Why Didn’t Professor Join Staff at Brigham Young University?

Why Didn’t Professor Join Staff at Brigham Young University?

Monday, September 1, 1997

Why Didn’t Professor Join Staff at BYU?


    For the public record, David Babbel says he isn’t coming to Brigham Young University because his wife won’t let him. His private reasons are more complicated, but he intends to keep them private.
    “If I’d wanted them in the public domain I would have put them there. I’ve published 80 articles, six books. I know how to get things in the public domain if I want,” Babbel said.
    That the future plans of the professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business are of interest to anyone but the Babbels and BYU is owing, at least initially, to an Associated Press story on Aug. 9.
    The story said that BYU President Merrill J. Bateman had, at a prearranged meeting in New York, offered Babbel a distinguished professorship at BYU’s Marriott School of Management and that Babbel had later declined, for two reasons.
    The first was concern about BYU’s ecclesiastical endorsement policy, in which faculty and staff must be annually certified spiritually worthy by their bishops as a condition of continued employment. The second was BYU’s position on issues of academic freedom.
    The AP story, based on two independent sources, contained no comment from Bateman or Babbel since both were on vacation and efforts to reach them were unsuccessful.
    More than two weeks later, Bateman chose the occasion of his annual address to the BYU faculty and staff to denounce the AP account as inaccurate on several points. He also quoted a letter from Babbel citing “numerous errors throughout” the story.
    Both said the New York meeting, at an alumni event at Madison Square Garden last winter, was mere happenstance and that no job offer was discussed. Bateman said he was unaware at the time that Babbel “was in discussion with the Marriott School about a position.”
    Bateman, the first BYU president to double as a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the school’s owner, called the AP story “typical of other press articles dealing with BYU personnel issues which have appeared in recent years.”
    The main focus of the story was a draft of a report due out this month from the American Association of University Professors which found “a widespread pattern of infringements on academic freedom in a climate of oppression and fear of reprisals” at BYU.
    In a brief interview following his speech, Bateman said, “You know, I know who’s feeding you and I’m just disappointed that you take in everything they say. It’s just really a shame.”
    He added, “What I said in the speech is absolutely true. I do not play games.”
    A year earlier, Bateman had used the same University Conference forum to apologize for what he said were mistakes in his inaugural address that had led to an accusation that he had plagiarized portions of a speech by a noted neoconservative author. It was the AP that first reported the accusation, made by an anonymous BYU professor writing in Sunstone magazine.
    After Bateman’s speech, Babbel was tracked down by telephone in New York, where he was testifying as an expert witness. A longer interview later in the week revealed a man willing, up to a point, to talk about his BYU courtship.
    It began three years ago when Babbel, a recognized expert on insurance, risk management and finance, decided he had more to offer his church than ecclesiastical support. A Mormon bishop, the 48-year-old BYU alumnus had worked for several years on Wall Street heading up Goldman Sachs’ insurance and pension group and had been at Wharton since 1984.
    BYU had begun raising $5 million for a research center and a chair and “they asked if I’d be interested in it,” he said. “It sounded pretty good. I’d been approached about a number of chairs, but not a whole research center.”
    However, by the time Babbel met Bateman in New York, the research center wasn’t close to being funded and what was under discussion was an endowed chair that was coming open.
    Babbel said he can’t recall if he told Bateman then about his discussions with the Marriott School of Management. However, shortly after their New York encounter, Babbel said he talked during February to some 15 current and former faculty members “trying to get a feel for things” at BYU.
    Babbel then wrote Bateman telling him he wasn’t yet ready to come West. He declines to discuss the reasons he gave or what Bateman wrote in return.
    As for why he would write such a letter after only a brief exchange of pleasantries with the BYU president, Babbel said Bateman had told him in New York to “keep in touch.”
    A short time later, Babbel said he received a call from the dean of the BYU management school, K. Fred Skousen, asking him to formally apply for the endowed chair. He told Skousen he’d already written Bateman his answer.
    Babbel also said the AP story did not accurately characterize his concerns about BYU’s ecclesiastical endorsement and academic freedom policies. He said his “state of mind was very mixed back then.”
    “You were reporting what you had heard and the people who talked to you heard what they wanted to hear, or heard the partial things I may have told them. Because I didn’t give them everything. I just told them a few things,” he said.
    In fact, Babbel said, he was ready to come to BYU but his wife wouldn’t let him, in part because the schools in their part of suburban Philadelphia are among the best in the country. The couple have four children.
    “We have an incredible place in Pennsylvania and we have a very good lifestyle. We earn a lot of money and feel like we’re in the mission field and able to do a lot of good. And there are those concerns. Those are the main ones for my wife,” he said.
    A longtime friend of the Babbels, former BYU religion historian Steven Epperson, was a casualty of the ecclesiastical endorsement policy. His bishop refused to sign the endorsement in part because Epperson and his family were feeding the homeless on Sundays instead of attending church.
    “I know that David has said he wanted to come out here, but Dave’s been very torn about it,” pitting religious concerns against others related to family, academic freedom and the endorsement policy, Epperson said. He sees character in Babbel’s willingness to “contemplate putting service to his religious community above everything else” — the choice is a common one faced by scholars of faith in all religions, Epperson said.
    “It’s like all of us who accepted or contemplated accepting employment at BYU. We all have really good academic training. We have all been devoted members of the church and we’ve wanted to come there and . . . make BYU a great university.”

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