Academic freedom at Brigham Young University

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Academic freedom at Brigham Young University has been the subject of several controversies regarding the school, mostly focusing on its religious nature. In 1992, BYU issued a statement limiting academic freedom in certain areas, including language that attacked The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and language that violates the university's honor code.[1]

Since this statement was released, the University has received continued accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which specifically approved of the new statement, as it was typical of many religious institutions. In 1997, the American Association of University Professors (with a membership of about 47,000) criticized BYU based on the wording of the new statement, as well as recent controversies involving several professors allegedly denied their academic rights. Cecilia Konchar Farr, David Knowlton, Gail T. Houston, are among the more notable controversies, although BYU has stated that these professors' discharge was based on issues other than academic speech.

On another side of the issue James D. Gordon III, one of the key administrators in the 1990s issues, has argued that there is institutional academic freedom, the ability of an academic institution to define its goals and objectives, and that a private institution like BYU should be fully free to pursue such.[2]

Academic freedom issues[edit]

Looking North from the Kimball Tower toward Mount Timpanogos

University standards[edit]

In a 1971 speech to a BYU faculty group, Martin B. Hickman, then the dean of BYU's College of Social Sciences, argued that the decision to join the BYU faculty reflected an acceptance of the values of the university and thus anyone who joined the faculty with this proper mindset would not have any academic freedom issues while there.[3]

In 1992, the university drafted a new Statement on Academic Freedom.[4] After receiving comment from faculty and others, the document was implemented by BYU administrators on September 14, 1992. This document specified that: "Because the gospel encompasses all truth and affirms the full range of human modes of knowing, the scope of integration for LDS scholars is, in principle, as wide as truth itself."[5][4] However, citing BYU's role as a religious institution, the document allowed limitations to be placed upon "expression with students or in public that:

  1. contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy;
  2. deliberately attacks or derides the Church or its general leaders; or
  3. violates the Honor Code because the expression is dishonest, illegal, unchaste, profane, or unduly disrespectful of others.

"...The ultimate responsibility to determine harm to the University mission or the church, however, remains vested in the University's governing bodies—including the University president and central administration and, finally, the board of Trustees."[4]

Also in 1992, the university began including a clause in its faculty contracts requiring LDS faculty to "accept the spiritual and temporal expectations of wholehearted Church membership".[4] In 1993, contracts further required LDS faculty to "maintain standards of conduct consistent with qualifying for temple privileges"[6] (referring to entry into LDS temples, for which one must meet standards of activity and behavior in the LDS Church). In 1996, LDS faculty were required, as a condition of employment, to obtain the yearly endorsement of their local ecclesiastical leaders certifying that the faculty were temple-worthy.[6]

BYU also does not allow off-campus groups to use the campus for protests or demonstrations. On-campus groups and students must apply for a permit.[7]

Northwest Association[edit]

In 1996, the Northwest Association of Schools and of Colleges and Universities (the "Northwest Association") reviewed the University's academic freedom statement and renewed its accreditation. The Northwest Association specifically approved the University's academic freedom statement. Such accreditation standards permit "religious colleges and universities to place limitations on academic freedom so long as they publish those limitations candidly."[8] In addition, the Northwest Association investigated "almost all" of the allegations that the AAUP had asserted regarding other individuals, concluding that the University had not violated academic freedom.[8]

American Association of University Professors[edit]

BYU's academic freedom policies have been criticized by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In 1997, they issued a report documenting the cases of several professors[9] concluding "that infringements on academic freedom are distressingly common and that the climate for academic freedom is distressingly poor."[10][11]

The AAUP report also contained, as an appendix, a response authored by the BYU administration, which argued that BYU had the right to limit academic freedom in order to preserve the religious character of the school, a right implied by a 1940 AAUP statement and generally followed until 1970. In particular, BYU compared itself to Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution which prohibited "open espousal of viewpoints which contradict explicit principles of Catholic faith and morals."[10]

BYU also stated that the academic freedom judgement process lacked transparency and objectivity.[10] The AAUP's decision remained, however. In 1965, the AAUP had stated that "satisfactory conditions of academic freedom and tenure now prevail at Gonzaga."[12]

In 1970, the AAUP had adopted a statement of Interpretive Comments in which the AAUP had stated, "Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement, and we do not endorse such a departure".[13] In 1998, the AAUP voted to censure BYU, which remains on a list of censured institutions together with 46 other universities.[14]

The AAUP's refusal to accommodate religiously affiliated institutions of higher learning in connection with desires to protect religious traditions in line with its own 1940 statement - in contrast to that accommodation by the Northwest Association - has been criticized.[13]

Case studies[edit]

