The University of Utah is in a no-win situation.

It is either a "church school," ostensibly because of its location in the middle of Mormon country, or it is the most incredibly secular of all schools, absolutely opposed to religion, and in every respect an opposite to Brigham Young University.Either argument, if accepted, makes it a dangerous place.

I'll try to explain. Twenty years ago, after I had completed a doctoral degree at the University of Utah, I flew to Macomb, Ill., to be interviewed for a job. The chairman of the history department seemed to like me and said that he was actively pushing my candidacy to the other history professors, even though he preferred me to be a little more orthodox in my choice of sideburns.

What can I say? It was an era of long sideburns among college students. It was probably my only visible attempt at societal rebellion. He thought my sideburns made me look too liberal for any promising young man looking to enter the work force.

I joined the history faculty for an easygoing lunch at the student union. Then I sat at the head of a long boardroom-style table, surrounded by the many members of the history faculty, where the mood changed. After the chairman introduced me, the other professors asked me a steady stream of questions.

Surprisingly, most of the questions had a common theme: How independent in thought could I be expected to be if all three of my college degrees were granted by a "church school." Their fear was not that of the chairman. They expected me to be too conservative.

Since Western Illinois University is nestled in the middle of one of the most prominent sites of early Mormon persecution, I should not have been surprised. But I was. I could not understand how a group of academics could honestly believe that the University of Utah was a "church school."

I carefully explained the U.'s background as a state institution, and one that remains highly recognized in many areas of academic research. I also told them of the much-heralded sports rivalry between the U. and BYU, because that seemed a good piece of evidence as to which was the "church school."

They were not only not impressed, they just didn't believe me. They lumped the U. and BYU together. To them, my college degrees were suspect. The chairman apologized, but even he acknowledged that the faculty feared that I would teach "a Mormon line" to their students.

Needless to say, I was not offered the job, and I left Macomb, Ill., in shock.

No matter. The image of the University of Utah as a lightweight institution with little academic integrity has surfaced in other places.

I lived in the Boston area when U. researchers announced that they had discovered a method of creating cold fusion. Although I was initially excited at what my alma mater had been reported to have accomplished, I watched the Boston press systematically strip the University of Utah of any academic respectability.

Universally, Boston medical researchers expressed no confidence in either the experiments the researchers had completed or the institution that sponsored it. They never mentioned the church image but strongly suggested that the university was too parochial to produce anything of historic value.

Now returned to Utah, I have been reminded of that other bias, locally induced, that I had long since forgotten. Most Utahns would laugh at a "church school" designation. Instead, many fear that the University of Utah is so completely secular that its professors regularly labor without ceasing to "destroy faith."

In this view, the U. becomes more than a sports rival, it is a moral rival to BYU. To some, the sports rivalry becomes more intense because it can be seen as a battle between good and evil. You guess which is which.

Not only is religion not offered at the U., according to this view, but the professors do everything in their power to excise every vague remnant of religion from the campus. The University of Utah, then, is seen as dangerous and destructive to young people. If they go there, they should erect a strong barrier against the precipitous loss of their values. In fact, it would be better not to go there at all.

I have never heard a similar warning against Yale or Harvard.

As a U. graduate, my own bias is predictable. To me, both images are ridiculous. Rather, the U. represents the epitome of a liberal education. Accomplished and talented professors effectively taught me how to find knowledge and then tried to teach me how to think. That's all.

It seemed to prepare me pretty well for the world.

Now if I could just figure out which of the two Salt Lake newspapers is the moral equivalent of evil?