On Cruises, Cash, and BYU Religious Education

Guest post from a friend of the blog. I should also point out that the behavior criticized by the author is not illegal nor even necessarily disingenuous:

It is no secret that a remunerative relationship exists between BYU Religious Education faculty and various LDS publishing houses, most notably Deseret Book. This is categorically different than your average professor writing a textbook and trade book. The physics prof doesn’t make the rounds speaking at EFY, Women’s Conference, Education Week, Time Out for Women, etc. They are not invited to speak at various local church functions (ward, stake, seminary, institute). I doubt many of these Rel Ed profs are openly hawking their publications at the latter venues, but you can see how opportunity presents itself to mention one’s latest book during one’s talk. It’s a bit of a gray area when it comes to Mormon concepts of priestcraft (see 2 Ne 26:29).

This brings me to something I have only recently noticed: BYU Religious Education faculty and cruises. There is a Utah County business called Cruise Lady that offers LDS themed cruises and tours (e.g. Alaska, Europe, “The Book of Mormon Lands”) headlined by local LDS celebrities (e.g. Michael Ballam, Michael McLean, some Osmonds). But a little under half of the sixty or so headlining celebrities are or have been professors or have taught in BYU’s College of Religious Education. This feels unseemly. If it does not to you, consider this standard Headliner Bio:

“Alonzo L. Gaskill is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, where his primary teaching focus is World Religions. Brother Gaskill converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–from Greek Orthodoxy–in November of 1984. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the temple, symbolism, and world religions. He and his wife, Lori, are the parents of five children.”

It’s all there. BYU Religious Education cred? Check. Appearance of legit academic chops? Check. Interesting back story? Check. LDS cred (i.e. large family)? Check. But Gaskill is not the most egregious case of trading on one’s official and unofficial standing in the LDS community for free cruises and extra income. There are current and former deans of BYU Religious Education headlining these junkets. Current Dean Brent Top, former Dean Terry Ball, and former Dean Robert Millet all offer tours. Associate Deans (Kent Jackson), department chairs (Camille Fronk Olson), and directors of BYU’s Ancient Near Eastern Studies program (Eric Huntsman) are also featured. It is one thing to write and profit from books for the Rel Ed/Deseret Book/Ed Week nexus. At least that has some sheen of respectability for egalitarian spreading of the good news. But cruises and cash? I’m sure they figure it’s no different than business profs doing some consulting on the side. But of course, rather than advice on strategic planning or marketing, the Rel Ed Deans and profs are providing gospel tidbits for the entertainment of wealthy Latter-day Saints. This is no longer a gray area.

But maybe you still feel OK about this. What do you say to former BYU Rel Ed professor George Durrant? Here is his Headliner Bio in full:

“Current sealer at the Mt. Timpanogos Temple; author of more than 50 books including the popular Love at Home—Starring Father and Don’t Forget the Star; has taught religion at BYU; worked in many capacities for the Church Education System; and also served as director of Priesthood Genealogy. He served as president of the Kentucky Tennessee Mission, president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, UT and recently in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple.”

If that does not strike you as disagreeable or well past the gray area, you can reserve an Ocean View room for you and your spouse to hear Prof Durrant and Prof Susan Easton Black co-headline a cruise to Hawaii this September for $2,878.50, not including airfare, excursions, gratuities, and, of course, drinks. The Junior Suite will run you a hair under $5,000.00.

4 Puds With a Prooftext

Down below is a YouTube presentation of Revelation 12 done by a couple of BYU professors who style themselves as “Four Guys With Ties.” Before you have a look, however, read this:

In context, Revelation 12 explains the source of the evil and suffering experienced by John’s seven churches. The characterization of the participants, a pregnant woman, a dragon and eventually a baby, is drawn from the world of the ANE combat myth and so resists simplistic decoding.  Its use, however, is fortuitous for John’s purposes because it would be intelligible, even familiar, to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.

