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Saturday, August 9, 1997

BYU: Will It Be Censured By Group?


    Officials at Brigham Young University say they want to balance the rigors of academia with the demands of faith, but some see the scale tipping ever more precariously toward religious education -- if not increasingly conservative academic politics.
    The school may soon blur the distinction between academics and religion further by adding curriculum based on the church's ``Proclamation on the Family,'' Bryan Waterman said Friday at the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City.
    And it may also be censured for a ``widespread pattern of infringements on academic freedom in a climate of oppression and fear of reprisals,'' according to an April 29 report of the American Association of University Professors that Waterman cited. A final version of the report is due in the September-October issue of Academe, the AAUP's bulletin.
    School officials are ``rhetorically claiming an unique identity for BYU, while in reality they are aligning the university with the academic right wing,'' said Waterman, who is co-writing a book on academic freedom at BYU since 1985.
    He pointed to BYU President Merrill Bateman's reliance on the work of Gertrude Himmelfarb, an academic conservative, and various administration statements against multiculturalism, post-modernism and feminism as evidence of the school's conservative bent.
    Academic Vice President Alan Wilkins took issue with Waterman's ideas.
    He said that the AAUP draft that Waterman cited has been ``changed significantly'' since April and the school had agreed not to comment on its contents until it is published.
    Wilkins said AAUP would not censure the school for at least a year, and that would require a vote of the membership.
    ``Every school has its limitations on academic freedom,'' he said. ``At many public institutions, there are limitations on talking about religion in the classroom. We say there are limitations on opposing [LDS] church doctrine or criticizing church leaders.''
    The issue, Wilkinson said, is whether BYU has been ``consistent and clear in its policies.''
    Last spring, an AAUP investigating committee spent time on BYU campus interviewing faculty and administrators to examine whether principles of intellectual freedom had been violated by the 1996 firing of English professor Gail Houston for, among other things, her feminist views and statements she made about praying to a Mother in Heaven. The committee also considered BYU's general atmosphere of academic freedom and whether the school's academic-freedom document adequately explained its actions.
    The 54-page draft report, cited in Waterman's presentation, ``A Collision of Cultures: The AAUP and the Bateman Administration,'' was given to university administration and the BYU chapter of AAUP in May. The parties were asked to comment and further drafts were revised to consider the comments.
    The committee found that academic freedom at BYU is often ``subject to the political concerns of church officials who worry about new philosophical perspectives that seem to disagree with tenets of Mormonism and about outspoken faculty members whose extramural utterances might embarrass the church.''
    The AAUP committee concluded, among other things, that Houston's references to Mother in Heaven could not reasonably construed as ``public advocacy'' for prayer to the Mother, as administrators had claimed.
    Referring to BYU's policy that faculty not be allowed to ``deliberately attack the church or its leaders,'' the committee said it was ``much more comfortable having decisions on retention and advancement based on assessment of academic performance rather than on perception of motive.''
    The visit of AAUP's investigating helped BYU ``clarify our limitations on academic freedom,'' Wilkins said. ``We want to continue the communication and be as clear and careful as we can.''
    He confirmed that the school is looking into adding a course on the ``Proclamation on the Family,'' a church statement about the eternal roles of men and women.
    A faculty committee recommended an interdisciplinary look at family studies, including a ``Proclamation Resource Information and Database'' service that would provide ``relevant research and . . . scholarly studies'' supporting the statement.
    But Wilkins said that nothing has been decided.
    As to Waterman's charge that BYU policies are aligning with academic conservatives, Wilkins said the school has conservative and liberal faculty.
    ``One will find feminists and those who disagree with the feminist movement at BYU,'' he said. Forbidding prayer to Mother in Heaven and discussions about whether women can have LDS priesthood ``seems different than a conservative agenda.''
    Waterman's accusations are ``a little glib,'' Wilkins said. [an error occurred while processing this directive]