The embarrassing appearance of BYU Professor Randy Bott’s unsavory speculations about race in a Washington Post article a few weeks ago will undoubtedly have led some BYU administrators and perhaps even some members of the Board of Trustees to spend a few moments thinking carefully about the way BYU teaches church doctrine.
It is disturbing to find that one of the most popular teachers at BYU has been continuing to teach ugly ideas that were denounced from the highest levels of the church decades ago. Thousands of students have listened to his lectures. This is an institutional failure, not merely a failure in one man’s judgment. There must be some way to keep this sort of thing from happening.
BYU functions effectively as an arm of the LDS church. What BYU professors teach in their classrooms is seen, reasonably enough, as carrying a degree of church authority, both within the university and beyond it. It is vital that this authority be used in ways that lead students (and other church members) to truth rather than error.
It seems to me the Bott case is strong evidence that BYU’s approach to religious education needs revamping. Obviously Bott is just one professor out of over 70 full-time Religious Education faculty. However, his case is so far out of line, and evidently has been so far out of line for so many years, that it raises serious questions about the quality control mechanisms in place.
The two primary quality-control mechanisms in higher education generally are training and peer review. Faculty are normally required to hold a terminal degree in the area they will be teaching. This assures that they start off with essential skills and knowledge. However, this is only the beginning. Faculty are expected to continue to learn and develop over the course of their careers, and they need ongoing quality control, which occurs primarily through peer review.
Now, when I say “peer review,” this may sound strange because it is uncommon at most universities for faculty to sit in on each other’s classes. While there really should be more direct peer review of teaching, too (and not just at BYU), what I am primarily referring to is peer review of faculty scholarship and other professional activity that leads faculty to engage with their peers.
Peer review works because many heads are better than one. Individuals are free to develop creative, even speculative ideas, but their ideas are given little weight unless and until they have been submitted to the peer review process. Scholars present their ideas at conferences, where they hear responses and are expected to answer questions. Work is published only after receiving positive reviews from some of the more reputable participants. Even then, other published responses serve to highlight strengths and weaknesses. Published work is open to refutation by anyone who knows better. This process weeds out the lowest quality work right away, and works with what is of medium quality to refine it. There are sure to be many small missteps along the way, but the peer review process allows obvious errors to be corrected relatively quickly. Critical interaction with peers in this manner also teaches habits of modesty, humility, and care. Scholars learn to distinguish what is tentative or tenuous in their thinking from what is secure.
On matters of doctrinal orthodoxy in a revelatory church, one might be tempted to look at more top-down approaches to quality control. However, these can never take the place of peer-to-peer approaches in an academic context. There is too much going on in a university for top-down regulation to do more than set up a broad space in which faculty and students operate. Learning and inquiry will inevitably raise all manner of questions on which there is no definite answer coming from above. Just as importantly, even on those questions where there is a clear norm from above, only a peer-to-peer process has the bandwidth to keep an academic operation on track.
The peer review process is ideally suited both to an academic environment, where academic freedom is so important for learning and growth, and to a gospel environment, where all are expected to pursue the truth by study, by faith, and by the Holy Spirit, and all are called to do much good “of their own free will” (D&C 58: 27). There is far too much to be done in the process of learning, as in the building of God’s kingdom generally, for us to wait around to be commanded in all things. Rather, the key to success is to set up a culture of good judgment and mutual support and correction. The power of this de-centralized approach is visible in any healthy ward and is arguably one of the chief strengths of the Restored Church, grounded in its doctrines and its inspired organizational principles.
The peer review process serves as quality control for teaching as well as scholarship for a few reasons. First, it works because the products of scholarship serve as the primary sources for teaching. While individual professors offer commentary of various kinds as they teach, the main substance of their courses should derive from texts that have gone through the testing and refinement of peer review.
Second, teaching requires faculty to exercise creativity and personal initiative in both their methods of teaching and in the ideas they present to students. To present material in a way that addresses the needs and questions of students routinely requires faculty to use independent judgment, going beyond what is already established in a textbook. To do this well requires the same skills needed in scholarship. Hence a program that hopes for quality teaching must plan for these skills to be built and maintained through professors’ ongoing involvement in scholarship.
While teaching students, who are less knowledgeable and want to please the professor, it is easy for appropriate creativity and independence over time to drift into overconfidence and complacency, even into irresponsible speculation or self-indulgence. Peer review teaches modesty, forces professors to keep doing their homework, and keeps them informed about the best material available, as well as maintaining their skills and judgment. This is why it is standard at reputable institutions to require professors to be active in scholarship on the subjects they teach, including the peer review process.
