Wednesday, June 14, 2006

This Is Just Not A Big Deal--Nor A Surprise

The AP has picked up this story, and it is now running in papers all over the country, including today's USA Today:

Brigham Young University has decided not to rehire a part-time instructor because he publicly opposed the Mormon church's stand against marriage for same-sex couples.

Jeffrey Nielsen, a philosophy instructor at the church-owned university, said in an op-ed piece for the June 4 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune, "I believe opposing gay marriage and seeking a constitutional amendment against it is immoral."

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have spent millions of dollars campaigning against gay marriage and on May 28 called on members to support a constitutional amendment banning it.

Nielsen, a Mormon, said he learned of the school's decision regarding his employment in a June 8 letter from Daniel Graham, chairman of the Department of Philosophy.

"Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose the church in an area of great concern to church leaders, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over," the letter said.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins confirmed that Graham decided not to rehire Nielsen because of the op-ed piece.

Nielsen said he is sticking by his views — and his religion.

"I have no desire to be anything but a member of the church," he said Tuesday.

The Salt Lake Tribune is also running a piece today as well (Mug shog included). The Deseret News story is here. What is all the fuss? Slow news day I suppose. The fact is, Mr. Nielsen was apparently an occasional part time instructor with the philosophy deparment on campus. He taught only part time, and then only one class at a time. He likely knew when he pulled his publicity stunt his contract would not be renewed. His firing had nothing to do with anything he taught at BYU. Oh well--Mr. Nielsen, your 15 minutes are up. Time to move on.

30 Comments:

Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Guy: this is a big deal to the extent that it confirms that BYU isn't a normal university. Places that have academic freedom don't allow the content of published statements to determine hiring or firing decisions. So, it we're content to agree that BYU doesn't live up to the academic norm, then this isn't a big deal. However, to the extent that BYU pretends to comply with normal academic practice, this is a huge news story.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 9:09:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Nielson said...

Well, it is a private religious school. I am a bit surprised.

Also, the article said the church spent millions to campaign against gay marriage? That is a surprise to me. Millions?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 9:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eric, many other private religious schools manage to combine respect for academic freedom with their religious identities. Consider, for example, this discussion of academic freedom and Catholic values at Notre Dame. There, to pull a quote, the university defends "the right of an individual faculty member or student to publish a book or article, write an editorial or a letter, expressing a view in his or her name." Universities that meet the standards of academic freedom defend this right; those that do not are on the borderline as to whether they should be accredited.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 1:37:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

RT--thanks for comment. I'm sorry I just don't see it at all (the hugeness of the story).

1. Agreed, BYU is different from Berkeley--by design. One can choose either, depending on their preference. I don't see how that makes BYU abnormal. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by a "normal" university.

2. How does not renewing a part time, non tenured philosophy instructor's contract for violation of the terms of that contract equate to a lack of academic freedom?

3. Mr. Neilsen's actions were not part and parcel of his academic performance or teaching. In fact, it appears to have had nothing to do with his teaching.

4. According to BYU's response to Mr. Neilsen:

"In accordance with the order of the church, we do not consider it our responsibility to correct, contradict or dismiss official pronouncements of the church," the letter reads. "Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose the church in an area of great concern to church leaders, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over."

Are you suggesting BYU has no right to condition employment of its professors or instructors on adherence to and belief in LDS doctrine? Should those professors and/or instructors be free to challenge "The Brethren" as "troubling, immoral, discriminatory, and based on fear and superstition" on any issue they deem fit in order to establish some mythical standard of academic freedom?

5. I think BYU's academic credentials are just fine. To me, what is more important is the quality of the faculty, the national reputation of the university and graduate schools (both high), the caliber of incoming students, than the personal opinion of a part time philosophy instructor.

6. Mr. Neilsen and every other instructor and professor are fully aware of what the expectations are when they are hired. They should not be surprised, and it should not be a big deal when they willfully breach those expectations.

What would make it a huge story is if Neilsen in fact worked for the U of U, or some other state school. That, in my opinion, would have been a huge news story.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 2:54:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Eric,

I agree. It is a private religious school. They have the right to establish the criteria they want for hiring and firing instructors and professors.

I think this idea that not renewing Neilsen's contract means there is no academic freedom at BYU is a gross over simplification at best, and a downright canard at worst.

To suggest BYU should not be accredited is foolishness.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 2:56:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Universities that meet the standards of academic freedom defend this right; those that do not are on the borderline as to whether they should be accredited.