The first thing John sees, which he describes as a “great portent,” is a woman.  She is the Cosmic Woman, and as she is pregnant she is many motherly figures from the mythological past: Eve, Isis, Leto and Mary, at least. Most immediately, however, she is Lady Zion, whose travail gave Israel its Messiah (Isa 66:8), and her fragility is itself a fragile illusion because she is crowned, clothed and standing on the greatest glories of God’s creation.

The Cosmic Woman’s opponent is the Dragon. His aggressive power is symbolized by his ten horns and his ability to dislodge significant numbers of stars with a flick of his tail. The seven crowns indicate that he wishes to rule. Mythologically, he is the cunning serpent of Eden and the Python at Delphi, as well as YHWH’S opponents, Rahab and Leviathan. In this context, however, his foremost identity is that of Satan, the great opponent of God from the Second Temple period. He therefore stands before the woman, fully expecting to devour her child when she and the baby are weakest.

Continue reading “4 Puds With a Prooftext”

The Cyclical Nature of BYU’s Religious Education

A guest post from Mrs. Silence Dogood

One of the most interesting books on Mormon history to appear in the last year was Thomas Simpson’s American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism (University of North Carolina Press). You can read reviews of the book here, here, here, and here, as well as interviews here and here. As a summary, Simpson argues that the Mormon tradition’s awkward, uneven, but relentless interaction with higher education drove much of the Americanization process during the Church’s transition period between 1870 and 1940. Young Latter-day Saints traveled to Harvard, Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and Chicago to receive a secular education and better integrate into their surrounding society. Yet the process was complex and brought unintended consequences, especially at home. Most poignantly, not everyone in Utah, especially at the leadership levels, was excited about the new knowledge that graduates brought back with them. A resurgent populism and ever-present authoritarianism countered these modernist ideas and led to several significant clashes. This is an important narrative concerning the origins of the modern Mormon mind. Continue reading “The Cyclical Nature of BYU’s Religious Education”

Diachronic or Synchronic? A Response to Nicholas J. Frederick


The fact that New Testament (NT) language appears throughout the Book of Mormon (BM) has troubled many readers. Some of the initial written responses to the work described in detail the King James English that pervades the text with special attention given to the NT passages that appear sprinkled throughout the book.[1]  Elder B. H. Roberts, who spent many years of his life writing about and defending the BM, discussed the presence of NT phraseology and ascribed the phenomenon to Joseph Smith (JS), the translator, rather than to the original historical authors.[2] This was for reasons dealing with the historical context that is assumed throughout the text of the BM. Authors like Nephi could not have had access to sources that would be included in the Christian NT several centuries later, so Roberts concluded that the connection must be through JS.

Although this was the approach taken by Roberts it has not been the view held by the majority of LDS readers. Over the years, LDS scholars have found approaches to address the relationship of the BM to the NT that differ markedly from Roberts’s approach. For example, John Tvedtnes explored the similar language shared between the “Allegory of the Olive Tree” in Jacob 5 and the NT, and in every example determined that the wording in Jacob was not dependent on any given NT passage, but rather the NT passage and Jacob 5 had similar Old Testament (OT) sources that they independently blended together from various OT verses.[3] Others, like Brant Gardner, have been more open to the possibility of NT influence, but inconsistent in identifying it.

Evaluating the Interaction

In a new essay exploring this issue, Nicholas J. Frederick has attempted to define a method for investigating the interactions between the BM and the NT that will work for a broad basis of readers and scholars. In his opinion it is appropriate to use the terms quotation, allusion, and echo when talking about the interaction between the OT and the NT,[4] but not so when discussing the BM and the NT. Frederick explains that this is because “as far as can be determined, the Nephites did not possess that record.”[5] Frederick makes it clear that his study will approach these interactions from a synchronic rather than a diachronic perspective.[6]

