Site icon Times & Seasons

Firing faculty: some educated guesses

Like most media outlets, Inside Higher Ed isn’t well equipped to report stories about BYU-Idaho – it doesn’t entirely understand that BYU and BYU-Idaho are two different schools, for example. But if I had to read between the lines and make an educated guess, this is what I think is happening.

The [Ecclesiastical Clearance Office], commonly called the ECO, was created in 2020. Penrod, the church spokesperson, has said its role is to help ensure that “employees in the Church Educational System commit to maintain gospel standards as part of their employment, including an annual ecclesiastical endorsement from their local bishop.”

So the CES administration has a centralized office for handling employee ecclesiastical endorsements. Whatever your outlook on the current situation, you can probably imagine situations where this would be a good idea for a large, multi-campus educational system for secondary and university students. In some cases, if someone shouldn’t be working at BYU, you wouldn’t want them teaching seminary, either. A centralized office also offers additional benefits, some you might like, some you might not. It would offer a way to standardize criteria so approval doesn’t come down to the whims of a local bishop or a particular college administrator. Also, it probably collects information in addition to the bishop’s endorsement and other church records. I assume that would include relevant online activities or social media posts and relevant student or parental complaints.  You might not like the potential use of that information, but having a central collection point isn’t in itself a bad idea.

* * *

BYU Idaho did not respond to a request for comment about the nonrenewals. BYU in Utah referred questions to Idaho. […]

Lindsay Larson Call—herself a member of the LDS church—received a call from a BYU Idaho employee she didn’t know who told that her years working as an online instructor of family studies and as an instructor evaluation specialist had come to an end. The caller reportedly said he had nothing to do the with the decision and that he’d been given a list of names of employees who failed to obtain “ecclesiastical clearance” from the church’s Ecclesiastical Clearance Office.

My educated guess is that somewhere in that inscrutable level of BYU-Idaho administration above the college deans and below the president, someone isn’t doing his job. Reading between the lines a bit, this sounds like Salt Lake saying All we can do is provide information, but we can’t and won’t make decisions about academic hiring, and Provo saying Do whatever you want up there in…Idaho Falls or wherever, but leave us out of it. A low-level staffer can be pressed into being the bearer of bad news, but can’t take responsibility for a decision made at the VP level.

The problem isn’t that someone has made a decision not to rehire some adjunct faculty members, because making personnel decisions is unavoidable. Over at BCC, Sam Brunson points out that firing adjuncts harms employees, but every personnel decision harms someone. Hiring one person means not hiring someone else. The problem isn’t entirely that the decisions are opaque (although that’s definitely not good), because even murky edge cases require you to make a decision. And the problem isn’t even that an administrator may have made a mistake in these particular cases, although that’s certainly possible. People and institutions invariably make mistakes, but the necessity of making a decision persists even when you have incomplete information.

The problem is that forcing a low-level staff member to be the bearer of bad news lets control over the message slip away and creates the system-wide uncertainty that’s a much bigger problem than any hiring decision, and now Inside Higher Ed has some questions. Someone with one of the nicer offices in the Kimball building makes these decisions, and that person needs to own them. It may not be easy to convey just the right message to the affected staff member and if necessary to the press, but BYU-Idaho has some first-rate people in communications and they could probably come up with something workable. Sam’s absolutely correct that cryptic standards are a problem, which is why the administrator with the nice office needs to say something like The church’s teachings about family and gender are mission critical for us and we need absolute confidence in how our faculty approach them, and so in a few cases we’ve decided to take new directions in who we use in teaching roles despite the excellent service of these wonderful individuals; we acknowledge that we don’t have perfect information, and so we’d be happy to re-examine a decision when it comes to hiring in future semesters. For things that are this important, follow the example of the Gatekeeper at the gate: he employeth no servant there.

* * *

Taylor Petrey, chair of religion studies at Kalamazoo College, who studies Mormonism, told Inside Higher Ed that the recent “firings are extremely concerning for Latter-day Saint educators and put the reputation of BYU in significant risk.” Not since the American Association of University Professors censured BYU in the late 1990s “has the institution faced such a significant threat to academic freedom and its standing as a legitimate institution of higher education,” he added.

