The Authority of "Academic Freedom":
On Two Cases of Miseducation at BYU

Review of Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel. The Lord’s University: Freedom and Authority at BYU. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998. xii + 453 pp., with index. $19.95.

The Authority of “Academic Freedom”: On Two Cases of Miseducation at BYU

Reviewed by Ralph C. Hancock

As the authors report with admirable candor in their preface, this
book arose from controversies at Brigham Young University (BYU) in which they
were involved as young student journalists. Upon the “firing” of two
professors (Cecelia Konchar Farr and David Knowlton), Bryan Waterman and Brian
Kagel (editors, respectively, of the Student Review and the Daily Universe) were
motivated “to begin plotting books about academic freedom at the Mormon
school” (p. vii). The 453-page outcome, a collaborative effort, is an amply
(if not evenly) documented account of certain episodes of ideological commotion
at BYU in the 1990s, framed by an overview of the history of the issue of “academic
freedom” at the church university. This result is in many ways quite impressive,
though the original, polemical motivation (for from the outset there is no doubt
about the authors’ sympathy) seems not to have been much affected by the
process of researching and writing. They alert us early on, somewhat delicately,
to the fact that the “narrative leans toward the experience of some faculty
members, due to our level of personal access to them” (p. x), and that the
book is “primarily journalistic in tone” (p. ix). At the same time,
they hope it will “measure up . . . to standards expected of professional
historians” (p. ix), whatever that means. So we know better than to expect
a perspective of Olympian serenity. Given these limitations, the story—or
the side of the story they tell—is presented quite skillfully, even engagingly.
Still, it is disappointing that amid all this reporting and documenting, the authors
apparently managed to avoid reflecting on the central questions that hover over
practically all the events and arguments considered.

The subtitle itself suggests certain questions: what do we mean, what might we
mean, what ought we to mean by “freedom”? by “authority”?
What is at stake in the diverse uses of these terms—for example, in politics,
in higher education, in religion? How does each of these terms relate to the other—are
they necessarily antagonists? We need not doubt the sincerity of the authors in
assuring us that they “do not seek to turn ‘freedom and authority’
into a heavy-handed interpretive framework” (p. ix). But the only way to
back up this assurance would be to reflect on this very framework and thus to
achieve some perspective on the original project of the book itself and on the
passions surrounding and infusing it. Such reflection the authors forego.

The price of this missing reflection is a muddling of categories that pervasively
conditions the tone of the book and dooms any attempts at careful analysis. From
the first chapter—”The Uses of Mormon Education”—it is
clear that whereas “authority” is identified with the church (as if
the rejection of one authority did not inevitably expose us to another), “freedom”
is neatly associated with the unexamined authorities implicit in “a desire
for legitimacy in traditional academic modes” (p. 6) and even “an
uneducated people’s desire for respectability in the eyes of the American
nation” (p. 7). The authors mention, but do not even pause to consider,
the idea that “BYU, by allowing religious perspectives in the classroom,
actually affords a greater amount of academic freedom than that found at secular
universities” or that “Mormon education” might be considered
“as an alternative to prevailing national models and aims to be rooted in
the revelatory as much as” and therefore, I suggest, not simply as opposed
to, “the rational” (pp. 4, 5). Waterman and Kagel show slight interest
in elaborating on such an alternative or in asking to what degree the policies
and decisions of the BYU administration that arouse their indignation might be
reasonably interpreted as instrumental to such an “alternative,” because
they are themselves altogether overawed by the prestige of “prevailing national
models.” They therefore end up, somewhat despite themselves, writing a brief
for assimilation to “mainstream American values,” provided that these
are understood in the progressive version—that is, as uncontaminated by
the “culturally conservative backlash against the perceived excesses of
modern democratic society” (pp. 12, 13). Thus they find themselves deeply
embarrassed by BYU’s apparent determination “to deviate from contemporary
academic models and preserve a safe space for Mormon education, even at the expense
of outstanding faculty and national reputation”—where “outstanding
faculty” is understood, of course, as a strict correlate of “[progressive]
national reputation.” This book is the story of that embarrassment and of
a failure to be ashamed of it.