Frederick does this for two reasons. First, he argues that it is not often the case that students of the BM write papers from a diachronic perspective. For this reason Frederick wishes to do away with quotation, allusion, and echo for those that he perceives to be the major audience of his work. Since they aren’t asking questions of the direction of dependence then it will be more beneficial for him to focus on a synchronic approach, as a diachronic approach could convey “the wrong ideas about the relationship between the Bible and the Book of Mormon.”[7]

Second, since the Nephites did not possess the NT, Frederick wants to stay away from author-oriented discussions that imply a source behind the composition of the BM.[8] This approach not only stands in stark contrast from Frederick’s prior research, particularly his dissertation,[9] it is also not in line with much of the scholarship he cites throughout the essay. This will be explained further below.

What Frederick’s paper essentially argues is that rather than approaching the text from the perspective of influence, which leads to using the terms quotation, allusion, and echo, we should take several steps back to what he calls “biblical interactions.” It is apparent that by “biblical” Frederick means the NT, because as far as the OT texts are concerned Frederick is fine with applying the terms quotation, allusion, and echo. These biblical interactions come down to three simple terms: (1) precise biblical interaction, (2) probable biblical interaction, and (3) possible biblical interaction.[10] Frederick also applies five criteria that help him to establish whether the interactions between the BM and NT are precise, probable, or possible.[11] With these criteria he analyzes four case studies that provide specific examples of the kind of approach that he is hoping to see if others accept his methodology.

Yet after considering Frederick’s proposal, I was left wondering what the difference between a precise, probable, or possible biblical interaction was exactly. What does that actually mean for the text, and is a “precise biblical interaction” really that precise if the definition that is offered states that the interaction is “almost certainly interacting with the New Testament”?[12] I personally would hope for a bit more precision in analyzing textual interaction.

The list of interactions that Frederick offers highlighted in my mind the fact that we are not dealing simply with intertextuality in its widest sense when it comes to the BM and the NT, as Frederick seems to want to invite. Throughout the essay Frederick cites biblical scholar Jeffery M. Leonard. In his essay,[13] Leonard responds critically against another biblical scholar’s (Lyle Eslinger) work on inner-biblical allusions when he refuses to discuss the direction of dependence because he doubts that scholars can reliably know which text was written first. In Leonard’s opinion, “a more helpful approach to these texts would have been simply to embrace a more diachronic reading and then pursue the implications this reading entails.”[14] The same could be said of Frederick’s work in this new essay. Not only does Frederick’s language still utilize phrases that would imply a diachronic study,[15] the fact that we find all throughout the BM formal quotations of both late OT (those that would not have been available to pre-exilic Israelites) and NT texts is telling in itself. If we are going to discuss the full breadth of these interactions then we will have to have terminology that deals with the fact that the BM text often points the reader to prior textual sources,[16] and therefore, at the very least, forces scholars to adopt both synchronic and diachronic approaches (if not a fully diachronic approach). As Leonard states, “some [biblical] texts manifestly do allude to others (we need look no further than direct quotations for proof), it is clear that there is at least some diachronic element at work in the biblical text. That some scholars continue to work out methods for charting this process of development rather than wave a white flag to the challenges of historiography should be welcomed…”[17]

If we are going to take Frederick’s proposals and his definitions of the “biblical interactions” then how do we label texts like 1 Ne. 3:20, 1 Ne. 22:15, 17, 20, 23-24, and Alma 12:33-35?[18] Each of these texts, formally quote a prior text that the Nephites would not have had access to, and there are so many more that could be added all throughout the BM. According to Frederick’s definitions the best we could do to explain this phenomena is to call each of them “precise biblical interactions.” But this does not fully explain the relationship between these BM texts and their late OT or NT antecedents. What does “precise” mean when a text tells the reader it is quoting an earlier source, especially when the quotation deviates in a word or two added or left out (which is sometimes the case, for example, in the Isaiah chapters)? If a few words are left out is it still a precise interaction? I would assume that probable or possible wouldn’t fit either, especially when the text explicitly shows that it is interacting with a specific, identifiable source.