Isn't it a bit naive to think that conservative professors at liberal schools don't face as much pressure to toe the line as a liberal professor at a conservative school? Are these schools on the borderline of being accredited as well?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 3:48:00 PM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Guy, you've made my point. The church's letter says that the professor was fired for stating his opinion in a publication, not for the quality of his teaching or research. Academic freedom means you won't be fired for the content of your expression--only for the quality of your teaching or research. So BYU has very limited academic freedom. That makes it not correspond to the normal model of a university--almost all universities have an explicit norm of not firing people for the content of their speech. Whether the person in question was full-time or part-time is irrelevant--making decisions about academic jobs on the basis of whether people say the right things violates the norm of academic freedom.

BYU isn't different only from Berkeley on this. It's also different from virtually ALL other universities in America. That includes most public AND private universities.

You ask, "Should those professors and/or instructors be free to challenge "The Brethren" as "troubling, immoral, discriminatory, and based on fear and superstition" on any issue they deem fit in order to establish some mythical standard of academic freedom?" That's exactly right. Only the standard of academic freedom isn't remotely mythical. Granted, it's a social convention--but it's a deeply engrained one that exists at most universities.

Failing to have academic freedom doesn't necessarily make BYU a bad educational experience for undergrads. But it's a big deal nonetheless. It makes BYU fundamentally unlike most universities--and it may, in the long run, affect faculty recruitment. (In fact, it may be doing so already; it's hard to know.) And BYU doesn't have to have academic freedom; it just has to understand that it will be seen as a bit strange and marginal to whatever extent it doesn't have it.

I think that's probably why so many news outlets are covering this story. It's a big deal to some people, evidently.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 5:30:00 PM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Ryan, you ask, "Isn't it a bit naive to think that conservative professors at liberal schools don't face as much pressure to toe the line as a liberal professor at a conservative school?"

This is totally irrelevant. Mr. Nielsen didn't face social pressure; he was fired because of political speech. I'm unaware of many cases in which conservative faculty members have been fired because of political speech; if such cases are at all frequent, I'm sure we'd hear about them.

And, in any case, the premise seems to be false. The conservative faculty members in my department do just fine.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 5:32:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Nielson said...

Are there not conservative professors and such that were fired/disciplined for saying things that were considered politically incorrect? Sorry I have no specifics, but my impression is that this has happened. The entire politically correct movement is an effort at lmiting academic freedom at some level - no?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 6:55:00 PM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Eric, as a person who has spent a lot of time involved in academia, I think I can safely say that the "politically correct" idea is more hype than reality. In my experience, most people teaching courses get as much pressure from the political right as from the left. Conservative students, in particular, are often far better organized than left-wing students; they can certainly pressure people from the right. And I really can't think of any examples at all of people on the political right being fired for the content of their political speech. In fact, a few different prominent universities are permanently saddled with holocaust deniers (who are clearly on the far, far right--way beyond anything I'd expect from anyone involved in this conversation) because of academic freedom.

After some reflection on this issue, I'm going to say that I don't mind if BYU decides to limit academic freedom. But we do have to understand that outsiders do see this as a big deal and will continue to do so. It strongly violates the socially established norm. Although we may see the university as having good reasons to violate that norm, outsiders will often find that hard to imagine.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 7:21:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

RT:

I think we need to define our terms. The AAUP website which is the body which deals with academic freedom defines academic freedom as:

"ACADEMIC FREEDOM

1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.

2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.

3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution."

Given the context of Mr. Neilsen’s publication one can make the case his academic freedom was not infringed based on the above definition.

1. This one clearly does not apply. His contract was not renewed as a result of any of his endeavors in his research, publication, or academic duties.

2. This one clearly does not apply as he was not involved in teaching in the classroom or discussing a subject in his class. And, even if he were, he is obligated not to introduce controversial matter that has no relation to the subject. Furthermore, limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution (BYU in this case) were absolutely crystal clear to a “believing, practicing” LDS faculty member at BYU.

3. The argument here, I would make is that Neilsen abrogated his duty and obligation that as a scholar and an educational officer to remember the public would judge his profession and BYU by his utterance. He was not accurate, did not exercise appropriate restraint, show respect for the opinions of others (The Brethren–in this case). He did not make every effort to indicate he was not speaking for the institution. Rather, he made certain the Salt Lake Tribune put into his bio line the fact he was a BYU affiliated instructor. He failed miserably in my opinion in this third prong, and in this context his academic freedom was not infringed.

So, I disagree that I have made your point, when you take into context the definition of academic freedom above. Furthermore, BYU’s website has an entire section dedicated to academic freedom. Under either the AAUP’s definition, or BYU’s criteria, I don’t see how Mr. Neilsen’s freedom was abridged in any way.

I’m not certain if I understand you correctly; but, it appears to me you are comfortable with the idea that BYU professors are shielded by the concept of academic freedom to say and/or write anything that challenges "The Brethren" as "troubling, immoral, discriminatory, and based on fear and superstition" on any issue they deem fit. Here, you and I have a fundamental disagreement. This to me emasculates BYU and its educational mission, as well as the gospel principle that we should seek learning out of the best books, even by study and by faith.