Soon after adopting their statement on academic freedom in 1992, BYU took actions which some have viewed as related to the implementation of the new academic freedom policy. For example, in late 1992, the university's board of trustees vetoed without comment a BYU proposal to invite Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard University professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an active feminist, to address the annual BYU Women's Conference.[15] Since then, the University has also dismissed, denied continuing status, or censured faculty members who have taken critical positions relating to official church policy or leadership as well as those who for personal reasons did not pay a tithe to the LDS Church.[10]

For example, in 1993, BYU revoked the continuing status to Cecilia Konchar Farr, who had publicly advocated a pro-choice position on abortion. Farr was hired as an English instructor and some felt her positions of pro-choice were irrelevant to her assignment with the school.[10] And to David Knowlton, who had discussed the church's missionary system at an independent Mormon forum, as well as making disparaging remarks about LDS architecture.[10]

In 1996, BYU dismissed Gail T. Houston, an English professor, despite positive votes from her English Department and the College Committee.[10] One of the reasons for this action was her advocacy of prayer to Heavenly Mother.[16] Also in 1996, professor Brian Evenson resigned in protest after receiving a warning from BYU administration over some violent images in one of his short stories.[10]

In 2006, part-time faculty instructor Jeffrey Nielsen's contract was not renewed after he wrote an op-ed piece in the June 4 Salt Lake Tribune which criticized and opposed the LDS Church's stance on same-sex marriage.[17][11] [18] Also in early 2006, BYU discontinued the contract of Darron Smith, another part-time faculty instructor. Smith was one of the few African Americans teaching on BYU campus. He claims that his contract was not continued because he called for the LDS Church to address lingering issues of racism. Smith was co-editor of the book Black and Mormon, which has received favorable reviews. Although Smith was let go, Gordon B. Hinckley, then president of the LDS Church, made public statements against racism shortly thereafter. Officially, BYU spokespeople generally framed the actions in the cases of Farr, Knowlton, and Houston as relating to the quality of the professors' scholarship, and sometimes to unspecified misbehavior, rather than the controversial content of the affected professor's academic activities.[19]

Nevertheless, some critics viewed these dismissals as a kind of purge.[10] Some of the professors dismissed for academic reasons claim that their publishing credentials were stronger than many of their colleagues.

BYU's academic freedom controversy has not always been limited to religious matters. BYU placed physics professor Steven E. Jones on paid leave in connection with an internal investigation that a paper he authored on the causes finding that the World Trade Center towers fell on 9/11 because of pre-set explosives might not have met "scientific standards of peer review" and his failure of "appropriately distancing himself" from the University in his statements regarding his explosive theory.[20] Mr. Jones accepted early retirement while the investigation was in its early stages.[20]


  1. ^ Romboy, Dennis (22 Sep 1992). "BYU Formalizes Policy on Academic Freedom". LDS Church. Deseret News.
  2. ^ James D. Gordon III, Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 49, issue 2
  3. ^ Ernest L. Wilkinson, ed., Brigham Young University: The First 100 Years. Vol. 4, p. 63
  4. ^ a b c d [1] Archived August 26, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ 1999-2000 Undergraduate Catalog. BYU. Fall 1999. pp. xvii–xx.
  6. ^ a b "BYU Division of Continuing Education" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-05-17. Retrieved 2010-05-14.
  7. ^ Walsh, Tad (2007-04-04). "Y. campus protests to be rather decorous". Deseret Morning News. Archived from the original on 6 April 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-04.
  9. ^ See Brigham Young University#Case studies
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Academic Freedom and Tenure: Brigham Young University" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-07-26.
  11. ^ a b Adams, Jonathan (Spring 2007). "Repression at BYU". Secular Humanist Bulletin. 23 (1).
  12. ^ McConnell, Michael W. (October 1990). "Academic Freedom in Religious Colleges and Universities". Law and Contemporary Problems. Duke University School of Law. 53 (3: Summer 1990): 303–324. doi:10.2307/1191799. ISSN 0023-9186. JSTOR 1191799.
  13. ^ a b Hardy, Lee. "The Value of Limitations". Archived from the original on 2011-05-17. Retrieved 2011-01-24.
  14. ^ "Censure List". AAUP. Archived from the original on 22 December 2010. Retrieved 2011-01-24.
  15. ^ Wilson, Robin. (March 24, 2006). "A Well-Behaved Scholar Makes History." The Chronicle of Higher Education. v. 52 (29), page A12. [3]
  16. ^ Times and Seasons peace on removal of Houston
  17. ^ "Washington Post". Washington Post. 2006-06-14. Retrieved 2011-01-24.
  18. ^ Schultz, Gudrun (2006-06-15). "Utah Mormon University Lets Go of Professor". LifeSite News.
  19. ^ "The Issue of Academic Freedom: An Interview with Jim Gordon". BYU Magazine. Winter 1997.
  20. ^ a b "BYU professor in dispute over 9/11 will retire". 2006-10-22. Retrieved 2011-01-24.

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