Besides the quality of the relationship, I was left wondering what exactly does biblical interaction mean? While it is great that Frederick and the audience he is writing to will be able to recognize the multitude connections between the BM and the NT, is biblical interaction really the last step? Is it really okay for us to to place the cap there and not describe how the BM is actually interacting with the NT in its narrative simply because the implications of the analysis might make some believers uncomfortable? The alterations to the lexicon or the context highlight the way that the author of that section of the BM read the biblical source, or at the very least the kind of biblical language that the author felt was appropriate for the new context. None of this is discussed in Frederick’s new essay, as he only seeks to establish the fact that there are interactions.

This can work when a new methodology is directed to an audience that is closed to literary connections between the BM and the NT. And it seems that Frederick is likely writing with that audience in mind, especially when the methodology he employs in his dissertation is contrasted with this new essay. While the new methodology might serve the purposes of an audience that is not open to connections between the BM and NT, it is unlikely to be of any use to audiences outside of this group. This excludes most if not all non-Mormon academics, but a lot of Mormon scholars and lay readers as well. Frederick’s study places a cap at finding the literary connections, “biblical interactions,” and offers nothing beyond this point. Even in the case of the BM stating that the text comes from “the words of Moses, which he spake saying” (1 Ne. 22:20, with the ensuing quotation taken from Acts 3 and not Deuteronomy)[19] it would be “inappropriate” in Frederick’s methodology to label this text a formal quotation simply because it comes from the NT.

From a strictly academic standpoint the question of intertextuality rests solely on literary grounds. From this perspective, the question of authorship, which includes both internal and external data, should be set aside and bracketed for a moment, but not in the way that Frederick is attempting to do in this essay. We should not bracket the issue based on the assumptions that we might have from external historical sources or internal claims of the text’s place in history, and thereby assume that a certain kind of relationship will or will not be found between the BM and the NT; nor should we use traditional beliefs as a means to argue that terms like quotation, allusion, and echo are inappropriate when discussing the BM’s interaction with the NT. Rather, the point of departure must first be the text itself. What do the words themselves say? What specific examples have brought past scholars like Grant Hardy to the conclusion that the King James Bible has influenced the content of the BM? Once we have read the words and take note of their strong connections with the KJV, (both formally and informally), then we can discuss what kind of relationship exists between the NT and the BM, and the questions of composition and authorship can be further explored using actual data. Until that point Frederick’s model will likely act as a deterrent toward further investigations of this kind. His approach places a cap on intellectual inquiry that will likely be used to argue against those who do not fit his target audience.

Similar to Leonard’s argument about the NT quotations of the OT, the BM manifestly alludes to and quotes several parts of the KJV. The fact that the Nephites would not have had access to either the NT or the KJV invites scholars to “work out methods for charting this process of development rather than wave a white flag to the challenges of historiography.”[20]


[1] This includes both Alexander Campbell and Eber D. Howe. Howe was particularly astute in his discovery of NT phrases throughout the text, and was surprisingly thorough, although admittedly biased, in his appraisal of the direction of dependence. See Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (ed. Dan Vogel; Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2015).

[2] B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God: The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1909), 448; cited also in Nicholas J. Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon: A Proposed Methodology,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015), 9, nt. 25.

[3] See John A. Tvednes, “Borrowings from the Parable of Zenos,” in Stephen Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 19**), 373-426.

[4] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 5.

[5] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 5.

[6] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 11.

[7] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 11, nt. 27.

[8] Cf. Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 6.

[9] Nicholas J. Frederick, “Line Within Line: An Intertextual Analysis of Mormon Scripture and the Prologue of the Gospel of John” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation; Claremont Graduate University, 2013).

[10] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 12.

