BYU Chapter of AAUP Letter to Merrill Bateman concerning Houston’s firing

BYU Chapter of AAUP Letter to Merrill Bateman concerning Houston’s firing

24 September 1996

Dr. Merrill J. Bateman
President, Brigham Young University
D-346 ASB
Provo, Utah 84602-1346

Dear President Bateman:

The BYU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors is concerned with the recent firing of Professor GailTurley Houston. We had hoped the decision would be reversed either by the appeal panel or by you. Apparently members of the panel were sympathetic to many of the arguments made in Prof. Houston’s behalf, but the University advocate asked the panel to rule only on whether proper procedures had been followed. Our Chapter is convinced that procedures were indeed violated (as pointed out in previous correspondence) but that is not the main purpose of this letter.

Our main concern here is with the arguments made about violations of Prof. Houston’s academic freedom–large issues that include misrepresentations and misunderstandings of feminist and postmodern theory. We are discouraged with the atmosphere for faculty and staff at BYU, particularly for women. Likewise, we take issue with growing restrictions on scholarship and teaching at BYU.

After a review of many of the relevant documents, a representative of our national organization offered the following preliminary evaluation of the situation:

August 15, 1996

Dear Professor Houston:

We have examined the abundant written material that you and our AAUP chapter have shared with us regarding the decision not to grant you continuing faculty status at Brigham Young University. . . . I want to provide you and our chapter officers with a preliminary assessment of the very troublesome issues of academic freedom that your cases poses to us. I shall refer, not in any order of relative importance, to four such issues.

First, the available evidence strongly suggests that the university administration, while allowing the offering of courses dealing with feminism and postmodernism, and while engaging faculty members such as yourself who specialize in these areas, determined that your services should be terminated not because of any significant deficiency in your widely praised academic performance but because some few found your handling of the subject matter offensive to the teachings or traditions of the university’s sponsoring church regarding the role of women in society.

Second, following positive recommendations based on your academic record on your candidacy for continuing status from your department and your college committees and administrators, the University Faculty council on Rank and Status evidently rejected your candidacy on grounds of “citizenship,” focusing on questions about your religious beliefs and orthodoxy that most would see as private and personal and simply not the business of persons charged with evaluating academic performance. This seems to us an especially troublesome concern for academic freedom in the case of someone, like yourself, who has reportedly been judged “temple worthy” and otherwise in good standing by your responsible ecclesiastical superiors in your church.

Third, with respect to the 1940 ‘Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure’ and its premise that there can be limitations on academic freedom and tenure because of the institution’s religious aims provided that the limits are set forth in writing, the authors of that document — university professors and university presidents — emphasized at the outset that any stated limitations must be narrowly crafted and precise. The limitations discussed in the BYU statement on academic freedom strike us as very far from precise, and we do not see them as notifying you adequately of parameters on your academic freedom in the areas or incidents in which shortcomings by you were subsequently alleged.

Fourth, there seem, after all, to have been a total of three incidents during your years on the faculty in which you said or did something publicly that later was cited as ground for concern about your “citizenship” in assessing your fitness for continuance on the faculty: what you wrote for Student Review, your Sunstone presentation, and the “White Roses” event (all of these dating back three or more years). Whether or not you may have crossed the line regarding the BYU expectations of adherence to academic freedom limitations in any of the mentioned incidents, if there was a transgression it seems to us to have been exceedingly slight. The finding of the University Faculty Council on Rank and Status, apparently endorsed by the administration, that these activities by you ‘not only have . . .failed to strengthen the moral vigor of the university, they have enervated its very fiber’ tells us that the university administration’s willingness and ability to stand up for academic freedom is weak indeed. . . .


Jordan E. Kurland
Associate General Secretary of the AAUP

The members of our Chapter concur with this evaluation and are committed to bringing about more open and tolerant conditions at BYU. We wish to work with colleagues and the administration to recreate an atmosphere in which discussion is possible, scholarship is encouraged, trust is a matter of course, and the principles espoused in our “Statement on Academic Freedom” are adhered to.

As pointed out in the University Self Study and in the accreditation report of the Commission on Colleges of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, there are serious problems here with faculty and staff morale. A series of apparently harsh and unfair decisions on tenure and promotion, including most recently Prof. Houston’s case, has affected that morale substantially. Further, our reputation as an academic institution has begun to fall as we take actions clearly in conflict with accepted and proven academic practice. As a result, departments are finding it ever more difficult to hire new faculty, early retirements are increasing, and tenured and untenured faculty are taking jobs elsewhere. We must take action to reverse that trend.

In this spirit, we have decided to ask the National AAUP to more thoroughly review Professor Houston’s firing. We believe it is in the best interest of the university to obtain the opinion of an impartial external organization whose main purpose is to further academic freedom at colleges and universities across the country. We have no punitive goal in mind. But we are committed as a group and as individuals to the long-term health and flourishing of BYU. Many of us have been here for our entire careers and want nothing more than to see BYU reach its full potential as a university with deep religious commitments. This is possible only if we foster a rigorous ethical and academic standard in fact and not only in theory. So, we will continue to work for the advancement of our institution.


Members of the BYU Chapter of the AAUP

cc Jordan E. Kurland, AAUP

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