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File under: reasons to discourage my kids from attending BYU.

Just one more reason why Mormonism in Utah is completely insane: Nowhere else on earth does appearance count so much more than performance, and nowhere else on earth does anyone think that it looks better to have a uniform set of opinions on a college campus than it does to enforce uniformity by using it as the basis for retention decisions.

Amen to the comment above.

I have been going over and over this whole incident in my head, and I made every point to myself that you did in the posting.

However, it just doesn't feel right, ya know? I mean, there is something so "unChristian" about the whole thing. Would Christ have fired one of the twelve if they had disagreed with him? I don't know.. I don't know.

I just don't like it. Maybe why I graduated from UCLA and didn't finish at BYU.

Yes, I imagine a few students and a few parents react that way, DKL. If more did, that might get BYU's attention. But I suspect the BYU applicant pool is already skewed toward those who don't mind this sort of thing.

But isn't there an inherent differences in publically expressing disagreement and publically calling the leaders of the church immoral? Can't we disagree and do so without calling the church's public stand immoral?

Lianne, it's not just a matter of disagreement. (There's plenty of that around BYU, it just never makes the papers.)

It's a matter of publicly saying that you disagree with the leaders and further that the their viewpoint is immoral.

Lianne, as to whether Christ would have "fired" an apostle for disagreeing with him, I think he just might have. And He would have been right to do so; after all, if you disagree with Jesus Christ, you're just wrong.

I think "those who don't mind this sort of thing" is putting it backwards. I would venture that most BYU administration, faculty, students -- not to mention their parents -- would find it objectionable to have things any other way.

Actually, John, there were several who disagreed with Jesus and didn't get fired. Peter disputed the need to go to Jerusalem and was rewarded with "get thee behind me," but wasn't fired. Later, Peter objected that no, he wouldn't deny Jesus, but was told he would do so three times. The apostles as a group tried to shoo away pesky children, and Jesus rebuked them. And so forth. Disagreement was not at all unusual for the apostles and none of them got fired. [But I'm not really making a point about BYU, just responding to the point about apostolic disagreement.]

Nielsen was a fun, thought provoking teacher and I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn from him. BYU will certainly miss him.

On the other hand, you just can’t come out swinging at the church like that. I bet BYU was probably fully aware of the negative press they would receive for the decision, and as such, I think it’s actually a courageous move on their part.

I think what Mr. Nielsen did was far more than disagreeing with the brethren. It wasn't as though he was asked his opinion by a reporter in passing--or such.

He wrote his thoughts down and submitted them to the paper with the specific intention of CHALLENGING the Brethren--and doing so in a way as public as possible.

There is a way to go about disagreeing--this is not the way.

There is also no way he didn't know what the repercussions would be.

truthfully, every time something like this happens it makes me like byu less and less. i've pretty much told them that i won't donate money anymore when they call me. basically the more liberal students/faculty/general members will feel a sense of outrage, and the more conservative ones will feel that he got what he deserved. but a part of me feels that he had to expect this.

at least he doesn't teach mormon studies, so hopefully he can get another teaching gig after this.

Call me obtuse but aren't there more than one meaning to the term "immoral?" Is calling what the Brethren did immoral equivalent to them being immoral themselves? Maybe Nielsen was simply using the same vague terms that the Brethren used when when they submitted the letter to members of the Church where we were encouraged to "express" ourselves. I honestly don't think that Mr. Nielsen was calling the Brethren immoral. I think as a man, as a philosopher, and as a citizen he opposed the idea that a religious authority would try to coerce politics.

He is a Philosophy teacher after all and I'm sure he's well versed in postmodernist thought and the Enlightenment. Maybe he's just following what he feels to be right. I think it's unfortunate that he was let go. I agree with the post that Mr. Nielsen should've been smart enough to know that his editorial would raise the eyebrows of those in charge of his department. However, I also think that he knew it would happen but that he hoped he would be proven wrong.

