The president of Brigham Young University told students Tuesday he takes responsibility for the controversial decision to exclude four nude statues from a museum exhibit.
"In the end, a decision was taken in which I was involved and ultimately responsible for, to take those pieces out and keep them crated," said President Merrill J. Bateman. "That was what we did."A group of students staged a protest last month to show displeasure with administrators' decision to exclude four Auguste Rodin statues from an exhibit at the Museum of Art. Several students said they were as concerned with communication problems as with nude statues being kept in crates.
But students had plenty of discourse with Bateman Thursday during a question-and-answer session at BYU. The forum was keeping in line with a twice-annual practice started by Bateman's predecessor, Rex E. Lee. But what made the session unique is that administrators announced beforehand that Bateman would specifically field questions about the Rodin decision.
Bateman said Museum of Art director Campbell Gray told him about two months ago that several of the pieces in the Rodin exhibit, which is on loan from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, might not be appropriate at BYU. However, Bateman said, administrators decided to wait until the statues arrived last month before making a final decision about excluding any of the pieces.
Once the pieces arrived and BYU officials looked at them, the decision was made to exclude "The Kiss," "Saint John the Baptist Preaching," "The Prodigal Son" and "Monument to Balzac."
One statue was inappropriate because it depicted a "nude male in the act of self-gratification," Bateman said. The other three weren't perceived to fit the exhibit's theme, which focuses on "The Hands of Rodin."
Bateman said BYU made a mistake by failing to issue a formal statement about why the statues were being excluded. Media reports began appearing soon after the decision was made, and the story - including some inaccuracies - quickly spread.
One student asked Bateman why the Museum of Art accepted the exhibit in the first place, given the fact that Rodin is known for focusing his work on the nude human body. Bateman said BYU officials agreed two years ago to show the exhibit. However, the standard screening policy wasn't followed.
"This came through without getting adequate screening," Bate-man said. He promised the university will avoid future uproars like the one over Rodin by simply not contracting to show exhibits that may contain questionable material.
"The university does not have an obligation to bring to campus things that might contradict values of (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)," Bateman said. "I'm not trying to force my values on anyone else. This is not a decision about people's rights. It's a decision about what's appropriate to bring to the institution."
The museum is a public place that is visited by thousands of schoolchildren and local residents each year, he said, so administrators had to take into account the values of a community larger than just BYU students. By excluding the statues from the exhibit, BYU is not saying art students cannot study Rodin in their classes, Bateman said. Viewing photographs of the Rodin pieces and others in class is OK as long as faculty members provide context for the study, he said.
Bateman used scriptural allusions to counter a statement made earlier by a student who believed that paying tithing to the LDS Church gave him the right to see the statues. During the question-and-answer session, which lasted 90 minutes instead of the usual 60, he interrupted one long-winded Rodin advocate.
"Excuse me," Bateman said. "Are you giving a speech or asking a question?"
One student asked Bateman if he feels it is appropriate for BYU students to disagree with administrators' decisions. Last month's protest was carried out, even though administrators said it was unauthorized because organizers failed to acquire a necessary permit. Bateman said students are expected to disagree, but they should express opinions in the proper manner.
"(Protesting) is not a good way of conducting civil discourse on any campus, whether it's BYU or Berkeley or MIT," he said. "The problem is that protest doesn't promote discourse and it's not a civil way to do it."
Bateman said several suggestions made by students who felt a lack of communication are already in place through the Student Advisory Council and numerous administrative committees on which students sit. He promised to ensure that a mechanism for student feedback would soon be put in place on BYU's Internet site.
Bateman said communication problems stem not from lack of student contact with administrators, but from lack of contact between student leaders and the student body as a whole.
BYU as an institution and students individually need to be bold enough to stand for principles of the LDS Church even in the face of questioning from others, he said.