Scott Abbott: Coercive control by the LDS Church undercuts BYU’s religious mission

Academic freedom at BYU has been under attack for many years.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pictures of the Brigham Young University (BYU).

On a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast, Patrick Mason spoke about increasingly restrictive policies at Brigham Young University. Does this mean, he was asked, that BYU is heading in a new direction? Mason answered that “this pendulum has swung back and forth over the decades.”

I’d like to suggest that rather than a pendulum swing, current events are the culmination of decisions made more than two decades ago.

During the decade spanning the late 1980s and 1990s, members of the BYU faculty organized a chapter of the American Association of University Professors. We did so in response to actions taken by the administration, directed by members of the Board of Trustees, to keep the faculty, like the campus itself, “clipped and controlled.”

When faculty members were warned not to take part in symposia that sponsored discussion of church doctrines and practices, we argued against restrictions on the academic freedom that is a sine qua non of any university. We documented the lies asserted as grounds for firing several untenured faculty members and 33 of us signed a letter of protest published in The Salt Lake Tribune (July 5, 1993). We opposed successive changes in our contracts that led to required annual ecclesiastical endorsement from our bishops. We argued against a new academic freedom policy heavy on “reasonable limitations.”

We turned finally to our national organization, which eventually censured the BYU administration in a scathing report that concluded as follows: “Much more than an isolated violation of academic freedom, the investigating committee’s inquiries into complaints at BYU have revealed a widespread pattern of infringements on academic freedom in a climate of oppression and fear of reprisals.”

Since then, BYU has doubled down on efforts to control faculty and students.

Our efforts were inspired by principles of the religion we shared and by standards without which an education institution is not a university — academic freedom, due process and shared governance. Current BYU faculty are similarly inspired. Unfortunately, the Mormon University that cannot exist without their considerable efforts is being systematically disrupted.

Consider the recently established requirement that all new faculty possess a valid temple recommend (and current faculty are under considerable pressure to “opt in” as well). Subsequently, it was announced that every “employee” of the Church Educational System would be asked annually whether they “have a testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of its doctrine, including its teachings on marriage, family, and gender” and whether they “support current church policies and practices and sustain the leaders of the Church.” New “hires” are now required to waive their right to clergy confidentiality.

And finally, the Church’s Ecclesiastical Clearance Office has the power to fire CES “employees” and has done so this fall with any number of adjunct faculty who are given neither reasons nor recourse. Tenured faculty will surely follow.

It is galling to think of these requirements in the context of academic freedom. Were the adjunct faculty fired this fall for expressed sympathy for LGBTQ members of their families or for bemoaning the church’s decision to protect itself legally rather than protecting its abused members? Knowing that the Ecclesiastical Clearance Office can simply fire them at will, it is impossible for today’s faculty to express disagreement with questionable “policies and practices.” Actions this fall clearly indicate that there will be no due process.

How about shared governance? The new policies have been established unilaterally by Clark Gilbert, commissioner of the Church Education System. In his short announcement of the new questions by which faculty will be judged, Gilbert repeatedly referred to them as “employees” rather than as faculty involved in shared governance.

A graduate of the Harvard Business School, mentored by the dean of disruption Clayton Christensen, Gilbert has imposed a misguided business model on church universities, dispensing with academic freedom, due process and shared governance in the service of coercive control that undercuts BYU’s religious mission.

Scott Abbott

Scott Abbott is professor of philosophy and humanities at Utah Valley University. His latest book is Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger: Personal Encounters with Mormon Institutions (By Common Consent Press, 2022).