Firing professors, June 1993. A personal view.

June 18, 2013 | 31 comments
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Twenty years ago, I held up one half of the largest sign at a student protest in response to the non-renewals of two BYU professors. The sign was made of a sheet suspended from a foam-padded spear, which was normally used by the other sign-holder for simulated medieval combat. “College Bowl for Academic Freedom,” the sign read. We even had our own manifesto about learning and openness to competing viewpoints that four of us had worked up.

First off, I should admit that putting “College Bowl” on the sign was a mistake. The four of us may have represented a majority of the team members that were still around that summer, but we shouldn’t have picked a slogan that seemed to represent the whole team. Undergrads make mistakes about a lot of things, it turns out, but as far as undergrad mistakes go, it could have been worse.

Like most people and nearly all undergrads, I had only the vaguest notion of how academia worked or what academic freedom was, even if I thought I was well informed about the issues. I hung out in the Maeser building, after all, and had just become the opinion editor for the Student Review. I can’t claim to have been one of the movers and shakers among the protesting students, but I saw them from time to time, and a few of them may have been able to pick me out of a crowd.

So why was I standing on the quad helping to hold a sign about academic freedom? I forget who wrote which passages in our manifesto, but the passage that I think best reflected my thoughts at the time read, “The world is larger than just one opinion. We and our professors need the academic freedom to explore all sides of difficult and controversial issues.” It rankled when “competent, qualified professors are denied tenure.” Surely an institution committed to the ideals of the university couldn’t just hire someone and fire them three years later. That would violate the social contract of an academic community.

Today that thought makes me smile, weakly. I know more about academia now. Not long after protesting on the quad that summer, I decided to limit my interests in STEM to a math minor and to jump with both feet into a double major in the humanities. I finished my degree, went off to grad school, did research overseas, wrote a dissertation, and earned a Ph.D. Along the way, I swore off manifesto writing. I started publishing my academic work, found my first visiting academic position, then another, and then held a fabulous research postdoc. Then another visiting position, then my own stint, if not at the BYU, then at a BYU campus, a position that is now in turn nearing an uneventful conclusion. At three years, it has been the longest-lasting job of any I’ve had. The tenure track accommodates a smaller share of positions today than it did in 1993, and mine have not been included. The academic social contract isn’t what it once was.

After teaching at various places and comparing notes with friends elsewhere, what stands out to me now is how unremarkable the 1993 firings look in retrospect. That tenure cases sometimes end badly is not limited to Provo. I read CVs differently now, and the 1993 cases for re-appointment weren’t nearly as ironclad as I once thought. Under those circumstances, failed reviews are not uncommon. Even people with strong research records are sometimes denied tenure. Above all, there is no university in the U.S. where conflicts between junior faculty and the administration turn out well for the assistant professors. Being outspoken and untenured is not a good mix.

In 1998, the AAUP released a report of its investigation into a later tenure denial and similar cases from around the same time, including the events of 1993. The AAUP must think that the report reflects well on it as an organization, because it blasted a reminder out to its members five years ago on the ten-year anniversary of the report’s publication. To me, the report doesn’t sound nearly as convincing today as it once might have. The case the AAUP investigated in detail hinged on what a Mormon can say while retaining the full confidence of the church as their employer, but that doesn’t seem like a case the AAUP is well positioned to adjudicate. In retrospect, it’s hard to say that the BYU administration made the wrong call in firing any of the professors named in the AAUP report. Some of the affected faculty members have gone on to be faithful members of the church doing first-rate scholarship at places where their views don’t entail conflict with their employer. Some have become first-rate non-Mormon scholars, while others are Mormons and otherwise unremarkable academics. Others have left both the church and academia behind.

