|The Salt Lake Tribune, Martin Naparsteck
In November 1985, student janitors at Brigham Young University discovered scores of cockroaches in a student cafeteria, and they wrote a letter to the student newspaper, The Daily Universe: "it is our responsibility to . . . inform other students of these conditions." Their boss called the letter "an act of insubordination" and put them on probation, and BYU spokesman Brent Harker said "Everybody has a right to free speech, but . . . [the students] were not forced to go to the Universe . . . they had full freedom to go to their supervisors directly."
The university eventually backed down, removing reprimands from the students' records, and even Harker admitted the handling for the cockroach controversy was an administrative failure. Yet the incident, admittedly a minor event in the history of BYU, is illustrative of just why the university, the largest in Utah and the largest church-owned one in the nation, has had difficulty building a reputation as an institution where free thought and free speech can flourish.
Authors Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel are graduates of BYU, where Kagel edited the Universe and Waterman edited the competing off-campus Student Review. Most of their thick (474 pages) book focuses on restrictions the administration has placed on faculty in the late 1980s and the 1990s, but they devote the first third of the book to attacks on academic freedom at BYU throughout its history beginning in the 19th century, when it was still Brigham Young Academy, to a history of its student dress code, restrictions on student publications and myriad other issues.
Since most of the book focuses on the last decade and on issues that have already received considerable publicity, much here sounds familiar.
The case of Brian Evenson, a young writer of fiction who joined BYU's English department in January 1994, illustrates the larger pattern. Evenson's collection of short stories, Altmann's Tongue, was published in August 1994 by Knopf, a distinguished New York publisher. It was just the kind of achievement most institutions would value in a new faculty member, and in fact the pending publication of the book was a favorable factor in the decision to hire Evenson.
But a student who heard Evenson read in another professor's classroom wrote a letter of complaint to the administration, and that led to a series of meetings between Evenson and various administrators that stretched over months.
The problem, according to the letter and to various administrators was that Altmann's Tongue contained a great deal of graphic violence. (In fact, the book by contemporary standards, contains little violence that is graphic, although it is certainly about violence). Bruce Hafen, BYU provost, at one point told Evenson junior faculty (that is, untenured faculty) are not protected by the institution's statement on academic freedom. Hafen even complained the book's dust jacket (something over which Evenson had no control) contained references that made the university and the church look bad. (Oddly, Waterman and Kagel fail to quote the dust jacket's seemingly offending phrasing; it expresses surprise that a Mormon would have written such a book).
The key to the Evenson controversy, and to all the issues concerning academic freedom at the institution, can be summed up in a single sentence in which Waterman and Kagel summarize a point made by Hafen: "Hafen continued by asserting that BYU has a 'special mission,' and faculty members are obligated to fit themselves into that mission or leave." A few sentences later, they summarize other points Hafen made: "The press, he said, is more than willing to embarrass the university," and "Going public may cause a professor's loyalty to be called into question."
In other words, fit in and shut up.
Although Waterman and Kagel trod familiar ground, adding little that the careful observer already knows, they do provide a thorough and thoughtful reference source that is readable and forceful. No doubt BYU administrators will see The Lord's University as one more example of the willingness of somebody somewhere to embarrass the university. It would be more helpful to the institution's reputation, to the students on campus and to the larger LDS community to accept The Lord's University as an opportunity to conduct the type of self-examination that could lead to confession-based improvement.
Like the cockroach incident, protecting academic freedom at BYU, Waterman and Kagel demonstrate, has been an administrative failure.
Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Dale E. Soden
During the past five years, several incidents at Brigham Young University have attracted national attention. In 1995, Schindler's List was banned from a campus theater; in 1997, university officials removed a handful of pieces from the traveling Rodin exhibition that had been scheduled to open at the university's art museum. And in 1998, BYU was sanctioned by a national association of university professors for what it considered violations of ideals of academic freedom. These incidents and others are at the core of Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel's analysis of the intellectual environment and the academic culture of Brigham Young University in the nineties. The book is a remarkable accomplishment for such young scholars, and it should be read by a number of audiences.
Waterman and Kagel, former editors of competing student publications at BYU, are currently graduate students at Boston University and North Texas State. Their journalistic training is evident throughout this lengthy book; in fact, both men were directly involved in some of the incidents they describe and analyze here. Most readers will wonder about their objectivity, but it is likely that many of them will be impressed with the research and documentation.
The book begins with a section entitled "Contexts" and provides a brief overview of the role of education in Mormon life. Officially founded as a university in 1903, BYU has played a key role in shaping Mormon intellectuals. In many ways, this is the weakest section of the book. The authors spend little time attempting to address the evolution of the school through what is now regarded by most scholars as a critical period in the history of modern higher education, the period from the mid-1920s through the 1960s. Of greater interest to Waterman and Kagel than those years are the dynamics associated with the role of gender in Mormon culture and the tensions that it has created particularly for women faculty and students at BYU in the period after the 1970s. Not unexpectedly, they find the history of student publications revealing of the challenges associated with the free exchange of ideas there. The enforcement of dress and honor codes is also scrutinized with an eye toward disclosing the restricted environment. The bulk of the book analyzes several controversial cases involving faculty, with a particular emphasis on the dismissals of Cecilia Konchar Farr and David Knowlton. Amassing an impressive number of primary sources as well as oral interviews with many of the principal players, the authors try to use those incidents to show the ways in which the university infringed on academic freedom. Administrators clearly disagree.