This said, much of the story is well told and well documented. Anyone trying to
find a way into the historical record of BYU’s developing mission in the
face of various challenges from the evolving culture it partly inhabits will discover
here many valuable references and even, if he or she proceeds discriminately,
quite a useful orientation. The first part of the book (chaps. 1–4), “Contexts,”
is particularly to be recommended in this sense; here the authors offer very readable
and interesting accounts—based on ample research—of feminism (chap.
2), student journalism (chap. 3), and the Honor Code (chap. 4) at BYU. In these
chapters the protagonists are often allowed to speak for themselves, and so the
uncritical bias of the authors is not too obtrusive—or only intermittently
intrusive, particularly as they conclude each chapter. For example, much in the
chapter on feminism could pass for an even-handed, blow-by-blow, and decade-by-decade
account of an ongoing debate if it were not introduced by a remark about “official
endorsements of gender essentialism, most recently found in the church’s
1995 document The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (p. 23), and concluded
with a reinforcement of the book’s governing paradigm concerning the tension
between “conservative religion” and “national academic standards”
(p. 62). The authors leave no doubt that, for them, there can be no questioning
of the authority of “national academic standards,” least of all from
the standpoint of “conservative religion,” nor can any prophetic authority
(or even, apparently, recent scientific evidence) be allowed to flout the prestige
of gender constructivism in the “progressive” academy.

Similarly, they conclude a useful if somewhat tendentious account of the history
of the Honor Code with an ominous remark about “the precarious nature of
one’s status at BYU” and strike a final pose of heroic resignation
before the brutal fact that “constant enforcement” will likely remain
a necessity “as BYU continues to manufacture students—who then become
model Mormons—for years to come” (p. 169). Such seething resentment
and contempt for an explicit and widely shared mission of Brigham Young University—to
foster the development of Latter-day Saints—the authors apparently take
to be compatible with “standards expected of professional historians.”

The motives of resentment and contempt become more intrusive in “Controversies,”
the second, main part of the book (chaps. 5–10). Here the authors are up
to their necks in the recent issues and controversies closest to their hearts—or
to their spleens—and here they rely most heavily on their own experiences
and their favorite sources. They show no more sense of nuance in dealing with
the complex, qualitative issues surrounding faculty review processes and standards
than one would expect of student journalists, happy to assume, when it suits their
cause, that the right number of publications or the right numbers on “teacher
evaluation scores” should automatically decide the case (p. 203). Not that
any such standard of judgment is explicitly developed. The only consistent interpretive
theme here is the rightness of the dissidents’ cause, a consistency untroubled
by a certain difficulty in pinning down what that cause is supposed to be: is
it the traditional commitment of the university to rational inquiry, to “information
and knowledge,” as Waterman put it in one of his self-quoted contributions
to the debate (p. 227), or is it the “postmodern” or “radical
feminist” commitment to “change,” which of course never means
changing the minds of the radicals?

But the main distortion in Waterman and Kagel’s account consists simply
in the amount of text devoted to the cases the authors have always been convinced
deserve to be causes celebres. By quoting their heroes and their heroes’
fans (including, not infrequently, themselves) copiously enough, they are able
to reassure themselves that they have played a major role in events, which, if
they are not demonstrably of world-historical proportions in the precise Hegelian
sense, at least have a chance of winning the favorable attention of the guardians
of national academic prestige, whom they of course take to be the court of last
appeal. To be sure, Waterman and Kagel deserve credit for giving some space to
the arguments of their adversaries—space in the pages of their book but
none in their minds. Thus, when they cite massive evidence for support for the
BYU administration among faculty and the larger LDS community (p. 244; before
concluding the chapter on Farr and Knowlton with what are no doubt supposed to
be touching vignettes on the post-BYU lives of their heroes), they clearly do
so only as evidence of the desperately blind conformism of the unenlightened masses.