Again, I agree with you that BYU is fundamentally different from most universities. It is the fundamental difference, that in my opinion makes BYU unique in the universe of universities. I’m afraid this is a big deal to some because they want to make BYU appear odd, strange, out of touch, and limiting the learning abilities of its student body. Again, I just don’t see it. But, reasonable minds will differ. Thanks for your ideas and comments.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 10:10:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

It strongly violates the socially established norm.

But RT, can you see where that makes my point relevant? It's misleading to pretend that the socially established norm in academia is some sort of marketplace of ideas. Everybody quickly learns which schools suppress conservatism (Berkeley) and which schools suppress liberalism (BYU). This is causing national attention only because BYU admin have handed the media a big stick to beat the church with. It's psuedo-outrage because the world of higher education is full of polarities and BYU is no exception. Why should it be?

Try here, here, or here.

My google search came up with quite a few more examples. Now I'm not saying conservatives are innocent victims in the battle for control of academia. I'm just sayin' that both sides have blood on their hands in this one and I am not so sure that it's a bad thing.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 10:34:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Nielson said...

RT,

Would you feel differently about this if Mr. Nielsen (no relation!) had mad clearly racist remarks instead of what he said?

I like Guys comments about academic freedom. What was academic about his comments?

Also, there was a mention about Notre Dame. I don't know, but what would be the reaction their if some equivalent individual were to call a declaration by the pope immoral?

Thursday, June 15, 2006 5:48:00 AM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Guy:

Your argument is exactly correct on points #1 and #2. However, point #3 in the AAUP definition of academic freedom is intended to cover situations exactly like Mr. Nielsen's; this is a prototypical case of what that statement has in mind. In particular, note that the statement says, "When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline."

The rest of the statement involves the ethical responsibilities of faculty members when they speak in public--under the presumption that they will be free from institutional censorship and discipline. Under academic freedom rules, Mr. Nielsen could be reproached for violating these responsibilities, but not punished.

But--did Mr. Nielsen actually violate these norms to the extent that you claim, Guy? Nope, not at all. First of all, Mr. Nielsen made absolutely clear that he was speaking for himself, rather than for the institution of BYU as a whole in any officially-delegated capacity (which is what the guideline is about). The second paragraph starts, "As a member..." and Nielsen at no point invokes his role as a BYU professor in the editorial to claim that his viewpoint is sanctioned by BYU as a whole or by the church. The statement in the bio was a claim of fact, and did not suggest to any reasonable reader that Nielsen was claiming that BYU as an institution endorsed his remarks.

Was Nielsen accurate in his remarks? Certainly the statements contain opinon--which is neither accurate nor inaccurate. But I don't think his claims of fact in the editorial are actually incorrect. Can you find factual errors?

Was Nielsen respectful to the opinions of those who disagreed with him? You claim he didn't respect the opinions of the church leadership. I'll agree that he didn't defer to them. But he didn't use any mocking or impolite language when discussing them. In fact, he said, "I sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as LDS general authorities; however, I reject the premise that they are thereby immune from thoughtful questioning or benevolent criticism." That's respectful, just not deferential.

Mr. Nielsen's actions are thus 100% within the realm protected by academic freedom standards. The fact that BYU's standards didn't protect him means that BYU doesn't have academic freedom; it has a limited substitute.

As noted above, I think that's okay. It's just a big story.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 7:19:00 AM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Ryan,

The cases you link to are interesting; I don't know them well, but it's worth noting that none of them is at a major university.

You say that Berkeley suppresses conservatism. That's actually not true. I've been a graduate student at Berkeley for years, and I can assure you that we have our share of very conservative faculty members. Those professors aren't marginalized or pressured not to share their impressions; they're just part of the community.

Eric,

If the comments in question had been racist remarks, and the individual was fired for them, I would label that a violation of academic freedom.

Notre Dame has had professors call declarations by the pope immoral. The academic freedom standards, which Notre Dame accepts, prevent any punishment for such statements.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 7:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Micheal said...

Dear roastedtomatoes,

After a careful reading of all the points presented so far, I would have to respectfully say you are off your rocker. You are truly in denial about the reality of university life at your supposed "well-balanced" schools. Didn't the Prez of Harvard have to resign after he stated that there are innate differences between men and women that result in men pursuing the sciences more than women? Where was his academic freedom?

BYU had every right to terminate Mr. Neilsen.

As concerns other religious institutions, such as the Catholic universities, you are woefully naive. Those universities run by the Jesuits have allowed a large amount of criticism of Catholic doctrine precisely because the Jesuits are much more liberal than other Catholic orders. But, for the past few years, there has been a major battle going on with the Vatican and the US Catholic Bishops to have Catholic universities adhere more to Catholic teachings and to pay respect to the church's traditions. After all, the Vatican is still the owner of the universities even though they are run by the Jesuits.