[11] The criteria that Frederick employs are all familiar within intertextual studies, although he uses terms that are slightly different to describe the criteria. The only one that deviates is his second criterion, the “criterion of dissimilarity.” This is problematic because in biblical studies there is already a criterion of dissimilarity, but it is a completely different thing. To be more precise Frederick means something closer to the “criterion of infrequency.” His use of the term dissimilarity will be problematic for any biblical scholar simply because there is already a meaning and a history to the “criterion of dissimilarity.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criterion_of_dissimilarity (Last accessed 9/26/2015).

[12] Frederick, “Evaluating the Interaction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon,” 12. Emphasis mine.

[13] Jeffery M. Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions: Psalm 78 as a Test Case,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127/2 (2008), 241-265.

[14] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 262.

[15] i.e. “undeniable that the Bible plays a role in the textual construction of the Book of Mormon,” 3; “one of the most noticeable aspects of the Book of Mormon is its integration of the King James Bible into its own text,” 3; “the Book of Mormon prefers to weave phrases from the New Testament into its own text,” 7; “phrases in the Book of Mormon maintain the same word order they had in the New Testament, while other times words may be added or removed…” 7; emphasis mine in each.

[16] Contrary to Frederick’s statement on page 7.

[17] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 257.

[18] 1 Ne. 3:20=Acts 3:21; 1 Ne. 22:15=Mal. 4:1; 1 Ne. 22:17=1 Cor. 3:15; 1 Ne. 22:20=Acts 3:22-23; 1 Ne. 22:23-24=Mal. 4:1-2; and Alma 12-13 weaves Heb. 3-4 throughout the entire pericope, see David P. Wright, “‘In Plain Terms that We May Understand’: Joseph Smith’s Transformation of Hebrews in Alma 12-13,” in Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 218-220.

[19] There are times when the NT uses the OT that the NT text claims to be quoting a particular prophetic text but is in fact quoting another. Mark 1:2-3 is exemplary, although you wouldn’t know it from the KJV. The King James translators translated their Greek NT with what we now know to be unreliable, late manuscripts. Scribes had altered the text, so that when the King James translators came to Mark 1:2 they read, “As it is written in the prophets.” The earliest manuscripts read, “As it is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet.” The quotation comes from possibly three texts, verse 2 quotes either from Ex. 23:20 or Mal. 3:1 and then verse 3 from Isa. 40:3. It is more likely that verse 2 is quoting Mal. 3:1 because of the shared context; on this see Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 135-136. Although the author of Mark states that he is quoting only from Isaiah, scholars still recognize the “interaction” with Malachi a quotation.

[20] Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions,” 257.


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.



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”

Religious Education for the Modern World

The situation regarding the new CES/Religious Education curriculum at BYU has got me thinking about the purpose of religious education at BYU (and throughout CES generally). The instructors and professors have the difficult task of ensuring that students acquire an understanding of Mormonism in a context of faith. One place where I think the current approach falls short is in preparing LDS students to think about (and live) our faith in a broader context. Students ought to understand what it means to be Mormon in a global intellectual and cultural world. This got me thinking, if I were to redo the curriculum for Religious Education (and perhaps CES), how would I take this into account? In that light, I put forth the following. Continue reading “Religious Education for the Modern World”

Religious Education’s New Curriculum: A Tale of Two Authorities

The Church has decided to revamp the curriculum for the Church Educational System, which includes Institute programs and (more relevant for this post) BYU’s schools of Religious Education. Whereas the previous curriculum required four courses—two courses on the Book of Mormon, one course on the Doctrine and Covenants, and one course on the New Testament; the new curriculum will require four courses with the following titles: Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, Teachings and Doctrines of the Book of Mormon, Foundations of the Restoration, and The Eternal Family.

The letter from RelEd’s administration spells out a timeline for putting these new courses together, and mentions several “institutional options,” which are meant to introduce some flexibility in implementing the new curriculum across different institutions. In the case of BYU, current course offerings can replace parts of the new requirements. For instance, the current offering of two Book of Mormon courses can replace the Teachings and Doctrines of the Book of Mormon course. Continue reading “Religious Education’s New Curriculum: A Tale of Two Authorities”