Letter to Jim Gorden from BYU AAUP 9 April 1997

Letter to Jim Gorden from BYU AAUP 9 April 1997

James D. Gordon III
Associate Academic Vice President
D-387 ASB

8 April 1997

Dear Jim:

Thank you for your letter of 25 March responding to our letters of 13 March and 27 February.

You correctly point out that in our first letter we requested something that seems to go against AAUP guidelines — “We ask you to carefully consider the appropriateness of the request from the Rank and Status committee and direct them in the proper way to proceed.” We added that sentence to a draft of our letter in a conscious attempt to ease the tension, to allow the administration to step back gracefully from a counterproductive and ill-advised policy. We should not have done so, and we apologize. In the process, however, you have clearly stated the administration’s commitment to faculty governance, and that is a positive step.

It seems important, nevertheless, to consider the context in which we asked the administration to request that a committee adhere to university regulations.

  • There is essentially no faculty governance at BYU. The single elected faculty group, the “Faculty Advisory Council,” has only advisory power.
  • Contrary to AAUP guidelines accepted and practiced by nearly every university in the United States, the University Faculty Council on Rank and Status, arguably the most important committee at this university, is not elected by faculty, but appointed by the administration.
  • This Council is not chaired by a faculty member, but by an administrator.
  • The Council on Rank and Status has overturned departmental and college-committee recommendations in every recent controversial case relating to academic freedom.
  • The letter requesting that the five English Department candidates for third-year review provide additional materials, including presentations made at symposia and fora relating to Mormonism, was written by you, as chair of that Council, and sent under your name.
  • On the basis of our experience with administrative procedures at least since 1993 (the Konchar-Farr and Knowlton cases) and on the basis of reports from members of the Faculty Council on Rank and Status, it is our perception that the committee did not vote to request that information, but that it was an administrative decision. (Endnote #1)
  • Third-year and tenure review has become a zero-sum game wherein even productive junior faculty members are in serious jeopardy of losing their jobs. Relations between the administration and faculty have suffered greatly; and the Faculty Council for Rank and Status, as it has gone against departmental and college recommendations on the basis of its interpretations of candidates’ “worthiness,” bears some of the responsibility for that decline.

A few additional notes:

  • You argue that we misrepresented the contents of your letter to the five candidates in the English Department. While we did not reproduce the exact wording, we correctly captured its meaning. Would you have preferred that we reproduce the extensive and telling list of suspect publications and symposia and fora you mentioned: Sunstone, Dialogue, B.H. Roberts Society, Mormon Women’s Forum, etc.?
  • You write that “The request for additional information is intended only to help in evaluating the candidates’ teaching, scholarship, and citizenship consistent with the standards set forth in University policy”; but in the context the administration has established with intrusive questions to and investigation of prospective faculty members (Endnote #2), and by refusing advancement to faculty members on the basis of arbitrary, unannounced, and unforeseeable standards, the request is bound to be seen as simply as an attempt to find reasons to deny advancement. In a more robust environment, your note that “vigorous debate and open processes are best served by . . . [providing] additional relevant information” would make sense. But in place of vigorous debate and open processes, we are witnessing concerted (and demoralizing) actions by our administrators to determine, unilaterally, which colleagues will join us and who will be required to leave.
  • While it is true that the rank and status document allows that “honors, masters, or Ph.D. theses supervised” may be (!) included in advancement files as evidence of good teaching (and we concur that theses can in fact reflect a faculty member’s skill as a mentor), it seems clear that the current request of these five candidates is not aimed at evaluating teaching, but rather at finding methodological approaches (feminist? postmodern?) opposed by administrators, or statements by the students opposed to someone’s definition of Church doctrine — evidence that can be used to punish the advisor. Again, in an environment committed to academic excellence, our objection would not arise.
  • In response to our argument about the potential for misrepresentation through the raw data of student comments on evaluations as opposed to summaries provided by departmental committees and chairs, you wrote that “the recommendations at every level will be more informed, not less, by the additional information.” Republican Senators recently demanded that they be allowed to see the raw FBI files on a cabinet nominee before approving him. Because those files include every unsubstantiated allegation and rumor and therefore contain false and/or irrelevant information, it was argued that more information was not better information. That is our argument: the best, most complete, most accurate picture of a candidate is found in the departmental summary of a candidate. After all, those with the best information and with the greatest ability to bring context to a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses are those colleagues closest to the candidate.

Finally, although we appreciate the time you spend to respond to us, we are concerned that our exchange of letters is not particularly productive. This correspondence has turned out to be a largely private and adversarial process: you defending the administration’s actions and we questioning them. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any real give and take. This is a “debate” over issues that have already been decided without consultation or apparent deliberation by the BYU administration, and you are merely providing “information.” As we have stated repeatedly, we are concerned that the university community at large is not involved in an ongoing and meaningful discussion of faculty governance and academic freedom at BYU. We continue to be concerned that those affected by policies have little say in establishing and implementing them. These concerns led us to ask the AAUP to send its investigative team to BYU, and we hope that their eventual report will facilitate more faculty involvement in decisions here; but aren’t there ways we can work better together as faculty and administration to decide questions crucial to us all?

What would you think, for example, of a public discussion of these issues, moderated by an independent, respected senior faculty member?


Members of the BYU Chapter of the AAUP

cc President Merrill J. Bateman, AVP Alan Wilkins

Endnote #1: Last Monday (March 31), in the English Department faculty meeting with Alan Wilkins and Merrill Bateman, members of the department raised the question of the fairness of the additional requests of our third-year review candidates. During the discussion, Stephen Tanner, currently a member of the University Council on Rank and Status, explained his perceptions of the request. He said that from the discussion in which this list was generated, he thought the list to be merely advisory and helpful to the English Department Rank and Status Committee. He said that Jim Gordon asked the Council, “What sorts of things should the English Department be looking at so that they examine all the relevant information about their candidates?” Suggestions were made by individual members of the Council, several of whom have only begun their assignment on that body. Stephen said that the material requested should not have been considered as an official request of the Council because the Council did not vote upon and approve the individual items suggested; they didn’t feel they needed to because they were only making a recommendation, not issuing a mandate. For Jim Gordon then to interpret that list as a mandate and in his letter to require the candidates to submit the materials seems to us a misuse of his authority and a deception of both the University Council and the English Department. Or, if he did not do this intentionally, it is a very serious mistake that he ought to be willing to admit and rectify. Almost the entire faculty of the English Department was present in this meeting, and we all heard Steve Tanner explain what he thought. President Bateman seemed to agree with Steve Tanner and recognize the error because he instructed Doug Thayer to get back to Jim Gordon about the matter. President Bateman said, “It is likely this will not happen again.” (As reported by three professors of English present at the discussion.)

Endnote #2: Reports from interviews with you indicate that you are disqualifying candidates based on their answers to questions that feel like they are coming from the House Committee on Un-Mormon Activities, e.g. What would you tell a student who said she prayed to a Mother in Heaven? What would you do if a General Authority asked you not to publish research you had done? What do you think of academic freedom at BYU?

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