Chapter 7 is particularly useful in revealing the links, or at least the presumption
of solidarity, between the small dissident milieu at BYU and a would-be movement
aiming directly at a radical transformation of the church. Waterman and Kagel
give ample space to a number of “Mormon Intellectuals” (roughly, the
subset of those who think themselves competent to reform the church and who succeed
in getting quoted in newspapers) who openly courted excommunication and finally
managed to achieve it. One is Lavina Fielding Anderson, whose radical antinomianism
includes the notion that “the priesthood, the temple, the church must be
taken down stone by stone and built again on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ”—as
that foundation is interpreted by each “individual member,” that is
(p. 275). This is clearly incompatible with any institutional authority. Another
is Janice Allred, who insisted on her right as a member of the church to promote
new practices and doctrines concerning a Holy Ghost/Heavenly Mother (pp. 292–93);
and finally the inimitable Paul Toscano, fully inhabiting his self-created role
as a prophet crying repentance to the fallen church hierarchy—”Wo
be unto him that is at ease in Zion”—and offering to correct their
“false teachings” (p. 273). If decisive differences exist between
the opinions and aims of such persons, which are clearly incompatible with any
plausible understanding of loyalty to the church as presently constituted and
the views of the dissident-heroes at BYU, then our authors show remarkably little
interest in defining such differences. Of course they are as free as their heroes,
under the blessed laws of the land, to dissent from the church, to leave it, to
attack it, or even to try to start their own. But then we must be clear what is
at stake. Given this complete failure to discriminate among the various advocates
of greater “freedom” at BYU and in the church more generally, the
authors’ occasional efforts at reassurance regarding the faithfulness or
sincerity of the dissidents they wish to champion rings rather hollow. Do they
really want to endorse any and all attacks on the church as presently constituted?

Lacking any capacity to criticize even the most radical critiques of the church,
the authors are completely deaf to any arguments—including many they briefly
cite—for understandings of “academic freedom” different from
their own “unfettered”—that is, boundless—notion. Since
they do not wish to consider the possibility—or rather, the plain fact—that
certain core teachings of the church simply contradict the liberationism of their
heroes, they can only ascribe arguments of their opponents to some dark “alliance
with broader conservative forces in the academy and in the culture at large”
(p. 408). And so their last chapter consists of an ambitious attempt, though grafted
onto an argument developed earlier by Scott Abbott (see p. 426), to describe the
rise of a certain neoconservatism in America and to trace LDS suspicion of secularization
and sense of opposition to the world to this outside political movement. To be
sure, real connections exist between certain neoconservative intellectuals and
some faithful church leaders and scholars. This can be explained by the unalarming
fact that the two groups hold a number of concerns and viewpoints in common. But
Waterman and Kagel’s suggestion of some sinister political hijacking of
the LDS mainstream is a laughable nonstarter for the simple reason that, as the
authors themselves once let slip, a certain “religious and social conservatism”
among Mormons preceded the development of ties with the neoconservatives (p. 429).
The wonder is that our young authors apparently cannot even conceive of the possibility
of a critical standpoint outside the “secular world” defined by the
most recent academic fashions.

My critique of Waterman and Kagel’s contemptuous and therefore careless
examination of issues surrounding The Lord’s University should in no way
be taken to imply that the question of just what such a university should be has
been finally or even adequately answered. Certainly a simple opposition between
“us” (Latter-day Saints) and “them” (“secular,”
“worldly,” “intellectual”) will not be enough to guide
us in seeking to expand the mind’s freedom as we explore truths gratefully
received on the authority of revelation. To begin with, we cannot even see how
much we are already conditioned by “the world,” how much we ourselves
owe to it, without first carefully examining the world’s self-understanding,
as represented, for example, in ideas, and in literary and artistic expressions.
Such examinations would in some cases justify and ground our suspicions regarding
“the world” and in other cases open us more fully to whatever is virtuous,
lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy. But the narrative and the arguments offered
by Waterman and Kagel do little to advance such a task of discriminating engagement
with the world of learning. If no richer understanding of the relationship, even
the creative tension, between “academic freedom” and the “authority”
of the restored Church of Jesus Christ than that at work in the accounts given
by these manifestly bright and enterprising former students should come to inform
discussions of such matters at BYU, then this failure would in itself constitute
a much heavier judgment on the pursuit at Brigham Young University of its noble
mission than any of the complaints so amply voiced in this volume.