BYU AAUP: Women’s Concerns at BYU

BYU AAUP: Women’s Concerns at BYU

The following document was prepared by a committee of the BYU Chapter of the AAUP during the winter of 1996. This document poses some of the problems with academic freedom for women at BYU.

March 1996

Limitations on the Academic Freedom of Women at Brigham Young University

Because Brigham Young University isowned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church’s leaders have largely determined the attitudes and practices of the university. Those leaders, as well as the university’s administration, are all empowered men in the Mormon culture who defines right and good by male standards. The experience of women often calls those male-centered standards into question as incomplete or otherwise inadequate.

As a result, Brigham Young University has a history of suppressing scholarship and artistic expressions representing the experience of women. The following list provides examples of some of the ways in which university officials have acted over the past several years to silence women faculty and staff and suppress their scholarship. University officials imply that their actions with regard to women are taken to ensure that the university uphold the doctrines and standards of the LDS Church. But the women they have silenced or punished are also committed, faithful members of that Church (though the leaders seem to see these women as less important than themselves).

It finally comes down to a question of the right of representation: do Mormon women scholars have the right to represent their own experience in their own voice, or must representations of women and women’s experience conform to a male-formulated construct of that experience? This would seem to be an issue of academic freedom that the Accreditation Committee might consider significant in its evaluation of Brigham Young University.

