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.