In any case the die is cast. What's done is done. I wish Mr. Nielsen well in finding another job elsewhere. I want to state that although I am against this amendment myself I have no malice against the First Presidency. I believe they are Prophets, Seers, and Revelators. I don't think that they are politically astute. That may be a good thing I guess. I know that they are people. Just regular people who have a lot on their shoulders and they did what they felt was right. They are products of the time in which they were raised and I think they felt this is the right thing to do.

Besides the unwisdom of implying that the leaders of the church are promoting an immoral position, and require blind obedience of their followers, Nielsen's idea of the relationship between religious morality and politics is exceedingly naive.

I suppose in his world, religious viewpoints are second class citizens of the world of ideas that must be conciously suppressed by voters everywhere to keep from tainting the antiseptic sanctity of public discussion.

And then somehow his own views to the contrary do not count as religious - i.e. people should listen to his opinion, consider, and follow it, but it is beyond the pale for members to listen to their leaders and follow of their free will and choice.

His assumption is that the Church not only has *no* claim of loyalty at all, but that the consensus opinion of the leaders of the Church, and arguably the majority of members is of no worth, certainly far less worth than the majority of enlightened 'Gentile' opinion. In short Nielsen is acting like a foreigner among the Saints, not a Saint among the foreigners.

Has anybody taken a stab at expressing the same ideas as Nielsen, but in a "gentlier" tone? I wonder if it is possible to do so without getting 'fired'?

If we excercise some charity and assume that he was sincere, then what he did was brave. He knew, as all of us knew, that this would probably end his BYU career. We will all forget about him soon enough, but these events will effect the rest of him and his families life for a long time. In my opinion standing on one's conscience is at the heart of living a moral life. When any institution does not respect that I believe the morality of that institution suffers as a result.

I just think that it is sad that things have to be this way. I'm a faithful Mormon, but find it sad that Mormons feel they can't speak their mind without getting into trouble. That’s why many of us here in the bloggernackle use handles instead of our real names. It is really just sad that our church is so afraid of differing opinions, or of confronting issue in an open and honest way.

No one should assume that ordinary members are held to the same standards of membership as tithing-paid Church employees are.

The problem here is not his position on SSM per se, but his position on legitmacy of the Church's position on SSM. The latter is poison for an employed agent of the Church.

BYU professors are for all practical purposes paid ministers with an amazing amount of freedom. Now if a minister no longer wants to preach the doctrine of the Church, or something compatible to the doctrine of the Church, and rather prefers to criticize the legitimacy of the actions of his superiors, should the trustees keep paying him out of the consecrated funds of the parishoners?

No organization has a moral obligation to subsidize its own opposition. And Nielsen placed himself in a position of telling the Church leadership what it should and shouldn't do, treating the prerogatives of the Church as a whole as inferior to his own prerogatives, which is beyond the pale.

Indeed is the perversion of academic freedom that prevails in "public" universities that is the anomaly. No one has a moral right to have their work be subsidized, no matter how offensive their work is to those who are picking up the tab.

Mark, I'll agree that the Church does see a big difference between the "rights of expression" accorded to rank-and-file members versus those on the LDS payroll. But similar limitations are also applied to volunteer CES people, missionaries, and all local leaders (i.e., bishops, stake presidencies, mission presidents, etc.).

I disagree with the view that BYU faculty are essentially paid ministers. The Church might treat them that way sometimes, but that doesn't change the fact that they are university faculty and ought to be treated that way. I doubt many BYU faculty see themselves as paid ministers. I'll bet even Religion faculty would reject that label.

I agree with DKL that the Church reaction is heavy-handed and probably unproductive.

However, I would still not object to sending my kids to BYU if they wanted to go.

At present, I feel that you are going to get stupid bureaucratic BS at any college you attend. I currently object just as much to Harvard, as a school, as I do to BYU. Dave's comment that the left wing schools are every bit as hypocrtitcal and ruthless in crushing dissent is well-taken.