While I am one of those moderate fence sitters that so many on the right and left despise, I find your arguments to be very shallow and generalizing as concerns the reality of university politics.

Also, please note that only in the "academic" world do employees claim an unlimited freedom to say and do what they wish and expect no repercussions from their employer. Why is this tradition so sacrosanct? Should it be so if the employees involve themselves in shaming their employers in the guise of "academic discussion"? Most of those who cry "victim" about academic freedom are the ones who enjoy taking it to the extreme for political or personal gain. They do not do it in the interest of a well balanced academic exploration.

As Professor Nibley has warned, "We are gathered here today in the robes of an artificial priesthood..."

Thursday, June 15, 2006 8:02:00 AM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

michael:

Personal abuse. Nice.

Academic freedom is important in academics because the business is one of creating knowledge. Other businesses don't do the same.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 8:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Micheal said...

Dear roastedtomatoes,

It was not personal abuse. It was exercising my academic freedom to show how your argument does not hold up. It was very respectful of your position (OK, maybe the "off your rocker" comment could be construed as personal). But you conveniently don't address the specific points that I mention concerning Harvard, the Catholic universities, and professors crossing the line when crying "acacdemic freedom".

Also, please note that universities and professors do not "create" knowledge. Knowledge results from discovery, not creation.

As far as universities "discovering" knowledge as the reason for academic freedom, the private sector (i.e. corporations) discover a much greater amount of knowledge than do universities. But you don't hear about them granting their employess "academic freedom" in order to keep the marketplace of ideas alive.

If the purpose of ensuring academic freedom is to keep a true marketplace of ideas functioning (so we don't fall into another dark ages) then professors need to be professional and allow for a multitude of opinions. That is just not the case in the "academic" world nowadays.

What Nielsen did in his letter was to purposely link himself to BYU and then criticize his employer in writing. If he wanted to exercise his rights as a private citizen as in #3 of the AAUP standards, then he should have typed his letter as a private citizen.

But instead he chose to identify his employer and now is crying to the press about where his next meal is supposed to come from.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 8:32:00 AM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Michael,

This discussion has featured a very one-sided misrepresentation of the Larry Summers case at Harvard. If you want to learn more--including the actual events surrounding his departure, read this very fair journalistic analysis.

The claims about struggles within the Catholic church over universities is irrelevant to my claim, which is that they have managed to follow the academic freedom guidelines to date. You haven't disputed that idea.

Nielsen specifically identified himself as a private citizen--but an important point about #3 in the AAUP guidelines is that academic freedom means you can't be fired EVEN IF you violate your ethical responsibilities. Otherwise, certain points of view can be pressured into silence; that's what academic freedom is about avoiding.

Your claim that the private sector produces more knowledge than the universities is really debatable. Most major medical developments are done at universities but funded by private money, for example. Really, this is a difficult question to decide--but universities are certainly competitive with the private sector in knowledge production, at the very least.

And, yes, calling me "off your rocker" was the personal abuse that I had in mind.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 8:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Dear Roasted (may I call you Roasted?),

I know this is a personal question but "Have you ever worked in the private sector for any length of time?".

Your last comment seems to indicate that your experience has only been in the academic world.

This may provide an understanding for the rest of us as to your undue loyalty to an outdated system.

How do you feel about on-line degree programs such as the University of Phoenix? Do they represent a positive step forward or a cheapening of the academic process?

I was just curious about your thoughts.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 8:54:00 AM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Michael,

Yes, I worked as a computer programmer in the private sector before I went back to grad school.

And I think the online degree programs are great; the more we can make information and skills available to a wide number of people, the better.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 9:55:00 AM  
Blogger Todd said...

Hey Guy,

I couldn't find your original post here on your blog, so I hope you don't mind my posting my response here in this thread, as it seems to fit here. By the way, thanks for your continued engagement. I appreciate your well-reasonsed and thoughtful responses, even if we often disagree.

We come at this particular topic (academic freedom) with completely different assumptions about what a "search for truth" would mean and why a professor's ability to speak out about political, moral, and scientific issues is paramount to their ability to be good teachers and researchers. But I think the dialogue is useful for both of us.

I will use your numbering system from the AAUP:

1-I agree this is probably not relevant in Nielsen's case.

2-however, I think this point is of utmost relevance. Nielsen revealed in his response letter that he had censored himself in the classroom. This was so as not to offend the sensibilities of the students or challenge their testimonies and most likely to keep his job. When I was at BYU 15 years ago, I had teachers who would constantly edit themselves (i was in the humanities and social sciences). This is, on its face, bad for education.