Unfortunately, neither of these mechanisms are at work in BYU Religious Education in the way they are in other departments at BYU, or in most any department at other universities of comparable stature.
First I’ll comment on the situation with regard to training. There is no such thing as a graduate degree in Mormon Theology or Mormon Scripture, so BYU Religion faculty tend to hold PhDs in other areas that may have little relevance to the content of the courses they teach. In my brief sampling, quite a few actually held PhDs from other departments at BYU, such as Education or Family Science.
In the near term, there are limits to what BYU can do about the lack of standard training, since it probably would not be practical to send many current faculty back to school. In the medium- to long-term, BYU should be working hard to hire faculty with training that is as relevant as can be. Biblical studies, religious history, and theology, even if it is not Mormon theology, should be high on their list of preferred academic backgrounds. In the study of the Bible in particular, it is not clear that a sound program custom designed to prepare BYU faculty would be very different from many existing programs in Biblical Studies at other universities, and many of the skills taught in these programs should transfer well to the study of distinctively Mormon scripture, whether ancient or modern. There are certainly some ways in which Mormons will interpret the Bible differently from non-Mormons, but a diversity of interpretations, reflecting both individual and denominational differences, is normal in an academic program.
In the long run, BYU should be thinking about ways to fill in the gaps in available training with regard to their needs. Considering that it has a law school and many other graduate programs, it is rather strange that BYU does not have at least a master’s program in distinctively LDS scripture and theology. Of course, to offer a worthwhile graduate program would require high quality faculty and robust quality control processes for those faculty, so there are other issues to address first.
Precisely because the foundation of initial training is often missing, however, BYU should be exercising the method of peer review that much more vigorously, and that means requiring faculty to be active in scholarship. Administrators who are far from both scholarship and teaching may see scholarship as a distraction from teaching, but in my view the benefits of scholarship for teaching are greater than the benefits for scholarship!
Think of it this way: in any serious college class, students are required to write papers or lab reports, or to engage in sustained projects (artistic performance, etc.) that are self-directed to a significant extent. In many subjects, especially in the humanities and social sciences, writing is essential to the learning process. Without sustained, independent work on selected aspects of the course material, students’ understanding will remain shallow, and their minds will remain passive. All of this is common-sensical enough. Hence though we may not think of it, it should be no surprise that the same is true for teachers. Scholarship is homework for professors.
In principle, of course, professors have already done some homework on the subject, during their graduate programs, particularly in writing a dissertation. However, having had an active relationship with the material long ago is very different from having an active engagement with it in the present, and if faculty do not grow beyond the levels they achieve as graduate students, they will fall far below their potential. Course design can also become a creative process in itself. However, unless one receives lively, in-depth feedback from peers on one’s course designs, in a manner that engages their content, it will not serve the same purpose. In the great majority of cases, professors need to remain active in scholarship and present it to their peers for discussion in order to sustain and update their expertise.
Schools where professors are not expected to be actively engaged in peer-reviewed scholarship on a regular basis can be viable when there exists a robust scholarly discussion elsewhere, supported by participants at other institutions, which provides sound course material. A physics teacher at a community college need not conduct cutting-edge research herself to have reliable textbooks, and one can hope that her graduate training in a more research-oriented university has taught her to recognize what is reliable in her field, and what is not. Teaching undergraduates in areas of settled science, it is not difficult for her to retain mastery of her course material.
These conditions do not apply to BYU’s School of Religious Education, however. There is not a robust scholarly discourse on Mormon subjects anywhere, let alone one going on independent of BYU. There is not an established academic literature on which to base Religious Education courses. There are some valuable works and forums around and a few quite interesting scholars at work on this or that issue, but nothing resembling the firm basis of scholarship presupposed in other academic disciplines. Religious Education stands to benefit significantly from a broader field of non-Mormon scholarship on some aspects of its work, but on any distinctively Mormon questions, other than some aspects of history, the scholarship is scattered and immature. As high as the quality of some work may be, little of it has been tested in the manner that is routine in established disciplines. And as long as BYU continues to be the main place where Mormonism is taught in an academic setting, but does not support and expect its faculty to engage in a robust scholarly discourse on Mormon topics, the body of scholarship on Mormon questions will remain somewhat patchy and immature, despite the admirable work of some scholars.
If the quality of religious education at BYU is to be established and maintained at a high level, then, it is vital for the School of Religious Education to increase the involvement of its faculty in peer-reviewed scholarship.