BYU faculty members urged to align their teaching, research better with LDS tenets

Some warn such instruction could pose a threat to instructors’ academic freedom and the LDS Church-owned school’s reputation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University officials are once again encouraging faculty to participate in "gospel scholarship" meant to align with and support the LDS Church's stance on issues such as family and "constitutional government," among others.

Department chairs and deans at Brigham Young University are under pressure to revise their criteria for promotion to better reward faculty whose work supports the teachings of the school’s owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The instruction to do so came in a speech given to department heads in November by Justin Collings, the newly appointed associate academic vice president of faculty development.

In it, the BYU law professor explained that departments’ “rank and status” documents, responsible for setting the guidelines for promotion and tenure (referred to as “continuing faculty status” at the Provo school), should not “merely mimic analogous documents at other schools” but instead “reflect, reinforce and propel our unique and inspired mission.”

For some, the call represents a welcome challenge to explore uniquely Latter-day Saint ways of thinking about and engaging in their diverse areas of study. Others, however, warn the instruction could, depending on its implementation, infringe on faculty members’ academic freedom and endanger BYU’s reputation.

Constitutional government and other areas of interest

Among the topics Collings suggested as potential areas of focus for faculty looking to get ahead were languages, family, religion and constitutional government — a list found in the 2022 version of the school’s strategic objectives.

In pursuing these and other subjects of interest to the 16.8 million-member church, faculty should refrain from “lowering our standards or departing from disciplinary norms in cavalier or eccentric ways,” he cautioned. “However, everything in our rank and status documents should advance some aspect of our prophetic mission.”

In issuing the challenge, Collings drew on two similar speeches given by apostle Dallin H. Oaks, one in 2014 and another in 2017.

(Brigham Young University) President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency has been particularly vocal in encouraging faculty members to apply their research to support the LDS Church's teachings.

On both occasions, Oaks, a former BYU president, called on faculty to offer “public, unassigned support of church policies that others were challenging on secular grounds.” He also chastised departments for not doing enough to reward those seeking to provide such assistance.

BYU faculty members weigh in

George Handley, a humanities professor and environmental advocate who has taught at BYU for 25 years, welcomed the charge, which he viewed as a green light for faculty members to use their training to engage more meaningfully with a wide range of questions from a Latter-day Saint perspective.

“You can look at [the speech] and say this looks like it’s going to reward the most overtly aligned with the family proclamation at the expense of everyone else,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the way you have to understand what is happening.”

Rather, conversations he’s had with Collings and Church Educational System Commissioner Clark Gilbert have left Handley with the impression that they intend faculty to interpret the call broadly.

For his own part, the eco-theologian sees in it an opportunity to further his own work on environmental stewardship within the context of the Latter-day Saint tradition.

“I just don’t think,” he said, “anyone should feel limited.”

Stacey Shaw, who teaches in BYU’s School of Social Work, expressed a similarly optimistic view of Collings’ speech.

(Matthew Norton | BYU) Stacey Shaw is a professor for BYU's School of Social Work, where she specializes in refugee resettlement, mental health, HIV prevention, religion and spirituality.

As someone whose research focuses on refugees, she said it felt to her as an invitation to “be creative” in how she applies the teachings of Jesus Christ to her work.

“We have examples of how he treated the stranger or someone who was physically suffering,” she said, “but how do we apply that to our program or our social welfare policy?”

Lowering the standard for promotion?

(Courtesy of Michael Austin) Michael Austin is a BYU alumnus and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a Methodist school in Indiana. He fears the latest instruction could pose a threat to BYU faculty's academic freedom and the Provo school's reputation.

BYU alumnus Michael Austin is less optimistic. The executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a Methodist school in Indiana, was not present for the speech. Having read a copy of it, however, he’s convinced the timing isn’t accidental.

New and sometimes opaque ecclesiastical standards set for faculty and staff have vastly curtailed the pool of potential hires not only at BYU, he argued, but all the schools in the Church Educational System.

“My friends on hiring committees at BYU and BYU-Idaho say the candidates they submit are rejected, and they don’t know why,” Austin said. “Adjuncts are fired without enough time to find someone to cover for them. There’s no feedback [from the church’s Ecclesiastical Clearance Office].”

As a result, departments settle on second and third choices, which Austin said means an inevitable drop in the quality of candidates successfully passing through the hiring process.

The November call to change the rank and status documents, he suggested, amounts to an effort to lower the standard of promotion to match the incoming quality of new candidates.

Why? “Because there is virtually no chance that, say, a research article in favor of the family proclamation,” Austin said, “is going to pass peer review.”

Risks to academic freedom

Even more problematic may be how speeches like these create suspicion around the research professors produce, particularly on issues Latter-day Saint leaders are most vocal about.

“If faculty aren’t free to come to any conclusion,” he said, “any scholarship that comes out of BYU relating to the church’s position on an issue has to be dismissed as biased.”

It becomes, he said, “a real issue of academic freedom.”

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, pointed out that private universities have the right to enact policies that support their missions.

“However, without confidence in an institution’s guarantee of academic freedoms,” she said, “it raises questions about institutional quality.”

Merrill gave high marks to BYU’s academic freedom policy, which emphasizes the need for faculty to feel empowered to “ask genuine, even difficult questions.” The concern then is whether departments, feeling pressure perhaps from the Collings speech, end up enacting policies that conflict with and curtail those already in place.

When that happens, faculty members are left in limbo, she said, wondering which guidelines ultimately will win out.

BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins addressed this concern, confirming that the school “remains committed to the principles of its long-standing academic freedom policy, as well as to its mission statement, which encourages faculty ‘to make their service and scholarship available to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in furthering its work worldwide.’”

She dismissed the idea that the two might be in conflict with each other, stating that “these commitments complement and reinforce one another.”

If there is anything BYU professors can take comfort in, Merrill offered, it’s that they are far from alone in finding themselves in the middle of an often tense debate about how much latitude schools — especially private ones — have when it comes to shaping policies meant to preserve and uphold their identities.

Battles have broken out on campuses across the country over policies relating to everything from LGBTQ rights to diversity, equity, inclusion and COVID-19.

“The questions I see BYU wrestling with,” she said, “are really typical.”

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