university. They care very much about its students and their success in negotiating a transition to adulthood as faithful Latter-day Saints. They have deep experience stemming from their own negotiation of this transition, and they want to help their students do the same, to give them a better launch maybe than the professors themselves received. They want to help students in their search for truth and mastery of skills, and to deal with their doubts and questions in constructive ways.

The remedy is theoretically simple: the Board of Trustees must trust its faculty enough to invest power in them as a collective body, a power that they do not currently possess. It will make BYU a stronger, better institution, better able to deal with the rapidly changing landscape. It will allow for the rehabilitation of areas of inquiry vital to the mission of the University and Church that have atrophied because they have been denied the oxygen of accountability and appeal. It will create an ability to identify and rectify abuses of power among administration as well as faculty and create a stronger sense of commitment to the University and to its mission.

My recommendations for this will come in part 3’s Appeal to the Board of Trustees.

_____________________

*CFS, practically speaking, grants the faculty member freedom from firing on professional grounds but reserves the right to terminate the professor on religious (read: worthiness/apostasy) grounds, in which there is still tremendous room for interpretation. There is no tenure, strictu senso, at BYU.

** I do not give his name, though it is readily available on the internet, first of all because I mean him no personal harm nor ill, and second of all because the current occupant is in a broad sense irrelevant to this discussion. Some of his personal decisions, as I discuss below, are relevant but only to the broader issue of the power wielded by one person with no accountability to the faculty working under him. Hints of this power exist also at secular universities, but it is particularly pronounced at religious schools, BYU included.

***As there would be, in some measure, at schools with a Faculty Senate or of course a labor union. There is no Faculty Senate at BYU; there is a Faculty Advisory Council, which is toothless in comparison.

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.

Continue reading “On Academic Freedom at BYU, Part 1: The BYU Statement”

Women, Blacks, and the Priesthood in Recent LDS Church Rhetoric

The open letter recently delivered by LDS church spokesman Michael Otterson to a variety of blogs has, unsurprisingly, generated a flurry of discussion covering the whole gamut of responses.* Two things stuck out to me (besides the ironic labeling of OW as apostates while simultaneously requesting higher-level discourse), specifically about his appeal to the scriptures. First, he completely glosses over the clear scriptural problems with priesthood and church organization. There is no New Testament record of Jesus ordaining anyone to the priesthood, much less organizing a Church. Even more surprising, the terms that are usually sought to tease out such an organization, such as apostle, prophet, and deacon, are clearly applied to women in the scriptures (see Judges 4-5, Romans 16, etc.). Otterson does not mention or explain these scriptures, not even to dismiss them; instead, he offers only an appeal without references to Jesus’ clear organization of a male-dominated hierarchy.**

The second thing that stuck out to me was the way in which the rhetoric of the historical denial of the priesthood to blacks was co-opted and pressed into service as a reason for the current denial of priesthood to women. Past rhetoric, to my knowledge, has simply asserted that the status quo is the way the Lord wants and has always wanted it. (Some, like “Mormon History Guy” Russell Stevenson, have even argued that the exclusion of Blacks and the exclusion of women are incomparable precisely because women have no Elijah Abelses—‘course Deborah and Junia might disagree.) But this letter is the first time I have seen the “we just don’t know why” stance applied to the context of women’s exclusion from the priesthood. Compare the recent revision of the Official Declaration 2 heading with Otterson’s open letter: Continue reading “Women, Blacks, and the Priesthood in Recent LDS Church Rhetoric”

Biblical Literalism, Literally

The increasingly common use of “literally” to mean something emphatic (but not literal) has provided much fodder for comedic monologues (language warning!), drinking games, BYUtv skits, running jokes, Oatmeals, etc. Last August Dana Coleman (at Salon) brought to our attention Webster’s Dictonary entry on ‘literally’, which now admits that, in addition to the ‘according to the letter’ sense, the word can mean “in effect; virtually”. In other words, it can signify both “according to the letter/actually” and “not according to the letter/figuratively”. If you understand ‘virtually’ and ‘actually’ to be opposites, ‘literally’ can then be a contranym,* or a word that is its own antonym, like ‘cleave’.

