Gordon Monson: What in heaven or hell is going on at BYU? Can’t it just trust its profs?

Columnist fears the LDS Church-owned school could become less like Notre Dame and more like Bob Jones University.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Statue of Brigham Young, shown in 2018, on the BYU campus in Provo. Salt Lake Tribune columnist is urging school administrators to show more faith in their faculty.

In forcing people essentially to choose the right, something at BYU has gone wrong.

A freeze is settling in among a portion of an already-chilled faculty and staff at the Provo school, some of whom are not just nervous to use their big academic brains to full capacity in research, in the classroom, and to be themselves outside of it, but especially to speak out and voice their concerns over the heavy-handedness coming down from educational leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

One person’s preserving of the faith is another’s strangling of it.

Conformity is the thing at Brigham Young University, always has been. Conformity, but now more than ever control. It’s all cloaked in the phraseology of being true to the faith. But even many of the faithful academics prefer to be true to the truth. It’s what professional educators are trained to do. Is seeking truth a threat to the faith?

The school’s version of faithfulness blows three freeway exits past that of its already high-demand church. An example: Unlike “regular” Latter-day Saints, BYU employees of any stripe are being shown a spiritual hammer, not a trusting handshake. New hires must sign an agreement allowing the school to pry into “confidential” information shared with an ecclesiastical leader like a lay bishop.

In the “regular” church, such information is supposed to remain private, as a means of helping believers work out whatever is troubling them, from the spiritual to the temporal. It’s to provide space for confession and counsel.

At BYU, it can cancel employment.

As reported by The Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack, work candidates at BYU must sign the aforementioned agreement authorizing something called the Ecclesiastical Clearance Office at church headquarters to discuss and determine their worthiness to work at the university. Candidates must agree that their bishops can disclose “matters that priesthood leaders would otherwise keep confidential … to the extent the confidential matters relate to the standards of employment.”

All faculty are now expected to “authentically incorporate gospel truths into all student interactions and to teach their subject bathed in the light and color of the restored gospel.”

More on that in a minute.

It’s been set policy at BYU that school officials mail annual inquiries to professors’ bishops, asking about said professors’ fit and form for employment at the school. It’s left to those bishops to protect members of their flock by shielding them from inquiry, by handling those matters privately, or, conversely, by outing them. This crapshoot is commonly known at BYU and elsewhere as “bishop roulette.” Now, it has gotten worse, what with the required signed agreement.

In some cases, employees are being forced either to leave or lie — to keep their faith troubles to themselves or to wholly abandon the good parts of teaching at BYU.

Think about what that must be like, professionals living under a constant threat that if they even temporarily stumble in matters of faith or behavior or both, they could be shunned or fired. Not for committing a crime or breaking a law, rather for seeking advice and help from an ecclesiastical leader who can report them for any moral indiscretion or faith crisis.

There’s a discrepancy here between what the religion teaches the rank and file and what BYU insists on from its own.

A call for academic freedom

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

Latter-day Saints are, uh, human. They fall short. And since the faith sees itself as a Christian pursuit, the atonement of Jesus Christ is the main pillar that holds up the church’s primary belief system. And that atonement provides a way for imperfect people to better themselves, to ride the wagon, to fall off the wagon, to climb aboard the wagon again, and keep on rolling in the direction of eternal progression.

It provides help to those believers by way of bishops and other leaders to whom members can go to help clear their consciences and boost them when they slump a bit, or a lot.

To believers, to people trying to believe, that’s the whole reason and goal for the church, to help folks improve their lives, to better follow Christ, to lift people, to love them, to be a force for good in this earthly existence straight into the Great Beyond.

That’s the supposed reason and goal for the church overall, but apparently not for the school the church owns. There, forgiveness comes harder. Penalties are more problematic, disrupting not just spiritual progress but terrestrial employment.

Defenders of BYU’s zealous positions, like Clark Gilbert, the church’s commissioner of education, as quoted recently in the Church News, say it is the school’s role to be “different” than other universities. To groom disciples of Christ. “No matter what we do … that’s why the church invests in [BYU].”

He added that “there are tremendous pressures on BYU” to change, in so many words, to become like other schools.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) General authority Seventy Clark Gilbert, speaking at General Conference in October 2021. He says BYU'’s role to be “different” than other universities, to groom disciples of Christ. “No matter what we do … that’s why the church invests in [BYU].”

My point isn’t for BYU to alter its course as a religious institution. No. It’s for BYU to become as Christlike as possible, to not devour its own, to allow for personal growth and academic freedom, to seek truth in all its forms, and to not intrude on confidential visits between employees and their ecclesiastical leaders.

As for “bathed in the light and color of the restored gospel,” what does that even mean? The truth scrubbed clean? The truth boiled and poured into a faith-fitting mold? Is it the squeaky delivery of the message? And who’s to interpret what it means?

Answers span from the serious to the ridiculous.

For instance, the “bathed” methodology of a football coach might be different than that of a biology professor. If a BYU coach sees one of his athletes dogging it in practice and tells that player to get his “[insert curse word] in gear,” is that bathing his coaching in the light and color of the restored gospel?

A religion professor can give a lecture that 90 students find inspirational and five students allege messed up their faith. Who makes the call?

Someone does, and with the eye in the sky at BYU now peering everywhere, to the point of the light and color of the restored gospel leaning more to the light and color of authoritarianism, that’s what freaks out faculty.

Addresses over the past year given by church leaders such as apostle Jeffrey Holland have indicated that there’s a new emphasis on what faculty and staff do, say, teach and all their behaviors beyond the boundaries of the campus.

What BYU professors are saying

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, speaking at Brigham Young University on Aug. 23, 2021, urged faculty to "stay in harmony with the Lord’s anointed, those whom he has designated to declare church doctrine."

I had a recent conversation with a veteran BYU professor, a man of integrity and honesty who loves the school and has no dull blade to grind, just a sound sense of what’s honorable and dishonorable, what’s helpful and harmful.

“At BYU now, there’s a level of mistrust,” said the longtime educator, who unsurprisingly asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “There are faculty who are angry, frustrated and discouraged at what they’re witnessing.

“Maybe some leaders don’t care if disgruntled folks leave. But many of the supposedly disgruntled folks are good ol’ Mormon boys and girls who just want to be trusted instead of suspected, not made to feel sometimes as though they are leading students down to hell.”

Other faculty members — who also desired that their names not appear for the same reason — shared their wish for church educational leaders to sit in their offices as they try to help students who are in a faith crisis, barely hanging onto the church and, in some cases, life, and how they are trying to do everything they can to give them hope.

“Some professors I know have retired early,” said a faculty member. “Some are considering leaving academia rather than continuing on.”

Another concerned professor said that the school’s emphasis on employees’ actions and attitudes has taken some of the joy out of worship. “Going to church,” the staffer said, “can feel like punching a time clock.”

These are not rabble-rousers attempting to turn BYU upside down. They are people who care about the church, the school and especially the students.

BYU is a private university, I get it. It wants to project and protect its principles. It wants obedience. It can do what it wants, and it will. But the school’s stances are inquisitions that don’t need to happen. The Latter-day Saint Way On Steroids doesn’t need to be a thing.

As BYU tightens the screws, it makes you wonder what the school will look like in 10 or 20 years. Does it want to be more like Notre Dame or like Bob Jones University?

Faculty and staff – and students, too – deserve to be treated with honor, encouragement and support. Instead they’re being subjected to minacity, saber-rattling, metaphorical muskets and invasions of their private lives.

What kind of religious school does that? Not a truly Christian one.