Nielsen points out the effect, and I agree, that in such an environment, the search for truth cannot move forward in any sort of meaningful way, because the outcomes are determined from the beginning, in this case, by the "brethren" and by the dominant Mormon culture at BYU (which is, you'll admit, quite a bit more intense than mormon culture outside of BYU).

That is the absolute worst and most basic mistake that any researcher can make methodologically, in any field, to know in advance what you will find. It warps and distorts the research process and produces faulty results. That is the inverse of what a university should be teaching its students--to question, reflect, critique, and evaluate ideas. That process is damaged from the outset if you tell the students what their conclusions have to be before they begin.

3-I simply disagree with you here. I think Nielsen's brief Op-Ed piece went above and beyond his ethical responsibility. He bent over backwards to be respectful in expressing a dissenting opinion. I don't know your heart or mind (we've only recently begun exchanging ideas), but I find often in Mormon culture a deep aversion to disagreement and argument; when someone disagrees, it is read as "contention" and judged unethical. However, that is simply an untenable position both academically and democratically. For truth to advance, we must be free to disagree and doing so is not unethical. In fact, I would argue the opposite, that not to disagree is unethical as it violates the common good and forecloses the search for truth.

I doubt that Nielsen insisted BYU be in his by-line. Rather, journalism requires thorough citation, and that's his affiliation. Whenever I publicly comment on anything, my university is always attached to my name (this is so far rare, as I'm a relatively new professor). It is highly problematic ethical position to state that a BYU professor (adjunct or permanent) can only speak as a BYU professor if he is toe-ing the LDS line.

I would also argue that BYU's reputation is *improved* when BYU professors are free to think, express, research, and speak openly even when it disagrees with the church. This freedom is one of the reasons why Jesuit universities have such high reputations. The church is highly active in the personal, religious lives of the students; but is hands-off in the classroom and laboratory.

Notre Dame's (non-jesuit) current controversy about a gay student group is a much better model for how a religious insitution can work, even if they come to the wrong social conclusion. Although I think ND has refused to allow such a group on campus, you'll notice that the president and university students had arguments and dialogues about it in public, including protests and shouting and letters in the school, local, and national papers; you'll also notice that professors at ND continue to regularly publish and teach and research about gay and lesbian issues, and they even weighed in on the university's debate about allowing a student group, without consequence to their jobs.

It is difficult to balance the religious and the academic misssions of a church-funded university, but there are better and worse ways to do so. BYU exercises a virtual dictatorial control over the thought and expression of its faculty and students in a few key areas (esp. gender and sexuality, and most recently race), which is detrimental to its mission as a university. (I would also argue that it ultimately damaging to the Mormon church, but that is based on my own ethical views of what a church should be, which is separate from our current topic.)

It is difficult for me to see how allowing professors to examine and critique the political positions of the church hampers ("emasculates") BYU's academic mission. I'm frankly baffled by your argument there, because I just don't see how allowing freedom of speech could ever be harmful to the pursuit of truth.

Do please realize that "learning from the best books" is a highly subjective proposition, and that BYU chooses it's "best books" based on a very limited and limiting criteria. Again, this impedes professors from teaching materials that students should be exposed to. I had a professor who actually had alternate books for students who were "offended" by the books he'd chosen--this was in 1993 and he was obviously in fear of his job, even though he was tenured, because BYU was firing professors for their classroom content at the time. But he still wanted to expose those of us open to it to the real literature and ideas that we should be reading as college students. Determining what the "best books" are is part of the open dialogue a university should be having, and those books and ideas will change and move over time with the ongoing dialogue among professors and experts in their respective fields.

You should check out Michael Nielsen's blog (no relation to Jeffrey Nielsen). He's a professor of psychology of religion and has recently been posting a lot about the relationship between religion and universities. He's an expert in this field, and I'm just speaking from my own values and experiences as a professor. (there's a link to his blog on my blog...wow, the blogosphere is weird. lol)

Thursday, June 15, 2006 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Todd said...

To Eric Nielsen:

First, there is no "politically correct" movement. The idea was manufactured in the 1980s as a way to begin saying things that had become socially unacceptable during the 1960s and 1970s.

That said, in my classroom, I try to take a balanced view with my students on the issue of "PC." I tell my students that, given our goal to learn together, we have two sometimes contradictory ethical obligations. 1) we have to have free speech to express any and all ideas that we can, because by expressing and arguing about ideas, we move ourselves closer to "truth", the goal of a university classroom. But 2) sometimes our ideas can do harm to the people we are dialoguing with; when we harm the people we are trying to talk to, it stops the advancement of truth in its tracks. I tell my students to never censor themselves, but to be deeply aware of *how* they say something, to be sensitive to the feelings of the people who may be personally implicated in their ideas. This seems to work pretty well.

