Friday, September 08, 2006

The BYU Way of Thinking

People debate over and over about just what exactly the principle of 'academic freedom' entails. But, I think it's fairly simple actually. Should a professor or instructor be allowed to hold an unpopular view? Yes. The university administration has no right to dictate what views their employees hold in their personal life. Just as a professor has no right to dictate what views their students should hold.

And so, the professor has the right to believe that aliens have visited Earth, but he or she does not have to the right to propose this idea to their students as gospel truth and require them to agree to it for a grade, or even to imply such a requirement. In fact, the idea of 'gospel truth' is largely anathema to higher ed. In matters of opinion, we have the responsibility to present opinions, if we choose so, as opinions. That's it. We're not required to avoid all controversial opinions- nothing is verboten in a marketplace of ideas. But, we are required to keep all opinions, especially our own, under an unblinking lens of skepticism.

So, Brigham Young University seems to be out of their tree in suspending Dr. Steven Jones for holding the opinion that the 9/11 attacks were an 'inside job'. Whether or not he's right, and my cursory review of the State Department report and his own website leads me to believe the latter, is not what should decide his employment. In fact, his personal opinions, again, are not the property of the university. Did he present his opinions in a classroom as proven fact? It doesn't even sound like he mentioned them in class from the article.

BYU is not a good place to teach, clearly. They've fired other instructors for such petty infractions as writing letters to the editor of the local paper in support of gay marriage. And generally they seem to take the attitude that 'if you work here, you'll believe what we tell you to believe'. Such an attitude is poisonous to intellectual freedom.


Anonymous said...

Rufus, BYU never fired a professor because he wrote a letter to the editor in support of gay marriage. They fired him because he criticized a top LDS church leaders' request for people to speak out about a gay marriage amendment. At BYU (and most other places of employement) you can't criticize your "boss" (BYU is sponsored by the LDS church) and expect to maintain your job.

Rufus said...

You either pay a professor to think critically, or to parrot the 'boss'. But, if you're paying them to parrot the boss, then call them spokespeople and not professors.

And this idea that all 'places of employment' make employees fall in line, so why should professors get special treatment, is just false equivalence.

Again, the idea that "well, you're getting a paycheck, so you'd better not disagree with us" is the exact antithesis of the idea of intellectual freedom that the university is founded upon. And it's frankly just a lousy argument.

Becky said...

10 years ago at BYU we were shouting ourselves hoarse about academic freedom. So nice to see things haven't changed.

The reason why things get weird with BYU is because it's a private institution run by the church. They require professors (and students) to adhere to certain standards of conduct. Those standards happen to be in conflict with the idea of academic freedom a distressing number of times. There's also a sort of willful hypocrisy that goes on and all sorts of dissociative thinking. Compartmentalizing. It's a weird environment and no, not a good place to work if you value academic freedom.

Rufus said...

Well, everyone has standards of conduct. But, usually, 'you will agree with us at all times' isn't one of them.

Becky said...

Yeah, obviously. But church standards don't just cover behavior, they also involve... well, thought, for lack of a better term. Like you can have all the crazy ideas about the doctrine you want, but the second you start teaching it or advocating it or calling out the bretheren over it, you're toast because only the prophet has the right to speak for the church. When you combine that with how closely the church is involved with BYU... it's not hard to believe this latest action of theirs. I'm not saying it's right by any means, I'm just not surprised at all.

I'm making it sound really horrible and in a way it is. But academically it's an excellent school with great professors.

See, even I compartmentalize.

Rufus said...

I will say that they definitely do have a great collection of dinosaur bones. Compartmentalizing is a part of life I guess- I certainly compartmentalize about Mall U.