It’s not that BYU had no problems at the time. Some of the quotations from university administrators in the AAUP report do seem clumsily worded and appear not to recognize the extreme aversion academics have to anything that sounds like prior restraint on research and teaching. Faculty members I know and trust have mentioned that there were some on campus who stupidly made life difficult for some female professors at the time. For the most part, though, the non-renewals of 1993 merely illustrate how similar BYU is to other American universities. What makes BYU unique is only the kind of thing that makes someone a poor fit when it comes to hiring and renewal.

When I protested in the quad twenty years ago, I felt like I was standing for something, like I was doing my part for academic freedom and other noble virtues. Looking back now, everything looks more mundane. Just like any other university, not everyone who is qualified is a good fit for a faculty position at BYU. Sometimes administrators have to choose a happy board of trustees over disgruntled faculty. Sometimes institutional missions get realigned and resources shifted elsewhere. That’s all. I’ve seen it at other places. I’m sorry. It happens. All you can do is throw your things in the back of the wagon and set out for a happier valley.

31 Responses to Firing professors, June 1993. A personal view.

  1. Cameron N on June 18, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I had a professor at BYU a few years ago who told us that 30% of the staff at BYU (administrators mostly) were just dead weight and should be let go. I suspect many are charity jobs, but I’m sure there is some scheming by incompetent people as well (i’m sure this is true of any university).

  2. Tim on June 18, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Ah, the Maeser building. I had a class from Duane Jeffery, who also taught evolutionary biology at the time, in that building. Certainly the most controversial class I took at BYU. I’d frequently run into a good friend and roommate in that building as he went to his evolutionary anthropology course. Maybe BYU administrators figured if they quarantined the most controversial courses into one building the virus wouldn’t spread.

  3. Ben S on June 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    I had grandiose visions of teaching Hebrew in the Maeser building once I finished my PhD (which never happened, as many know.)

    Thanks for this perspective.

  4. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    I cannot imagine that the Air Force Academy would give tenure to a professor who taught cadets that they should claim conscientious objector status as soon as they graduated so they would not have to serve in combat, while still getting a college degree at the expense of the US taxpayer.

  5. Shawn on June 18, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    I grow increaasingly disenchanted with academia. Too many educators, are just that – career educators, with effectively little true, long term experience in the field of their education.

    I’ll take the teachings of a lifetime career professional, over that of a PHD that did some research, a thesis, and took lots of classes along the way.

    I applaud universities that bring in career professionals to teach, even if they don’t have the PHD yet. Providing they can properly educate (another needed skill), their experience is of far greater value to the student.

    My education was richly enhanced by these types of educators. They brought much more to the table then the career educator. Its time to revamp how academia selects educators, and establishes tenure, IMO.

  6. paul on June 18, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    “What makes BYU unique is only the kind of thing that makes someone a poor fit when it comes to hiring and renewal.”

    Oh, please.

    “The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.”

    (From: Boyd K. Packer, “Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council.” 1993)

  7. Cameron N on June 18, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    Paul, you don’t think there are many faux scholars in academia? Notice he didn’t incriminate honest scholars.

  8. Eric Facer on June 18, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Actually, there are many honest scholars that Brother Packer doesn’t care for. In a speech he gave in 1981, he delivered a blunt message to Mormon historians: “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” And who gets to decide what is “useful?”

  9. Ben S on June 19, 2013 at 2:05 am

    Yes, we have a way of reading Elder Packer in the worst way possible. Would anyone like to step up and defend the idea that everything that is true is very useful?

  10. Ben S. on June 19, 2013 at 4:23 am

    Or are we simply quibbling about what constitutes “true” and “useful”?

  11. roger on June 19, 2013 at 7:06 am

    Many people I know send their children to BYU because it is “safe.” Professors must have recommends and students must meet spiritual requirements in addition to academic ones. My only question is, how does this prepare these young people for the world?

  12. Jettboy on June 19, 2013 at 8:06 am

    Roger, how does college education from any University prepare any student for the world, especially in the humanities? Academia has grown completely separate from the real world in almost all cases. Employers look at the degree that does help you enter a job at least, and then turn around and teach differently than first taught. If you work at any productive job and end up with an “opposing view,” then I have a hard time seeing that person last very long.