On the flip side, however, the "academic free speech" movement (i.e., David Horowitz) has created a bizarre sort of idea that in a university classroom all ideas should be allowed to be expressed without challenge, and that if I teacher or students challenge a conservative idea, they are being "PC" or are "biased." The problem is, as a university professor, my obligation is to lead students to truth, by teaching them critical thinking skills and how to evaluate evidence and think about evidence and draw conclusions from it. In other words, all ideas are NOT equal. Some ideas are faulty, some are unethical, and some are just plain wrong. I try to set up my classroom from the beginning so that my students understand that all ideas are open to critique and examination by me and the classroom, that all ideas are not equal (even if the people who express them are equal), and that we are working to eliminate falsehood. So far, I've not had a problem with the Horowitz style anti-intellectualism, but I dread the day when it happens, because it so misses the mark of what a university education is for and how to conduct a rigorous search for truth.

You are right that some "conservative" professors are often publicly lamblasted for their ideas, complete with student protests, letters to the editor, etc. But you will actually find that these professors are tenured like any other, and they are protected by the university. Off the top of my head, I can think of Huntington at Harvard, and the guy at Illinois who is a holocaust denier. There are many others. Contrary to the conservative talk radio, you will also find that most universities value these outspoken contrarians because THEY ENRICH THE EDUCATION ENVIRONMENT. Huntington holds some deeply offensive ideas (to me, anyway), but his courses at Harvard are among the most popular, because they are lively and challenging.

I think the worst problems on university campuses come in the dealings with "student life" rather than academics, where in the name of 'multiculturalism' speech is stifled and students sometimes sanctioned. These are difficult ethical lines to walk, and I don't envy the administrators making those decisions; but I do think they err the wrong direction sometimes.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Dear J. Todd,

Very good comment. Thank you. However, where do you allow for the most unique gift available to BYU and its students. Remember that BYU is not a secular university. Its professors and students are not to learn ONLY through secular means. They are also to learn through the gift of the Holy Ghost which does teach a man many things that cannot be learned by secular means.

If the purpose of a university is to discover ultimate truth and we, as Latter-day Saints, have been taught two ways to discover that truth, then where do you place learning by the spirit?

And if learning by the Holy Ghost requires that we abandon the spirit of contention and give obedience to the first principles of the gospel to be worthy of spirit, how do you balance secular learning and spiritual learning.

There is no such thing as a secular truth and a spiritual truth. Truth is truth no matter where it is found. By comparing us to secular universities (or to religious universities that are not blessed by the Gift of the Holy Ghost), you are comparing apples to oranges.

I don't think it is about professors not being able to express their opinions. I think it is about professors understanding there is a balance that must be maintained in using both learning methods.

In my own personal day-to-day life, I find myself learning very differently than my co-workers if I am trying to learn by both methods.

In dealing with the gay issue at BYU, we have two irreconcilable issues: Where do gays fit in the gospel of Jesus Christ (orientation-wise, not behaviour-wise)?, and Why were they given those feelings if they are not supposed to act upon them? Until we understand this issue from the Lord's perspective, we will be faced with confusion about the subject. So we have to follow the prophet until we gain further light and knowledge.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 1:03:00 PM  
Blogger Todd said...

Hi Michael,

Having been raised mormon, I certainly understand where you are coming from in thinking about things spiritually. However, at this point in my life, the distinction no longer makes sense. I think that 'spiritual truth' can and should be able to withstand the same standards of logic and evidence as any other line of inquiry. The problem I have with most "spiritual inquiry" is that it is based in feelings and experiences, which can often be inaccurate measures of the truth of an idea or value. So while I agree with you that truth is truth, I think you and I would have greatly divergeant ideas about the proper method to arrive at those truths.

I owe much to mormonism for starting me on my own spiritual path and giving me certain values I still hold dear, including and especially my love for the search for truth itself. But I cannot believe in a god that would simply allow huge groups of his children to suffer based on their ignorance. I am more like the Jewish version of Job: I'm in God's face demanding to know why and how could he? I think that as human beings, god or no god, it is our responsibility to seek out and enact the best possible moral solutions we can to the particular problems we are faced with at any given moment.

As a gay man, I could not accept celibacy or ministering angel as acceptable ends to my life and being. I have discovered an incredible depth and profoundly spiritual aspect to my sexuality, a kind of connection and perspective that is unique to gay men, and I value it as a Holy, god-given aspect of my being. For me, it is to celebrate, embrace, and make the most of what I have been given. I can therefore simply not accept the position that we have to sit around and wait for another human being (e.g., the mormon prophet) to speak. It is for us to act with compassion to understand our fellow human beings and to create a just society that nurtures and embraces its members.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 2:03:00 PM  
Blogger Todd said...

