Among the other academic spam that I get are regular emails from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which is always eager to remind me of their fights for academic freedom, higher salaries for professors, and various trendy and hip progressive causes. Today, the AAUP sent out an email commemorating the ten year anniversary of its censure of BYU. I thought that readers might enjoy a trip down memory lane to the bad-old-days of Mormon intellectual life in the 1990s and a view of events through outside eyes:
The emails we have sent out to faculty across the country to date have all dealt with current issues in the academy. It has always been our intention, however, to provide occasional lessons about AAUP history, especially when the past is still with us.
This year is the tenth anniversary of one of the AAUP’s more remarkable cases–the 1998 censure of Brigham Young University. The full report is on our Web site. Let me give you a few highlights in the hope they will draw you there.
A young faculty member was up for tenure at BYU. Though there was some discomfort with her feminist interests, her department gave her a strong recommendation based on her teaching, research, and citizenship, and that view was endorsed by the college. At the next level up–the University Faculty Council–the tone changed. Objections were voiced that she had violated the tenets of the Mormon Church, most notably by publicly acknowledging that she prayed to “Heavenly Mother as well as Heavenly Father.” Hardly a confession that would earn you a newspaper headline in most American cities, but at BYU it led the Council to claim she had weakened the moral fiber of the university. They recommended against tenure and the BYU president concurred.
The AAUP requires that any doctrinal limitations on academic freedom be laid out clearly in writing. We concluded that BYU had failed to do so adequately. Her statements on prayer constituted descriptions of her personal vision, not advocacy. The university also did not grant a hearing that adequately investigated her allegations that her academic freedom had been violated and that she was a victim of discrimination based on her sex.
To the extent displeasure with her feminism had contributed to the tenure denial, her academic freedom had indeed been violated. But we could not get the BYU administration to reverse its decision. Our annual meeting voted to censure them in 1998.
There are many lessons in this case still relevant today. We often forget that very different value systems can prevail across thousands of American campuses. Continued vigilance is necessary to sustain national standards for academic freedom. That is the task the AAUP has taken on since
Cary Nelson, AAUP President