A professional faculty association at Brigham Young University is calling for an outside review of academic freedom at the Mormon Church-owned school.
Members of the BYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors have asked their parent organization to investigate the university's decision in June to deny continuing status to assistant English Professor Gail Houston.
A report of alleged violations of academic freedom at BYU has been supplied by faculty to the national organization, which has asked university President Merrill J. Bateman for an explanation of Houston's dismissal and other issues raised by the local AAUP chapter.
Houston, who now teaches at the University of New Mexico, was denied tenure in June for allegedly contradicting fundamental Mormon doctrine and attacking The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its views on women.
In September, a five-member appeals panel composed of two associate academic vice presidents and three faculty members upheld Houston's dismissal by Bateman, who acted on the recommendation of the University Faculty Council on Rank and Status.
But the AAUP believes the university's action and subsequent appeals process was fraught with problems. In a Sept. 24 letter to Bateman, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Herald, local chapter members say BYU violated procedure and Houston's academic freedom.
AAUP members contend in the letter that the appeals panel was improperly limited to a review of whether proper procedure was followed in Houston's case and was not allowed to address the substantive issues she raised about gender discrimination and an overall hostile environment toward women at BYU.
"We are discouraged with the atmosphere for faculty and staff at BYU, particularly for women," AAUP members told Bateman in the letter. "Likewise, we take issue with growing restrictions on scholarship and teaching at BYU."
Chapter members further state in the letter that they believe it is in the best interest of BYU to get the opinion of the national AAUP, an impartial organization dedicated to the furthering of academic freedom at colleges and universities throughout the country.
But Jim Gordon, BYU associate academic vice president, disputes any suggestion of impropriety by the university. He said the appeals panel was fair and weighed both arguments about alleged procedural errors and the merits of Houston's dismissal before recommending Bateman's original decision be sustained.
l "BYU is very open about what its standards are," Gordon said. "The university holds everyone to the same standard. The problem was not that she was treated differently, but that she chose to violate those standards by contradicting fundamental church doctrines and attacking the church."
Among Houston's more egregious errors, as far as BYU is concerned, was her open admission of praying to a Heavenly Mother and alleged support for the right to reject church prophets' and priesthood leaders' pronouncements on the role of women. In addition, the administration took issue with her expressing agreement with individuals who had been excommunicated by the church for apostasy.
Despite those accusations, Houston has steadfastly maintained her loyalty to the church and university. She accuses the university of violating her academic freedom and of having a hostile attitude toward women in general and her in particular.
"It's really very sad to see the oppressive atmosphere that is taking place at BYU." she said.
While making no definitive ruling on Houston's case, the national AAUP has expressed support. In an Aug. 15 Ietter to Houston, a copy of which was provided to Bateman, AAUP Associate General Secretary Jordan Kurland said her case suggests that she was dismissed "not because of any significant deficiency" in academic performance, but because of her handling of church teachings on the role of women in society.
Kurland stated in the letter that a person's religious beliefs are not the business of those who judge academic performance. He further said the limits BYU places on academic freedom are imprecise and out of harmony with the AAUP's 1940 declaration on the principle of academic freedom.
"The finding of the University Faculty Council on Rank and Status, apparently endorsed by the administration, ... tells us that the university administration's willingness and ability to stand up for academic freedom is weak indeed," Kurland wrote.
The disagreement over Houston's firing underscores the tension between the administration and BYU's chapter of the AAUP which has about 50 members. Organized in spring 1995 after a 21-year absence on campus, the BYU chapter has been unsuccessful in its repeated attempts to meet with Bateman. The president has thus far elected to respond to members as individuals, rather than recognize them as a group.
AAUP members at BYU, at BYU as well as some who do not belong to the organization, believe there has been a systematic erosion of academic freedom and a general climate of fear on campus over the past five years. As evidence, they cite BYU's new policy that requires ecclesiastical leaders to inform the administration if BYU employees in their congregations are worthy to enter Mormon temples.
Concern has also been expressed about BYU's treatment of feminists and about the number of faculty candidates, particularly in the English department, who have been rejected by the administration without explanation.