Some of you may be interested in reading a detailed examination of the issue of academic freedom from a respected Humanities Professor at Penn State, Michael Berube. He has posted the text of his recent speech to the AAUP on his blog here:

http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/academic_freedom_again/

Thursday, June 15, 2006 2:08:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. I'm enjoying reading and thinking about the arguments and issues. I'm quite backlogged at work today; but I will attempt to respond over the weekend sometime.

Friday, June 16, 2006 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

RT wrote:

Your argument is exactly correct on points #1 and #2. However, point #3 in the AAUP definition of academic freedom is intended to cover situations exactly like Mr. Nielsen's; this is a prototypical case of what that statement has in mind. In particular, note that the statement says, "When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline."

The rest of the statement involves the ethical responsibilities of faculty members when they speak in public--under the presumption that they will be free from institutional censorship and discipline. Under academic freedom rules, Mr. Nielsen could be reproached for violating these responsibilities, but not punished.


I respond: RT, you're interpretation of this last paragraph may be correct. I read further on the AAUP site; however, I think it must be tempered with BYU's own statement on Academic Freedom, to which all professors and instructors agree before being hired:

Limits on Individual Academic Freedom. There can be no unlimited individual academic freedom. Were there no constraints on individual academic freedom, religious universities could converge toward a secular model and lose their distinctive character, thus diminishing pluralism in academia. Furthermore, absolute individual freedom would place the individual faculty member effectively in charge of defining institutional purpose, thereby infringing on prerogatives that traditionally belong to boards, administrations, and faculty councils. Such arrogation of authority is particularly intolerable when the disagreement concerns Church doctrine, on which BYU's board of trustees claims the right to convey prophetic counsel. Yet even secular universities, whose boards claim no special religious authority, do not empower individual faculty members with absolute individual freedom relative to the university mission. For example, universities have censured professors for racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise offensive expression. In addition, state universities have prohibited the advocacy of religious values to protect a separation of church and state. Every university places some limitations on individual academic freedom . . .

Reasonable Limitations. It follows that the exercise of individual and institutional academic freedom must be a matter of reasonable limitations. In general, at BYU a limitation is reasonable when the faculty behavior or expression seriously and adversely affects the university mission or the Church.22 Examples would include expression with students or in public that:

1. contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy;

2. deliberately attacks or derides the Church or its general leaders; or

3. violates the Honor Code because the expression is dishonest, illegal, unchaste, profane, or unduly disrespectful of others.


Without the reasonable limitations, BYU becomes just another U of U or other secular school. I don't see how the reasonable limitation all professors at BYU agree to adhere to is in anyway impairs the learning or teaching process at BYU. But, perhaps this is a point on which we may never agree.

You also question, RT, whether Nielsen violated the norms of the
AAUP's 3d paragraph. I disagree with you here. If Nielsen had truly wanted to avoid a controversy here, and be respectful of Church Doctrine, and The Brethren he should and could have chosen a different forum than the Salt Lake Tribune. This is not a story at all, if he doesn't use the Tribune. And, the Tribune is only interested in the story because of Nielsen's status (though lowly) at BYU. That is what makes the story. So, Nielsen is a bit disingenuous here claiming he was not playing up his BYU connections.

Nielsen was incredibly disrepectful of the Brethren when he called their position on SSM, immoral, troubling, discriminatory and based on fear and superstition. This is not, as you and Nielsen describe thoughtful questioning or benevolent criticism. It challenges well established Church Doctrine, and deliberately derides the Church and The Brethren.

This is where I belive he has crossed the line. There were better avenues in which he could have legitimately expressed his views. He chose the most innapropiate available.

Friday, June 16, 2006 9:48:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Murray said...

Todd,

Just a couple of quick responses to your latest response to my prior response (if it goes on much longer we’ll need to start an entire new post). Yours are in italics–my response immediately following.

Todd wrote:

We come at this particular topic (academic freedom) with completely different assumptions about what a "search for truth" would mean and why a professor's ability to speak out about political, moral, and scientific issues is paramount to their ability to be good teachers and researchers. But I think the dialogue is useful for both of us.

This is, I believe, where you and I agree the most. We do come at this particular topic (academic freedom) with completely differing assumptions. I understand the assumptions that you are making. I respect them. In many cases I think they are valid and good assumptions; however, I do not share them all. Or perhaps it is best said I make some additional assumptions that you would not make or accept.

Todd wrote:

I will use your numbering system from the AAUP:

1-I agree this is probably not relevant in Nielsen's case.

2-however, I think this point is of utmost relevance. Nielsen revealed in his response letter that he had censored himself in the classroom. This was so as not to offend the sensibilities of the students or challenge their testimonies and most likely to keep his job. When I was at BYU 15 years ago, I had teachers who would constantly edit themselves (I was in the humanities and social sciences). This is, on its face, bad for education.