Counterpoint: no, they aren’t, and no, they don’t. Taylor is a wonderful person and a great teacher and scholar, but he has only second-hand experience of BYU, while BYU-Idaho is a more exotic species altogether. It would be fair to say that the firings are extremely concerning to the Latter-day Saint educators that Taylor knows, while the reactions at BYU-Idaho will span the range from “This is a disaster” to “Interesting, but none of my business” to “It’s about time.” “University fires adjuncts” isn’t going to get clicks. Even “Mormon university fires Mormon adjuncts” isn’t going to raise many eyebrows. The implications of firing adjuncts for academic freedom are minimal. The thing about adjuncts is that we’re easily replaceable. The fired adjuncts will be replaced, and life will go on.

Sam mentions potential harm to students caused by inability to hire qualified instructors put off by uncertainty about the stability of a job. I don’t think there’s much risk of that, as the pool of people for whom working at a BYU campus is better than their current position is probably larger than you’d think. If it is an issue, there’s a proven solution: pay people a wage premium to compensate for the value of lessened long-term stability.

One area where I specifically disagree with Sam is his argument that students “won’t get the faith mentorship that they so desperately need.” It’s simply incorrect that the only people who “consider the wellbeing of the LGBTQ community” are people who disagree with or have doubts about the church’s teachings. I would say instead that fully accepting the church’s teachings on gender and family requires us to approach LGBTQ people with sympathy and understanding and concern for their wellbeing.

* * *

Both the BYU-Idaho faculty members named in the article taught online, and my educated guess – as an adjunct who teaches primarily online – is that it isn’t a coincidence. You may have noticed a general anxiety on a national level over the last few years about remote work. Employers are confronting the new reality with alarm, wondering what people are doing all day, and with no real way of monitoring their employees. At my thoroughly secular university, the levels of bureaucracy that must be navigated to get an online course approved are orders of magnitude greater than a traditional classroom course.

The other thing you have to understand is that BYU-Idaho is a large university staffed by a small town. People know their neighbors. This is often a good thing. Nowhere else has my dean been as accessible to me as when I was a temporary faculty member at BYU-Idaho. I rarely had any interaction with that inscrutable layer above the dean, but even they were members of someone’s brother’s ward. And like most small towns, people avoid conflict with their neighbors. When university employees of any type get fired, it generates a host of personal problems: key ward callings need to be filled, someone’s child’s best friend moves away, a spouse’s mission companion no longer lives down the road. Not so with remote online instructors, who are mostly faceless and far away. It’s quite possible for years to go by between my visits to my current campus, but I try to stop by at least a couple times a semester anyway to remind my colleagues who I am. With heightened anxiety about online work and dramatically reduced costs from letting someone go, any issue related to hiring is likely to affect online adjuncts first.

* * *

Where do online instructors formerly employed by BYU-Idaho go from here? As someone formerly employed there, I have some educated guesses.

The bad news is that you may never again find work as personally meaningful as teaching for BYU-Idaho. I hope you do, but I haven’t.

The good news is that it’s much easier to find a livable work-life balance with less meaningful work. You can look at it as merely losing a big client, which isn’t fun, but you can find new clients and even earn more than before without the siren call of meaningful work making disproportionate demands on your time. The job market is still strong and as an online adjunct, you have real skills that are relatively straightforward to monetize. Financially, I suspect everyone in the story will be okay.

Personally, there can be challenges. It can be difficult to have the church say, “You are not who we want teaching at our university right now.” In my case, it was “Our university would be better off without you, the program you spent a few years building, and the discipline you teach.” I still think that was the wrong call, and I certainly don’t want to prove to whoever made that decision that it was the right choice after all. I also still care about my former students, and it’s important to me that they weren’t taught by the guy who only showed up to church as long as he was getting paid.

Exit mobile version