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.