  13. Western Dave on June 19, 2013 at 8:31 am

    “How does college education from any University prepare any student for the world, especially in the humanities?”

    There is a reason that Goldman Sachs for years hired only from Ivy League history departments for their coveted training program. The quant stuff was easy and they could teach it. What they needed was people who could understand multiple viewpoints and reconcile them, think logically, present information powerfully and succinctly, and have good bs detectors. The recent studies on which departments actually have decent learning outcomes have shown that courses in the humanities teach more than pre-professional courses. The golden number is 100 pages of reading a week and 20 pages of writing (or equivalent for Math and Comp. Sci) per course.

  14. Samuel P. on June 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Jonathan, I think you are right to note that outspoken junior professors are often denied tenure at places without BYU’s unique mission. But (and I wasn’t there at the time, so please help me understand) did not the non-renewals in 1993 overlap with the September Six excommunications? That is, that some of the same people who were dismissed from the university were also excommunicated? I think that overlap makes the issue much more complicated, because then it is not just about a university denying tenure to a set of loudmouthed assistant professors. It is also about a church making a determination about what the boundaries of membership are and ought to be. I can feel perfectly comfortable about BYU’s actions on the former grounds and yet deeply disturbed by BYU and the Church’s actions on the latter. And that latter reason is what personally bothers me about 1993, not the former.

  15. Dave K on June 19, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Ben (9/10), those are fair points. You are correct that not all true information is useful. For instance, suppose that 100 million years ago it rained for 30 minutes at the location we now know as 43 degrees N, 75 degrees W. This may or may not be true. But no one cares. It’s not useful.

    To be fair to critics of Elder Packer, though, irrelevant facts are not the type of “true” information he had in mind. From the context of Elder Packer’s address, and our knowledge of what was happening within LDS academia at the time, we know that he was referring to “true” parts of church history that *he* did not find useful, but which many scholars and members did find useful.

    A fact’s “usefullness” is a subjective determination. We each decide what information is “useful” to us. The complaints about Elder Packer’s statement are not that his statement is literally false, but that Elder Packer was dictating to others what they should deem as useful. Obviously, as the head of CES, he had the perogative to define which facts are useful for the purpose of church education. But the academics and historians had equal right to disagree with his decision and decide whether to remain under the CES guidelines. That’s what the tussle if over – how much leeway to allow CES instructors and scholars to decide for themselves what facts are useful for their respective audiences.

  16. Jonathan Green on June 19, 2013 at 11:26 am

    So, let’s check in and see how we’re doing.

    Uh, not so well.

    Cameron, the figures people cite for “dead wood” seem to be the same most places, and usually rest on a misunderstanding, namely that whatever one’s own strengths are is what everyone should be doing. In many departments, you need people who do lots of research and people who teach high-enrollment undergrad courses and people to spearhead major committees, and a bunch of over things as well. Usually people are pulling their weight, although not always in the same way. Sometimes they aren’t, but real deadwood is not common.

    Shawn, you need to keep in mind that faculty in some fields (education, business and finance, many social sciences) are actually drawn from those with professional experience. At the same time, that Ph.D. is important (in the fields where it is the terminal degree) as preparation for research activity, and involvement in some form of research is important, even for teaching introductory courses. Finally, do keep in mind that hiring and firing is the most crass and cynical side of academia. Look at teaching and research to see the happy parts that people wholeheartedly believe in.

    Paul, and Eric, in addition to Ben’s on-point comment about applying the most rather than least charitable reading, the context-free quotations you’ve mentioned don’t actually make BYU different than many, perhaps most other universities. The trustees, secretaries of education, state legislators, and governors who direct this country’s universities have been known to be suspicious of faculty and higher education in general, and they regularly are quoted in the press making statements to that effect. You don’t have to look back 20 or 30 years to find such statements coming from Wisconsin and Florida, for example. Trustee/state government suspicion towards faculty is probably more the rule than the exception.