Does this have anything to do with what fundamentalists mean when they say the Bible is literally true? It’s a serious question, and one that struck me tonight as my friend at dinner reported that a General Authority told LDS Stake Presidents in a recent Utah Valley training meeting that we are to remember that the Bible is literally true.

Continue reading “Biblical Literalism, Literally”

Bill Hamblin on the Documentary Hypothesis

Bill Hamblin has done a great service in providing a detailed outsider’s critique, repeating some of the frequent objections to the Documentary Hypothesis that gives us a chance to discuss and hopefully to reach greater clarity on the issue. Since Hamblin has shut down and deleted comments for anyone whose names don’t seem real enough to him, and (more important) since his 20-part attempted takedown of the Documentary Hypothesis (the theory that the first 5 books of the OT are the result of the combination of 4 independent documents) is too unwieldy to treat all at once on his blog, I thought I could summarize the points here and treat it as a whole while providing an open forum where all of Jupiter’s children who behave themselves are welcome to participate—even, and especially, Bill Hamblin (if that is even his real name).

I will also reiterate here my invitation to host a roundtable looking at specific texts so that we are not just sending volleys of assertions about what the theory is and isn’t or does or doesn’t claim. Of course, anyone remotely interested in this topic should consult first Joel Baden’s excellent and eminently readable The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale 2012), which does both of these things, giving an overview of the method and then walking the reader through specific texts to illustrate it. One can see similar ideas treated here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

First off, I think there have been some misunderstandings about what the DH is, which have led to some of Bill’s attacks, and I will try to clear those up. Even with these clarified I imagine Bill and I will still disagree, but it might get us closer to a conversation about key issues instead of red herrings. Below I try to summarize Bill’s posts in a couple of sentences and then react to each claim. There are so far 20 posts, so this will be an inordinately long treatment to digest in one sitting. For those sane ones of you who don’t want to wade through each post and reaction, I will summarize my critique here (for details on any one of these, see the individual treatments below the general summary):

Continue reading “Bill Hamblin on the Documentary Hypothesis”

Some non-arguments against ordaining women to the LDS priesthood

I’m sure all these things have been said before and better, but in order to satisfy my need to respond to some of the assertions presented as self-evident arguments against opening the LDS priesthood to women, I collect my responses here. Here are my top five non-arguments [with a sixth I couldn’t resist]:

1. Men and women are not the same.

2. Women have moral authority.

3. There is no scriptural precedent for ordaining women.

4. There is scriptural precedent for the denial of equal treatment of women.

5. Women have had the priesthood since 1844.

BONUS: Protests and complaints have never resulted in change or revelation.

Continue reading “Some non-arguments against ordaining women to the LDS priesthood”

The Problem of Gendered Voice in the Church Memo to leaders of Ordain Women

The non-accidental choice of the Church to issue the recent press release through a female spokesperson struck me as particularly problematic, but it may also be indicative of positive change on the horizon. For me the main issue relates to the deployment of the gendered voice of the author as a strategy in crafting the message, a strategy that might reveal itself under present circumstances as a logical quandary. Continue reading “The Problem of Gendered Voice in the Church Memo to leaders of Ordain Women”

Priesthood, Women, and Non-Agency

Two anecdotes: 1) Recently our bishop was teaching an Aaronic Priesthood lesson to a small group of young men that included a newly ordained deacon, the only deacon in the ward and the de facto president of the quorum. The earnest (and highly educated) bishop was zeroing in on the deacon, explaining that as the deacon’s quorum president he was one of only four people in the ward who hold the power to turn keys. 2) A (different) bishop was teaching a sharing time lesson in Primary in which some Aaronic priesthood holders were present. Speaking of Joseph Smith’s restoration of the priesthood, he said that the priesthood is the power to act in God’s name, which is perhaps the most common definition of priesthood in the church. He pointed to one of the priests in the audience and said “Matt has the power to act in God’s name, isn’t it great that Joseph Smith restored it?” I happened to be looking at my (9-year-old) daughter, and she was crestfallen.

Aside from the obvious problems of a) how this means the deacon in at least one sense trumps the Relief Society President, b) how easily adopted this kind of rhetoric is in all-male contexts, and c) how characteristically blind men are (myself included) to the way such rhetoric affects non-males, another problem strikes me: that of agency.

Continue reading “Priesthood, Women, and Non-Agency”