Brigham Young University requires LDS students who leave the church to withdraw from the university. While some people have lobbied for change, this policy is in the best interest of the students – both those who stay and those who leave – and should stay in place.
This opinion is based on my experience that achievement in academics – as in the arts, sport, and business – is strongly affected by students’ finding motivation in a higher purpose or community greater than themselves. After teaching the first-semester course in my discipline nearly fifty times at more than a half-dozen universities, I have a pretty good sense of what a room full of students can accomplish in a semester. When a student has an urgent personal stake in learning the material, however, and takes responsibility for their own learning, it’s quite possible for them to learn twice as much or more in the same amount of time. It’s one reason I’ve started asking students at the beginning of each semester to think about the communities they are part of and how their education will help them serve those communities.
Finding a higher purpose or a community to serve is not easy, however. Many of the well-prepared and ambitious students I have known see their college education as the next stage in their unfolding personal narrative of continued upward momentum as they take their deserved place in the meritocracy. That non-transcendent purpose works well enough for them, at least until the upward trajectory starts bending back to earth. Many other students flounder, both in their search for a purpose and in their education.
At BYU, however, the answer to the question of transcendent purpose is almost unique in its clarity. BYU students are gaining an education in order to serve the church in some way. As a master narrative for a college career, it doesn’t always function perfectly, but it serves many students very, very well. One of the striking differences I found in the students I taught at BYU-Idaho compared to other universities is that they largely had a plan and were sticking to it. As a teacher, it was easy to gesture at that greater purpose periodically in order to remind students how a course was relevant to their own motivation, and there were measurable results. For students at a university dedicated to open enrollment, the accomplishments of the students I knew were really quite credible.
So treating church membership as essentially indifferent to BYU students would not only weaken the university’s institutional identity, but also hamper its educational mission. It’s a fundamental mistake to think of BYU as a university to which a superficial gloss of Mormonism has been applied, in the same way that it’s a mistake to think of West Point as just another liberal arts college with ultra-competitive intramural paintball. The transcendent purpose is an intrinsic part of the educational mission, and weakening the institutional narrative weakens the university’s effectiveness. As with any policy change, one has to ask if permitting students who leave the church to stay at BYU would weaken its institutional identity and hamper its mission. In this case, it would.
It is true that not all BYU students are LDS. The church sees value in allowing non-Mormon students who see the church positively and support its values to enroll. Why not allow students who leave the church to remain enrolled like any other non-LDS student? The answer is that as far as the church is concerned, position is not nearly as important as direction. Just like a repentant sinner is cause for celebration while someone drifting off into sin is treated as a catastrophe, a friendly non-member is not the same as a friendly ex-member. Just like the military makes a distinction between “civilians” and “soldiers who don’t bother to show up any more,” there is an important distinction between non-members and apostates. Leaving the church is a strong signal that a student does not support the church’s mission and values, and treating that choice as inconsequential is detrimental to the education of faithful students.
Treating church membership as essentially indifferent would also be detrimental to the education of the unfaithful students, as it lets students avoid taking responsibility for their education. One would be doing no favor to a pacifistic anarchist, for example, by letting him stay at West Point. Transferring to another school is a headache, but it is hardly an insurmountable barrier. About a third of all students nationwide transfer at some point.
Requiring students who apostasize to leave the university, like preferring LDS to non-LDS job applicants, is a form of religious discrimination that can only be justified in the service of a clearly religious mission. If BYU needs additional measures to emphasize its religious mission, there are some additional steps it could take. The university could give all faculty regular roles in the religious life of the university, or require that all class meetings begin with a prayer. (I don’t advocate singing hymns before class; that’s what we do to prepare ourselves for worship. But prayer is what we do to prepare ourselves for serious thought and discussion, including the intellectual work one might find in a university class.)
In short, any proposal to make BYU a more secular institution should be viewed skeptically, as secularization undermines how it performs its academic mission. Secularization has both winners and losers, of course. Secularized monasteries are wonderful things, for example: they can be used for hospitals or libraries or universities or a hundred other things. But they are no good at all at training monks.