    Roger, BYU students seem to be doing OK getting jobs in the real world. Many universities attempt a similar kind of split between isolation from and engagement with the world. Engagement is important, but you also need some space for teaching, reflection, and research that doesn’t have to meet quarterly targets.

    Jettboy, in addition to Western Dave’s comments, let’s just say that this is not a good thread for airing your views on what’s wrong with the humanities.

    Samuel, you make an important point about the charged environment of 1993. The people involved, however, appear to be different. I have no insight into the September excommunications, but none of them appear to feature directly in the AAUP report. Some of the people named in the AAUP report (but none of the 1993 non-renewals) are no longer LDS, but they appear to have taken that step of their own volition.

    Dave K., ‘dictating’ is probably an exaggeration. In more general terms, we might say that a member of the board of trustees expressed consternation over what he saw as a disconnect between the university’s mission and the faculty’s activities. Again, not a unique situation. Your comment nicely highlights some of the tensions involved, but we shouldn’t put too much weight on one brief passage from one talk given over thirty years ago. If we’re trying to understand events from 20 years ago, then we need to look at the full range of what was being said. Perhaps my memory and experience are too limited, but I don’t think Packer’s statements played much if any role in the university’s internal discussion of what faculty should or shouldn’t do. Instead, I’ve only seen the passage cited as a critique of the variety “Mormonism is anti-intellectual, and I’ve got one favorite quotation that proves it, whatever anyone else may have said.”

  17. Jonathan Green on June 19, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Paul, time to move on.

  18. ASM on June 19, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    After fifteen years of studying and working at BYU, I left about ten years ago, so I don’t have first-hand impressions of the current atmosphere there. But I know that during the 90’s, the upheaval was deep in many parts of the university; it wasn’t just the product of naive and idealistic undergraduate protests. The administration was inept in presenting its controversial policies and dealing with the public reaction. In my view, that did lasting damage to BYU’s reputation. There are still administrators at other universities around the country who remember that time and hesitate in their dealings with BYU. (And the firing of professors wasn’t the only thing that created problems; remember, for example, when Merrill Bateman censored the Rodin exhibit at BYU’s art museum? I assure you that quite a few people at other universities remember it.)

    The BYU administration learned a lot from its mistakes, even while Bateman was still the president. Cecil Samuelson seems to be much better attuned to the academic culture. In the past ten years, BYU has vastly improved its ability to avoid needless controversy and to handle confrontation, when necessary, with a grown-up approach. But this doesn’t mean that academic freedom is no longer an issue at BYU. One of the things the administration learned was how to prevent flare-ups by screening their new hires a lot more stringently and taking fewer chances with professors who might end up rocking the boat. Of course, we don’t talk about this openly, so who really knows how that policy, and others like it, are affecting BYU’s culture? There is some interesting work for someone to do along these lines.

  19. Jonathan Green on June 19, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    ASM, thanks for your comment. Your perspective is similar to the impressions I’d formed, although I haven’t been at BYU for more than a day or two at a time since 1995.

  20. kramer on June 20, 2013 at 6:02 am

    The dogs back at the wheels, yet he caravan moves on.

  21. Brian on June 20, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    Jonathan, is it fair to say your current perspective is more cynical than the one you held along with that sign? To be blunt, you sound defeated by the system in the same way the Borg defeat those they encounter. I guess my point is, why the **** do you think you’re any smarter now than you were then? Why should your current view be privileged at the expense of its predecessor? Spending time with it and seeing it in greater detail doesn’t mean that crap stinks any less…

  22. Cameron N on June 21, 2013 at 2:44 am

    Perhaps firing isn’t the problem Brian. Perhaps it is the pedagogical model, or the university administrative model in general?

  23. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Of course my memory of the time from 1992 to 1999 is not as organized as I would like it to be, but I do remember talking with Don Norton about one of the non-renewals.

