Statement by BYU AAUP on Academic Freedom at BYU

Statement by BYU AAUP on Academic Freedom at BYU

Notes on BYU’s 1992 Academic Freedom Statment and Related Policies.

Drafted by B. W. Jorgensen, Associate Professor of English

BYU Chapter, AAUP, January 1997.

1. The Statement appeals to the 1940 AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, yet seems to ignore the AAUP’s 1970 “Interpretive Comments,” especially comment 3: “Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement, and we do not now endorse such a departure.”

2. BYU’s statement is “grounded on a distinction, often blurred but vital and historically based, between individual and institutional academic freedom,” and attempts to balance the sometimes conflicting claims of these two freedoms.

3. The Statement grounds individual academic freedom on the LDS scriptural principle of “individual agency” or “moral agency,” concluding that “neither testimony, nor righteousness, nor genuine understanding is possible unless it is freely discovered and voluntarily embraced.” Elsewhere the Statement reminds us that “There is no such thing as risk-free genuine education, just as according to LDS theology there is no risk-free earthly experience.” Individual academic freedom is defined as a faculty member’s right “‘to teach and research without interference,’ to ask hard questions, to subject answers to rigorous examination, and to engage in scholarship and creative work,” and includes “the traditional right to publish or present the results of original research in the reputable scholarly literature and professional conferences of one’s academic discipline.” The Statement declares BYU’s aspiration “to be a host for th[e] integrated search for truth by offering a unique enclave of inquiry, where teachers and students may seek learning ‘even by study and also by faith.'” Citing prophetic and scriptural texts, the “scope of integration” is given as “in principle, as wide as truth itself,” since “the gospel . . . affirms the full range of human modes of knowing.” And in “summary” the Statement declares that “BYU students and their parents are entitled to expect an educational experience that reflects this aspiration.”

4. Nearly twice as long, the discussion of “institutional academic freedom” includes some fourteen footnotes citing recent analyses of academic freedom in religious institutions, and especially a number of articles on the “death” or “decline” of “religious higher education.” The sponsors and writers of the Statement seem more anxious to define and defend “institutional academic freedom” than “individual academic freedom,” perhaps because they felt the former was insufficiently understood.

5. The “definition” of this freedom in BYU’s case is that “BYU claims the right to maintain [its] identity by the appropriate exercise of its institutional academic freedom,” which is “the privilege of universities to pursue their distinctive missions” or to “guarantee institutional autonomy.” BYU’s “identity” consists in its being “wholly owned by the Church,” its mainly LDS faculty and student body, its Honor Code, and the contract stipulation that LDS faculty are “expected . . . to ‘live lives of loyalty to the restored gospel.'” The Statement acknowledges that “It is not expected that the faculty will agree on every point of doctrine, much less on the issues in the academic disciplines that divide faculties in any unversity,” and cautions that “It is expected . . . that a spirit of Christian charity and common faith in the gospel will unite even those with wide differences and that questions will be raised in ways that seek to strengthen rather than undermine faith.”

6. The discussion of “institutional academic freedom” stresses the institution’s right to preserve its identity and pursue its mission (without outside interference); yet the main challenge to BYU’s institutional academic freedom seems to be its faculty. Thus the Statment argues that “absolute individual [academic] freedom would place the individual faculty member effectively in charge of defining institutional purpose, thereby infringing on prerogatives that traditionally belong to boards, administrations, and faculty councils.” But how “would” faculty ever “defin[e] institutional purpose,” except as faculty always do, via syllabi, assignments, tests, texts, lectures, discussions, and critiques of students’ work? How could faculty be limited in this normal influence on institutional purpose, unless boards and administrators performed faculty duties?

7. Clearly one primary area of concern is “disagreement [on] Church doctrine, on which BYU’s Board of Trustees claims the right to convey prophetic counsel.” Apparently a faculty member might, by somehow opposing or violating “doctrine,” commit an “arrogation of authority” and “defin[e] institutional purpose” in a way contrary to what the Board desires. It appears that institutional purpose includes the inculcation of orthodox belief by preventing faculty from disagreeing with the Board on “doctrine” and by reserving to the Board the prerogative of defining what “doctrine” shall include. It would be helpful for the Statement to indicate more fully and precisely what is considered “Church doctrine.” Different aspects of “doctrine” would likely pertain to different disciplines; and faculty may be unaware of which statements or positions that pertain to their fields are considered “Church doctrine.”

8. The Statement declares that there cannot be “unlimited institutional academic freedom,” yet effectively makes that freedom unlimited in the (undefined) area of “Church doctrine,” which includes matters of the deepest personal, communal, and cultural consequence, and in which, if anywhere, individuals should most “freely discover and voluntarily embrace” truth.

9. The Statement’s “reasonable limitations,” applying “when the behavior or expression seriously and adversely affects the university mission or the Church,” reinforce this sense of unlimited institutional freedom. After its first sentence, this section of the Statement applies “limitation” only to individual academic freedom. It gives three “Examples” of “expression with students or in public.” First, expression which “contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy”: this notably qualifies “doctrine” with “fundamental,” yet without clarifying what that term means; it noticeably avoids the word “criticise” or any phrase like “ask hard questions,” and faculty may wonder where the line will be drawn between “analyze” and “contradict.” Second, expression which “deliberately attacks or derides the Church or its general leaders”: it is not clear whether this makes the words or ideas of general Church leaders immune from critical discussion, even when those words or ideas are not (or seem not to be) about “fundamental . . . doctrine or policy.” The third “example,” expression that “violates the Honor Code because [it] is dishonest, illegal, unchaste, profane, or unduly disrespectful of others,” offers no criteria for determining when expression falls within at least some of these categories. Without more precise guidelines, or much open discussion, faculty may feel themselves vulnerable to the “determination of harm,” despite their most scrupulous efforts to avoid it. The institution’s freedom to determine harm by such general and undefined categories as the Statement offers, seems unlimited or absolute.

10. The policy declares individual academic freedom to be “presumptive,” institutional intervention “exceptional,” yet it effectively makes the latter absolute in the clause which reserves “ultimate responsibility to determine harm” to the administration and Board of Trustees, without indicating any criteria for determining harm, or any obligation on the administration or Board to demonstrate that harm has been done. There are no visible safeguards in the policy against a single member of the Board “determining harm” and threatening a faculty member’s position.

11. University Policy on Faculty Rank and Status requires University officials to “spell out in detail” the “terms and conditions” of all “offers” of faculty positions and “not to make or imply any oral commitments regarding employment, rank, salary, or work conditions” (2.9). Assuming “work conditions” to include any and all constraints on faculty activity, does not this policy oblige the University to spell out rather fully, in advance and in writing, those areas or kinds of research, creative work, and teaching which it does regard as “adverse” to the interests of the church and the university?

12. The policy and procedures for handling complaints against faculty which are sent to General Authorities are internally incoherent and serve to perpetuate the very practices which they ostensibly discourage. That is, if this sort of “offense” is to be dealt with at the lowest possible level, it does not make sense to involve all the intervening levels, from General Authority to Commissioner to President to Dean to Chair, by sending the complaints down through those channels. With anonymous letters (which history shows to be often vicious), the policy guarantees that the whole weight of the Church and university hierarchy will be brought to bear on the target of the attack, while preserving the anonymity of the accuser.

B. W. Jorgensen
3183 JKHB
English Department
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602-6280
Telephone: (801) 378-3205

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