LDS apostle Jeffrey Holland’s talk puts BYU at risk of losing ‘national prestige,’ university administrator warns

Michael Austin, a Cougar alum and vice president at a Methodist school, says the Provo campus needs to change its LGBTQ policies or just settle into doing “damage control.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune). Brigham Young statue at BYU. A Cougar alum, who is an administrator at Methodist university, says Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland's speech could impact the academic research conducted at the the Provo school.

Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland addressed Brigham Young University faculty and staff this week, urging them to be committed to the school’s “unique mission” and its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He made headlines for criticizing faculty members who challenge church teachings, including its stance on same-sex marriage, and urged them to wield more “musket fire” in defending the faith. The popular apostle even questioned why a BYU valedictorian would choose his 2019 commencement address to come out as gay.

If maintaining the church’s policies on LGBTQ issues ends up costing the school some “professional associations and certifications,” Holland said, “then so be it.”

Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, has had firsthand experiences as an administrator at colleges that strive to balance the spiritual and secular. In these excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, he shares his concerns about Holland’s speech and how it could impact the Provo school’s academic research, professional ties and more.

What were some of the positive parts of the speech?

He sincerely expressed love for the LGBTQ community and support for the hardships that people go through. He really focused a lot on the strengths of BYU, and on BYU’s unique mission. BYU does have a unique mission.

What’s wrong with expecting faculty at a church school to be defenders of the faith that sponsors it?

I have worked at a Catholic institution, and I am now working at a Methodist institution. I’ve spent most of my life at religiously affiliated schools and most of them have been fairly conservative. None of them would make that statement [about defending the faith]. ...When [faculty members] hear an administrator say that they need to be a defender of the faith, what they’re going to hear is that they are expected to use the tools of their academic discipline, their scholarly research know-how and abilities to come up with data or information that supports the claims that the religious organization makes. Imagine a young sociology or social work professor at BYU who hears the speech and decides they’re going to rise to the occasion. They’re going to do a comprehensive survey of how children are raised by parents in same-sex relationships differ from those raised in heterosexual relationships. ...What they find at the end of it is that by every measure of human flourishing imaginable, children of same-sex parents are better adjusted, do better in school, are more emotionally healthy than children that come from heterosexual families. What are they going to do with this information? If they publish it, they’re going to be immediately labeled as enemies of the church. If they don’t publish it, they’re going to have wasted an enormous amount of time and probably won’t get tenure because they won’t have the publication that they spent their whole early career working on. So they’re faced with this really, really, dangerous conflict between their institutional obligation and their professional obligation. … Academics aren’t supposed to research to a specific conclusion. They’re supposed to kind of design the project and then go where the truth leads them. The idea of turning faculty members into defenders of specific, highly contested fact claims produces a lot of angst.

What did you think about him singling out Matt Easton, the valedictorian in 2019, who came out as gay in his speech?

That was a little bit concerning to me, first of all, because, you know, you’ve got a 19-, 20-, 22-year-old kid here who’s just had an apostle criticize him in something that has become national news. That is a really horrible feeling. ... Elder Holland was using that to say that this is an example of divisiveness, the divisiveness that comes when someone “commandeers” a commencement ceremony to talk about their own sexuality. How often in BYU history do you think that a valedictorian has declared their sexuality by thanking their wife or saying that their husband was very, very helpful and they really appreciated all the support that their husband gave them? Those are declarations of heterosexuality. And I don’t think anyone has ever been called out or criticized for saying something that indicated that they were heterosexual or married to somebody of the other sex. There’s a huge distinction between divisiveness and uncomfortableness. I don’t think there’s any way you can read somebody simply acknowledging in a university-approved speech that they are gay as divisive. But it makes some people uncomfortable. We all too often place the burden of making everybody comfortable on the most vulnerable people in our community.

Could BYU lose so many ties to different associations that it really ceases to be a university?

