Natalie Brown: Facing lose-lose prospects, LDS scholars need better support from their church

Their dilemma: Secular schools might discredit them for their faith, and church universities might reject them for their scholarship.

As a Latter-day Saint and a scholar, I applaud Brigham Young University’s efforts to encourage its faculty members to align their work with the tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Faith is a paradigm that shapes my worldview, choices and values but is rarely a focus of serious inquiry within leading universities. BYU can and should fill that void.

I know from experience, however, that the pathway to becoming a professor who approaches Mormon topics from an angle of faith is difficult, especially for Latter-day Saint women. The church is uniquely qualified to nurture the next generation of scholar-disciples and remove some of the obstacles aspiring Latter-day Saint academics face.

For those unfamiliar, it often requires years to earn a doctorate in the humanities or social sciences (the divisions most likely to study questions that intersect with faith). The National Science Foundation’s 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates found that the median time to a degree outside the sciences and engineering was 10 years. Graduate stipends rarely pay the cost of living for an individual or cover the full duration needed for a degree. As a result, grad students often spend crucial earning periods during their 20s unable to amass savings or burrowing further into debt.

Upon graduation, new doctoral recipients in the humanities and social sciences confront a competitive academic job market that offers less and less reward for their degrees. Most faculty members no longer have the ability to gain tenure and the job security it provides, and many adjuncts live below the poverty line. Contingent faculty typically have little access to research funding, meaning that few voices are contributing to academic conversations.

Doctoral grads who do find increasingly nonexistent tenure-track jobs often must complete postdoctoral fellowships at other universities to bolster their resumes. In other words, they must accept low-paying, temporary jobs anywhere in the world for a shot at permanent employment.

Aspiring scholars of all backgrounds face nearly insurmountable challenges, but Latter-day Saints — especially Latter-day Saint women — wishing to pursue topics related to their religion run into additional barriers.

Many of those barriers come from within the church. In a culture where a woman’s education is still often viewed as a backup plan to marriage, few members enthusiastically support a female graduate student consuming the bulk of her childbearing years in this pursuit, particularly if it means asking a male partner to step back and support her career. (In full disclosure, I ultimately decided that it was not worth living apart from my spouse in pursuit of a tenure-track job that could not support a family, although gender norms certainly played a role in our decision to prioritize his opportunities.)

Moreover, Latter-day Saints seeking to study their faith are unlikely to find significant academic support from either the church or their doctoral institutions. The church and its culture have a history of dismissing feminists and intellectuals. This legacy ensures that many grad students, especially women, are looked on internally as suspect. Indeed, I had multiple bishops discourage me from pursuing my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature, although other bishops offered unqualified support.

The role the church and BYU must play

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artwork of Joseph Smith in the John Taylor Building at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg in 2018.

Mentors outside of the church often welcome Latter-day Saints, but few graduate advisers are qualified to supervise a church-related project. Most universities simply do not offer a curriculum that includes its history, people and literature. I cannot recall ever reading a novel by a Latter-day Saint in an educational setting. This circumstance is unlikely to change, given that universities have limited budgets and are more likely to prioritize hiring in areas that impact larger numbers of their students. It is crucial that the church fund Mormon research and that faculty members at church institutions interact with Latter-day Saint grad students elsewhere.

Only the church has the incentive and financial resources to anchor robust scholarly literature about its members, culture and history. While other institutions like the University of Virginia and Claremont Graduate University have expanded their Mormon studies offerings, these efforts will remain small without the support of the church, its members and institutions willing to hire their graduates into research positions.

Currently, Latter-day Saint grad students seeking to engage the gospel are largely on their own. Communities like By Common Consent and Dialogue are crucial networking spaces for aspiring academics who have few other forums in which to engage Latter-day Saint scholarship. Many worry, though, that writing in these venues will disqualify them from employment at one of the only places likely to hire Latter-day Saints with faithful perspectives: Brigham Young University.

Latter-day Saint grad students face a nearly impossible equation: They must financially sacrifice their 20s for a remote chance of obtaining a tenure-track job while seeking employment at both secular universities that might discredit them for their faith and church universities that might reject them for their scholarship.

BYU’s requirement that Latter-day Saint employees hold temple recommends heightens the chilling effect in which struggling scholars wonder whether they will lose their jobs due to “bishop roulette.” This is no idle concern. I was once called into a bishop’s office for expressing an opinion that is now official church policy. In a context of uncertainty about which viewpoints might garner discipline, church-employed faculty might be wise to avoid speaking about the church at all.

There is no shortage of brilliant, faithful Latter-day Saint women and men who desire graduate education and specifically to engage their fields with a faithful perspective. There is a severe shortage, however, of those (especially women) who become tenured faculty due to the external and internal factors pushing them out of academia.

How the church could help

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students walk between classes on Provo's BYU campus in September 2022.

While the church cannot solve the general problems facing universities, it could use its wealth to create a robust scholarly community around Latter-day Saint issues. Measures the church and its members might consider include:

• Expanding fellowships and seminars aimed at Latter-day Saint grad students and independent scholars.

• Inviting rather than discouraging Latter-day Saint scholars from speaking at firesides and other ward activities.

• Hiring more recent grads in lieu of relying on volunteers at organizations like the Church History Department.

• Offering better child care for grad students and employees.

• Demonstrating its commitment to families by hiring more women with nontraditional career paths (and thus likely fewer publications) due to caregiving.

• Endowing nonprofits aimed at promoting Latter-day Saint scholarship.

• Converting adjunct positions to tenured ones.

• Providing more flexible work arrangements to recruit qualified members outside of Utah.

Most importantly, faculty members need assurance that intellectual disagreements with local lay leaders will not result in their termination. As a temple recommend-holding Latter-day Saint, I would like nothing more than to write faithful scholarship about the church and its members. However, I was unexpectedly relieved when I was rejected from a church employment opportunity. I am unsure that I want to work for an employer who makes me wonder if I was disqualified for writing columns like this.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer. She holds a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia University.

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