**In 1992 the administration refused to hire candidate Barbara Bishop for a faculty appointment in the English Department, although she was the choice of the section, chair, and college dean for the position and had the full support of her local ecclesiastical leaders. At the time she even headed the Primary (the children’s organization of the LDS Church) in her ward (congregation). The reason the administration gave for not approving her hire was that 17 faculty members in the English Department (of a faculty of 75) did not vote in favor of hiring her. Bishop’s scholarship dealt with the works of African American writer Zora Neal Hurston and other American women writers.
**In 1992, the LDS Church celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Relief Society, the Church’s organization for adult women. In conjunction with that celebration, Professor Marie Cornwall, then the head of the BYU Women’s Research Institute, organized a scholarly conference on the Relief Society. Because speakers at that conference criticized as well as praised the Relief Society, Professor Cornwall was called in and censured by University Provost Bruce Hafen for planning this conference and carrying it out.
**In 1992, the organizing committee of the BYU Women’s Conference chose as the keynote speaker for the 1993 conference Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, faithful Mormon woman, recent Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, and winner of a MacArthur Grant. Ulrich’s book has been so significant because she uses the twenty-year diary of Martha Ballard to reconstruct late 18th-century New England history to include the experiences of women. This study has made scholars of political, economic, social, and medical history of the period revise their conclusions and include women’s contributions in their historical research. Brigham Young University’s board of trustees did not approve Ulrich to be a speaker for the women’s conference. Although both she and her ecclesiastical leaders tried to find out why she was not approved, she was never given a reason.
**In 1993, the board of trustees fired the chair of the BYU women’s conference, Carol Lee Hawkins, from her position, even though during the six years she directed the conference, attendance almost doubled and the conference received an approval rating from participants who completed the exit questionnaire of over 90 percent. To explain the firing, the Board suggested only that a change of assignment was a good thing from time to time, as if this position were a Church assignment rather than a paid university administrative position and Hawkins’s employment. Just after Carol Lee Hawkins was fired, a group of women’s studies faculty from across the university met with University Provost Bruce Hafen and asked him about that action. He answered that Hawkins had not been fired, that she had indicated that she wanted a change in assignment, and that she was just moving to another position in the university. Hafen did nothing to help Hawkins secure another position.
**In the summer of 1993 Provost Bruce Hafen tried to keep faithful Mormon woman and historian Claudia Bushman from speaking in a week-long faculty seminar sponsored by the Dean of Honors and General Education, although her husband Professor Richard Bushman was approved to speak. When Hafen learned that the Bushmans had both already been invited to participate, he required that Honors Dean Harold Miller only advertise Richard Bushman.
**In 1993 the university terminated Professor Cecilia Konchar Farr after her third-year review. Konchar Farr is a feminist activist who worked to educate people about violence against women, who helped establish the feminist activist student club Voice on campus, and who took a public pro-Choice position, although she also said in her speech that she did not favor abortion and fully supported the LDS First Presidency’s position on abortion. She also had the full support of her local ecclesiastical leaders as a faithful Mormon, worthy to participate in all Church ordinances. At first the university tried to represent Konchar Farr as an inadequate scholar and teacher, but after the appeal hearing, an agreement was reached by which both sides were to say only that there were "irreconcilable differences" between the administration and Konchar Farr. Again, a woman professor’s career was damaged, and the university gave no satisfactory reason for that action. (The accreditation committee might benefit from examining some of the files from the appeal of that decision; these files are in the possession of Professor William A. Wilson, Konchar Farr’s advocate in the review proceedings and the chair of the English Department when she was hired.)
**In 1994 candidate Marian Bishop Mumford was selected by the English Department, with the full approval of the department chair and the dean of the College of Humanities, for hire to the faculty of the BYU English Department. Her Ph.D. dissertation was an examination of women’s journals, including the journal of Anne Frank, to demonstrate that women construct themselves most authentically in their journals, because they consider themselves to be the sole audience. A part of that study was to examine the ways in which Anne Frank wrote about her body as a way to give herself identity at least in language, in a culture that literally erased her from existence. Acting under the instructions of Provost Bruce Hafen, Chair Neal Lambert told Bishop Mumford that she would be hired only if she agreed to discontinue her current scholarship. The candidate declined to come to Brigham Young University under those circumstances.
**In 1994 and 1995 Joni Clarke was selected from a large pool of applicants as one of the two best candidates for an American literature faculty position in the English Department. She had the full support of her local ecclesiastical leaders and also university academic vice president Alan Wilkins, who called her and interviewed her for over an hour to determine her worthiness to teach at BYU. Her research deals with Native American texts, particularly those by women. Provost Bruce Hafen did not approve her to be considered for hire.
**In 1995 Dorice Elliot was also selected from a large pool of applicants as one of the two best candidates for a British literature faculty position in the English Department. Her research deals with 19th century British literature by women. She is greatly admired by her ecclesiastical leaders because of her work as the Relief Society president in her congregation. Provost Bruce Hafen did not approve her to be considered for hire. In both of the above-mentioned cases, the faithfulness of these women to the Mormon Church was not in question. Why, then, were they excluded from candidacy for hire at Brigham Young University? The administration does not give reasons for its actions, but we may perhaps look at this as part of the pattern of exclusion or silencing of those who want to study women’s experience from women’s perspective.
**In 1995 Professors Karen E. Gerdes and Martha N. Beck were forbidden from publishing the results of their study of the experiences of Mormon women survivors of childhood sexual abuse who asked for help from their Mormon ecclesiastical leaders. In the majority of cases, the advice these victims received was damaging rather than helpful. Both professors have since left the university; the study appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of Affilia, Journal of Women and Social Work (Vol. 11, No. 1).
**In April 1996 Katherine Kennedy was chosen for an English Department faculty appointment in Romanticism, the unanimous choice of the later British literature section and with almost unanimous support from the department. Kennedy was supported for hire by the dean and even the general authority who interviewed her, as well as by her local ecclesiastical leaders. But the administration rejected her. Kennedy’s research examines images of motherhood, including breastfeeding, in British Romantic poetry by women. Regarding the decision not to hire Kennedy, University Academic Vice President Alan Wilkins explained to the Department Advisory Council that the English Department could assume there was something about Kennedy’s feminism that the administration did not approve of.
**There is only one university lecture named after a woman, the Alice Louise Reynolds lecture. Money was raised to endow this lecture by Helen Stark, a strong feminist and well-known member of the Mormon community. She herself contributed approximately $15,000 to the endowment fund. Stark died two years ago at the age of 89. In 1995 the committee selected Elouise Bell, a prominent woman full professor to deliver that lecture. The administration not only rejected the woman as the speaker; it informed the committee that Roger R. Keller, a male associate professor from the Department of Religion, would be the speaker. In 1996 the Alice Louise Reynolds lecture was not held.
**For several years women candidates for faculty employment at Brigham Young University have been asked this question by the academic vice president: "If a general authority [general leader of the Mormon Church] asked you not to publish your research, what would you do?" It has been suggested to the candidates that they must agree not to publish in such a case. This condition of employment undermines the position of new women faculty members at Brigham Young University. To be hired, they apparently must agree to let male ecclesiastical leaders who are not trained in their disciplines have final authority over the publication of their scholarship. They are offered no review process to determine the fairness or accuracy of the authority’s request. Again, women are instructed that they must suppress their own perspectives on their own experience or research if a male authority so directs them.
**In its entire seventy-five year history, a woman faculty member has never been chosen to present BYU’s distinguished faculty lecture.

The BYU AAUP Chapter will provide documentation of all of the above claims upon request. We will obtain statements from or provide the Accreditation Committee with the addresses and telephone numbers of the individuals named in this document.