    In his opinion her scholarship was fine. It was a collegiality issue driven by social class issues. As one of the token conservatives on the English department he was in favor of keeping her.

    The rest of his inside statements I believe he would not be comfortable with my sharing but it was striking that he and those he was aligned with wanted to keep her and work things out.

    Others, not part of his axis, wanted to be rid of her.

    One result was that I wrote her a letter of sympathy and support to wish her well

  24. Jonathan Green on June 21, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Brian, that’s a fair question. I’m suspicious of “older and wiser” acts, especially when I’m the one who would be claiming any degree of wisdom.

    For some questions, I don’t see any problem with my privileging of my current view. For example, I’ve become very skeptical that what BYU did was so unusual as to deserve to be singled out for it because I’ve now spent several years watching how things work at several different universities. I simply didn’t have any of that experience twenty years ago. So I’m fairly confident in privileging my current view over my former one when it comes to seeing BYU’s actions as more typical than unique. It’s worth noting that this is really the only thing I’m arguing for in my post.

    For other questions that I’m consciously avoiding in my post, such as how the ideal university should work, or how BYU should work in an ideal world, I see more reasons to question privileging my current perspective over my past one. All my experience suggests that the system always wins, and that the best one can hope for is to bring about some positive change on some local corner of the system, but doing so first requires a dispassionate understanding of how the system really works. That’s probably too pessimistic a view to effectively discuss university ideals.

  25. Brian on June 22, 2013 at 5:58 am

    Jonathan, thanks for the response. I understand better and agree with your point that what BYU did was and is fairly common. However, the Church doesn’t seem to view BYU as just any old university, either institutionally or at large. If “the Lord’s University” (ahem) sets itself up as existing on a higher standard, shouldn’t it be subject to a higher level of scrutiny?

  26. Old Man on June 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    But Brian, who does the scrutinizing?

  27. Brian on June 22, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Old Man – Any and all parties to whom the institution is thusly held up.

  28. Irenaeus on June 23, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Brian, I don’t follow that line of logic at all. All universities claim to be the epitome of what a university should be. The issue is what kind of environment is a university seeking to establish? If controversy were the sine qua non of a good education, our secular universities would fail miserably. The point is, that it’s not. The educational systems owned by the Church have a specific spiritual environment they seek to engender. Being educated in a climate of controversy and knowing how to understand and assimilate knowledge are two different and unrelated things. I’m perfectly content with BYU and other Church institutions trying to maintain a model of education consistent with an environment conducive to faith. Our problem is not a lack of exposure to the world; quite the opposite.

  29. Jonathan Green on June 23, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    Brian, I wouldn’t think of it as a higher standard of scrutiny, because there will be considerable disagreement over what standard should apply. I would say instead that BYU should have high aspirations.

    Irenaeus, understanding of and conformance with academic norms is usually a good thing. It’s not that the way people do things elsewhere is necessarily beyond reproach, but it is often better than what one university can come up with on its own. Since BYU as an institution and thus its faculty, students, and staff have to exist within the American system of higher education, one would want to limit deviations from the norm to things that serve BYU’s distinct mission.

  30. Brian on June 23, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Irenaeus and Jonathan, thanks for the follow-ups. Perhaps it’d be worth noting that what a university is (as an abstract concept) is clear as mud. Is it a research institution? Is it a business? A church? A semi-pro sports franchise? A school? A corporate proving ground? Each of these has goals, the satisfaction of which can only come at the occasional or frequent expense of the others. What does BYU claim to be and do its actions bear that out?

  31. palerobber on June 26, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    @ AMS #18

    remember, for example, when Merrill Bateman censored the Rodin exhibit at BYU’s art museum?

    i remember. to me this is BYU in a nutshell. a nice place with nice people but ultimately an embarassing place to have a degree from.

    Jonathan, i appreciate your more nuanced current view, but i hope you don’t regret that, as an undergrad, you wanted BYU to be something better than what is was.