Scholars from around the country, including BYU German professor Scott Abbott, will meet in a downtown Chicago hotel beginning Friday night to discuss academic freedom at religious institutions.
"The context of this symposium is very important because the administration of (BYU) has been saying the AAUP (American Association of university Professors) is against religious institutions," said BYU botany professor Samuel R. Rushforth. "As far as I'm concerned . . . it's simply not true that the AAUP has an agenda that is antithetical to religious universities."Abbott will discuss the role played by the BYU chapter of AAUP during an investigation of the university by the national professors' group earlier this year. The BYU chapter requested the investigation in the wake of the termination of English professor Gail T. Houston last year.
Jim Gordon, BYU associate academic vice president, was invited to participate as a panelist at the conference. But he declined, citing the allotted presentation time of five minutes as insufficient and the lengthy question-and-answer session as potentially contentious.
Gordon said many scholars are "uncomfortable with religious colleges and universities being different from other colleges and universities." Perhaps that is partly why some criticize institutions such as BYU which have resisted the tendency toward liberalization.
The primary differences between secularized and truly religious institutions, Gordon said, come in the areas of hiring practices, relationship between the school and its sponsoring church and the institution's desire to enhance its reputation in the academic world.
Academic freedom issues, although perhaps called by a different name, have been raised at BYU since the turn-of-the-century. Three professors - two of whom were BYU's first professors to hold doctoral degrees - were either fired or resigned in 1911 for teaching organic evolution.
In the ensuing years, academic freedom issues have included teaching socialism in the 1950s and critical examination of various BYU policies and LDS Church doctrines. But the fact remains that the large majority of faculty members at BYU have said they have not felt constrained in what they could research or teach. BYU's AAUP chapter currently has just a handful of active members.
However, thoughtful discussion of what is and what isn't appropriate for BYU faculty to do and say is likely to continue. It's a discussion topic that seems increasingly prominent on campus among administrators, faculty and students.
In a devotional address this week, Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Church Commissioner of Higher Education spoke on pursuing intellectual excellence while maintaining humility and avoiding spiritual pitfalls.
Elder Eyring said those who are truly great learners welcome correction, keep commitments, work hard, help others and overcome resistance.
"You will notice that the learners who can sustain that power to work hard over a lifetime generally don't do it for grades or to make tenure in a university or for prizes in the world," he said. "Something else drives them."
The Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, which unlike the AAUP is an accrediting body, did not identify major academic freedom problems during its recent visit. But Abbott points out that the accrediting team did note that communication between administrators and professors is poor, and morale suffers as a result.
"We sort of feel like we are among the most loyal adherents of BYU," Rushforth said. "We have been willing to take risks . . . to correct the errors in course.
"We're not thumbing our nose at the institution. We're saying, `Let's fix these problems and get on with being the best university we can be.' "