The last chapter attempts to place BYU in the context of the larger debate over church-related colleges, culture wars, and neoconservatism. Waterman and Kagel demonstrate an excellent awareness of the larger dynamics of religious higher education. They are clearly skeptical of some of those efforts to recover a religious identity among the nation's universities, and The Lord's University privides an important story that should not be seen in isolation.
The study of Mormon intellectual life has not been particularly well integrated into the larger contours of American religious or intellectual life. Waterman and Kagel will make overlooking Mormonism difficult in the future. As it continues to grow in numbers, Mormonism will ineveitably exercise increasing cultural and religious influence during at least the early part of the 21st century. BYU's role in that cultural influence is fascinating; it has become a significant force within not only religious higher education but higher education in general. Much more needs to be analyzed in order to comprehend fully the role of this institution that serves just under 30,000 students. But Kagel and Waterman have done well to place BYU into the larger narrative of higher education in the late 20th century.
Utah Historical Quarterly, Linda Sillitoe
Some say two flags flew over the first Mormon settlement in UtahOld Glory and the flag of Deseretexpressing deep impulses already owned and separated in the Constitution. In private institutions such as Brigham Young University, that distinction is waived in favor of the expression of religion, which, we read in The Lord's University, quite naturally limits the freedoms of speech and press.
This interpretive history offers a painstaking account of clashes between religious orthodoxy and individual rights, especially in the last decade. An important historical context illuminates the sponsoring of education since pioneer times by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the church's concurrent suppression of women. The taut prose and exhaustive chapter notes honor academic and journalistic standards of objectivity as tension hums below the detailing of many a cultural "horror story."
Cleanly written and edited overall, the book contains one small error that matters here: BYU is not "straight-laced" but "strait-laced." The meaning of "strait" is narrow, tight, confined, as in "strait is the gate and narrow the way" or "straitjacket," in contrast to connotations of "straight-shooting," "straight-talking," or even "straight-arrow." Perhaps the slip is Freudian, since orthodoxy and integrity each lend a tong to the metaphorical vise squeezing and squeezed by the individuals depicted herein.
The "two flags" mentality runs deep in the church's long nurture of a claim to superiority melded to a need for outside validation. Before statehood, less-educated Mormons claimed that, due to divinely revealed truth, their system was superior to those of more educated Protestants and Catholics. BYU still claims superiority even as it courts secular brilliance. Waterman and Kagel detail BYU regents and administrators touting the "culture war" pundits who defend the male, European tradition even as the Association of American University Professors sanctions BYU for violating academic freedom with recent firings.
Where instructors are evaluated on their "gospel insights" and "spiritual inspiration" as well as on their topical expertise and teaching skills, orthodoxy becomes a test. Conversely, battles for individual expression erupt in the student newspaper and in campus demonstrations as well as in the classroom. Apparently, many life issueseven whole personalities?are carved at BYU not by curricula or dogma but against the stone of collective opinion.
Although The Lord's University generally depicts the struggles of liberals against a conservative mainstream, some liberals, too, favor two flags but wish to interpret their colors. (Recently, a departing professor publicly hoped that, at the nearby Utah Valley State University, he can still express religious insights in classpresumably due to the school's homogeneity.)
Readers never immersed in BYU thinking may gawp at the attention to minutiae regulating dress and hygiene as well as behavior. A beard permit, a form to "rat out" fellow students, and ways of monitoring professors through spy rings and bishop interviews are all here. Jots and tittles reign in BYU's fervent policy debates.
Yet something more instinctive seems afoota sense alerting the herd to any maverick expression that might endanger consensus. Perhaps passions garbed in reason impel a veteran professor to baptize or excommunicate works of fiction and poetry, author by author. Or to ignore curricula changes at peril of "killing off" an entire class of English majors. Or to force out colleagues, citing the very perspective or expertise that recommended their hiring.
Similarly, the institutional suppression of women in hiring, promotion, and all types of expression is as Victorian as the era when BYU began, except for changes made to avoid lawsuits and for long-debated subtleties in official statements. The authors draw no modern parallels to this vigorous enforcement of "role" (during the rise of the Third Reich, for instance, or within Amish, Islamic, or Hasidic cultures), but they describe how the organization of a women's resource center and protests of rape or incest draw institutional fire.
The authors, in short, plot a direct and meticulous course through time and event, even as they provoke deeper thought about humans' primal drives and devotions.
Journal of the West, Thomas G. Alexander
The Lord's University interprets recent events at Brigham Young University from a perspective critical of the administration. I found the book extrememly painful to read because I admire people on both sides of the controversy, and two of them are friends who taught in my department. The book includes chapters on Latter-day Saint education, women and feminism, student newspapers, the honor code, firings and resignations, and investigations by the AAUP and BYU's Faculty Advisory Council.
The authors believe that the events took place in two contexts: (1) the tension between authoritarian religion and academic freedom, and (2) the rise of neoconservatism.
I would argue that even more critical to understanding the response of the majority of the faculty to these events are two values central to Mormon culture, both of which were born and nurtured in a battle for survival with Protestant sectarianism, two state governments, and the national government.
These values are the need for internal harmony and the belief in the benign motives of church authorities.