Nielsen points out the effect, and I agree, that in such an environment, the search for truth cannot move forward in any sort of meaningful way, because the outcomes are determined from the beginning, in this case, by the "brethren" and by the dominant Mormon culture at BYU (which is, you'll admit, quite a bit more intense than mormon culture outside of BYU).


I still don’t see how number two is relevant in Nielsen’s case. His termination had nothing to do with his discussion of any topic in the class room. The fact he revealed he censored himself in the classroom was not a topic upon which he opined in his editorial. How is it now a relevant factor? In fact, I don’t think academic freedom was even an issue Nielsen raised at all in his piece.

But, since you brought it up, I would point out this particular paragraph anticipates that professors may utilize self censorship when appropriate for their students, and still preserve academic freedom:

“ 2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.”

The critical passage of course being careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter having no relation to their subject. Furthermore, this paragraph seems to clearly allow reasonable limitations on academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution–clearly applicable at BYU.

Todd wrote:

3-I simply disagree with you here. I think Nielsen's brief Op-Ed piece went above and beyond his ethical responsibility. He bent over backwards to be respectful in expressing a dissenting opinion. I don't know your heart or mind (we've only recently begun exchanging ideas), but I find often in Mormon culture a deep aversion to disagreement and argument; when someone disagrees, it is read as "contention" and judged unethical. However, that is simply an untenable position both academically and democratically. For truth to advance, we must be free to disagree and doing so is not unethical. In fact, I would argue the opposite, that not to disagree is unethical as it violates the common good and forecloses the search for truth.

Yes, we clearly disagree on this one. In my view calling The Brethren’s and the Church’s long established position on marriage troubling, immoral, discriminatory, and based on fear and superstition goes somewhat beyond respectful and simply expressing a dissenting opinion. You understand, from your background, that millions of latter-day saints consider this counsel to be inspired from God. I realize you do not; however, millions of others do. It seems a philosophy professor at BYU might have found a better word choice, and forum to have expressed his dissatisfaction with this particular issue.

Todd wrote:

It is difficult to balance the religious and the academic misssions of a church-funded university, but there are better and worse ways to do so. BYU exercises a virtual dictatorial control over the thought and expression of its faculty and students in a few key areas (esp. gender and sexuality, and most recently race), which is detrimental to its mission as a university. (I would also argue that it ultimately damaging to the Mormon church, but that is based on my own ethical views of what a church should be, which is separate from our current topic.)

I don’t think this is a very fair representation of BYU’s academic freedom philosophy. I’m certain you have read their treatise on academic freedom, and it is far from dictatorial. They use terms like reasonable limitations, which is consistent with AAUP’s language as well.

Todd wrote:

It is difficult for me to see how allowing professors to examine and critique the political positions of the church hampers ("emasculates") BYU's academic mission. I'm frankly baffled by your argument there, because I just don't see how allowing freedom of speech could ever be harmful to the pursuit of truth.

What you describe above is a far cry from what Nielsen did. He wasn’t examining and critiquing a political position. He specifically called a moral position long taken by the Church to be immoral, among other things.

Todd wrote:

Do please realize that "learning from the best books" is a highly subjective proposition, and that BYU chooses it's "best books" based on a very limited and limiting criteria. Again, this impedes professors from teaching materials that students should be exposed to. I had a professor who actually had alternate books for students who were "offended" by the books he'd chosen--this was in 1993 and he was obviously in fear of his job, even though he was tenured, because BYU was firing professors for their classroom content at the time. But he still wanted to expose those of us open to it to the real literature and ideas that we should be reading as college students. Determining what the "best books" are is part of the open dialogue a university should be having, and those books and ideas will change and move over time with the ongoing dialogue among professors and experts in their respective fields.

Here’s one of the assumptions I make, that you likely do not: I believe that part of learning from the best books also entails learning not only by study but by faith. You discount this as anathema to academic freedom. I view it as a perquisite. Faith by definition is not empirically measured; but, I’m not as convinced as you that it is necessarily a highly subjective proposition.

My experience at BYU was different from yours. I did not experience professors as you did; but that is not to say they didn’t exist. Unlike you, I do not consider BYU to be a mistake. I came away from BYU with my own demons; but over the years I have come to terms with them, and with the Church. Determining what the “best books” are is arguably a subjective process depending on who is doing the deciding. Under your analysis or mine, someone makes those decisions. You and I have a difference of opinion which method is better.

Saturday, June 17, 2006 9:51:00 PM  
Blogger John Pack Lambert said...

I think that BYU has every right t be unique and to seek to build learning along those lines.
I think we need to remember what Zion is, a people of one heart and one mind, and focus our efforts on that.
BYU also gets a unique monetary commitment from the Church.
I also think there is a big difference between expressing opinions and castigating other people as being immoral and full of fear.

Thursday, December 11, 2008 6:31:00 PM  

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