That’s unlikely. Actually, the most important accreditation is the regional accreditation, which gives you the ability to accept government funds. And regional creditors do allow schools to have their own mission and to be themselves. … So you can lose [some associations and national certifications] and the university will still continue. It will just lack national prestige. It’s really in the social science, clinical areas, social work, psychology, counseling, perhaps nursing, perhaps even education. Those are areas where if you don’t have national certification, your people cannot practice law. ... BYU can certainly be a university without a law school or a social work program or a nursing program or an education program. There are plenty of universities that are like that. But it will be a very different university if those things happen. And I’m not saying that they will. I’m saying that that is within the range of what I see as possible. There are universities that have these same standards: Liberty University, Oral Roberts University, Bob Jones University, all of these universities. And they’re fully accredited universities, and they have regional accreditation and they have all taken the position that they’re simply not going to seek independent accreditation if it’s going to require that they change those policies. I think that most Latter-day Saints, most BYU faculty would rather be in the sort of the cohort that includes Notre Dame and Baylor and Georgetown as religious universities, than Oral Roberts University, Liberty, and Bob Jones University. But that’s going to become our natural cohort if these things progress too far. And that’s a problem because they hate Mormons, and they won’t want to associate with us.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Jeffrey Holland, left, his wife, Patricia, BYU President Kevin Worthen, and his wife, Peggy, before Holland's address on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.

Why do you think Holland gave the speech on the same day that BYU President Kevin Worthen announced an Office of Belonging?

I’m absolutely sure that the announcement was an intentional pairing. ...What it says, I think, is that BYU is willing to go so far and no further in its attempt to meet what really have become the professional standards of the academic world. The question of LGBTQ equality is not an open question for most of the academic world. It’s been decided, and BYU is out of compliance with that. Before Obergefell [the Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal], you had the possibility of sort of a fig leaf of equal treatment by saying you hold everybody to the same standard. You can’t have sex outside of marriage. Gay people and straight people are held to that exact same standard.... Post-Obergefell that becomes much, much more difficult because you can’t say that you don’t allow married monogamous gay couples... to attend the university on the same terms as anybody else. Partially this as a consequence of the LDS Church never really grappling with the morality of sexuality, they’ve simply subcontracted that out to the state, which is that if you’re married, you’re good. And when same-sex marriage was approved, that didn’t work with those standards. All of a sudden, there’s no real theology in place, no real explanation other than now it’s not marriage. Now it’s something else. Legally, there’s no argument there. Legally, BYU discriminates against people in same-gender relationships. …[Holland was saying in essence ] “We’re willing to do this much. But here’s the line in the sand and we will not cross.” I think part of this talk was preparing faculty for that very real possibility.

Can BYU or any religiously based university balance faith and intellectual pursuits without abandoning either?

There are hundreds of universities that do this. All of them do it differently. Notre Dame does it differently than Georgetown. Catholic University of America does it differently. Baylor does it differently. All of these universities have the same challenges. Very, very few of them have responded by effectively discriminating against certain kinds of students. And part of that, I mean, a big part of that, I’ll have to admit, is that most schools don’t have the luxury of turning away paying students. We need all of our students. Discrimination would really work against us. BYU has the luxury of an infinitely deep applicant pool that they can choose from. So that at least allows them to be discriminatory in a way that doesn’t affect the bottom line. ... But I think that it depends on which aspect of the religion you’re going to emphasize. As I said before, not Mormon orthodoxy but Mormon orthopraxy is incredibly worried about sex and incredibly worried that somebody somewhere might be having sex and enjoying it. … The United Methodist Church, which does have a lot of discussion about sexual morality, but it really takes inclusivity as its primary gospel mission. To reach out and include as many people as possible to show those people God’s love, not to police their bedrooms, but to educate them. Because, one of the things we said at Newman University, where I worked before, is we don’t educate students because they’re Catholic. We educate students because we’re Catholic, because providing that education is its part of our discipleship. … BYU does not take that position. BYU takes the position that the university is the church. And there’s no line between them. Even then, though, many churches have the same views of sexual ethics that Latter-day Saints have, but they don’t kick people out of the church or force them out of the pews if they aren’t complying with those sexual ethics. They let them come in and experience God’s love and God’s grace.

Given the speech and the fallout from all sides, what would you recommend BYU do now?

If I were making decisions and if I made a recommendation and BYU followed it, I would say that the university should change its policies and allow students in same-sex committed monogamous relationships to attend the university on the same terms as anybody else. I do not think that that is going to happen. And until that happens, all they can do is damage control.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a transcript and receive other exclusive “Mormon Land” access and gifts, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.