Furthermore, you may get self-righteous "Honor Code Nazis" at BYU, but at least there isn't a rampant culture of female sexual harrassment, underage drinking (and drug use), and wanton hedonism that you seem to find on most other college campuses.

It's up to my kids, but I don't really have a big axe to grind with BYU.

This is stupid PR though. BYU is playing the bullheaded curmudgeon, stubbornly sticking to official principle and policy, even when it doesn't really make much sense to do so. I really don't see what harm it would have caused to ignore the offense for the moment.

Certainly BYU has the right to do what it did. I like Dave's point about it undermining the credibility of BYU professors. It would be interesting to take a private poll of BYU law professors to see what they think. And I wonder what law school classroom discussion (as there must have been) was like. Would a constitutional law professor be free to tell his class that based on X principles and Y precedents it's a bad idea? Or maybe its a lesson in arguing your client's case whether you like it or not.

Class discussion may not be as public as a newspaper editorial, but sometimes it is public enough.

Dave, You appear to be defending an essentialist position on the semantics of 'university faculty' and 'minister'. Until relatively recently, universities were uniformly religious in character, and many of the greatest specialists in secular matters throughout history have also been trained theologians / religious philosophers.

The Greeks hardly made the distinction - to be a philosopher was to advocate a both a religious philosophy and way of life. In the middle ages scholarship was practically synonymous with religious scholarship - even the best general purpose analysis was done by those devoted to the ministry. William of Ockham is an excellent example.

The religious / secular divide in scholarship is a modern invention, in large part a consequence of early reformation era despair of the difficulty of maintaining the scholastic synthesis of scholarship and religion. In short, the failure of classical Christian orthodoxy created a rift that has been deepening ever since.

Now "liberals" these days treat religious principles as foreign to scholarship, when in fact our whole civilization, including classical liberalism, is based on nothing but. The whole idea of natural rights, for example is a religious idea, and liberalism can be seen to be Christianity-lite. Take away those religiously inherited precepts and the turn to the dark side is complete.

In short, I am suggesting that BYU has a traditional view of the synthesis of scholarship and religion, a view that prevailed in nearly all private universities until just over a century ago. When was there ever a private university that was not founded as a religious institution? One that lacked explicitly religious tests for its faculty?

At Princeton not so long ago, one had to be a faithful Presbyterian. Most universities in the U.S. were sponsored by denominations that had much narrower definitions of "faithful" than we do - definitions based on theological creeds, such that a Catholic could not teach at a Protestant university and vice versa. This debate is still going on today, at several generally smaller religious colleges, notably Wheaton.

If BYU were to adopt the regime that prevails at state universities, it would rapidly lose its character as a religious institution, and with it any reason for the Church to sponsor it. It would become another formerly religious university, like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Baylor and Duke are headed down the same path. The attitude of the BYU trustees is No - we won't go there, a loss of religious identity would destroy BYU's raison d'etre.

There is a difficult dynamic balance to be maintained in all this, of course, but that does not mean the ideal is not worth pursuing. It is a strange concept of heaven where all ideas are created equal and an equally strange concept where liberty is non-existent. True Christian liberty lies somewhere in-between - neither license nor despotism.

Mark, if you re-read my post carefully, you'll note that I'm not attacking BYU's actions but saying they do have a right to their policy. The way it's executed deserves some rethinking -- their whole approach to the policy ought to be reconsidered -- but that's a different position than simply crying "foul!" about this particular episode.

As for your faculty as paid minister idea, I don't see how an appeal to the 19th-century college model has much relevance. It's not the model BYU uses, it's not how BYU faculty see themselves, and it's not the perspective of secular critics of the BYU approach. Unless you are making the proposal that BYU ought to redefine itself in terms of the 19th-century American college and treat their faculty like paid Mormon ministers (a new category for Mormonism).

I think BYU does treat its faculty like paid Mormon ministers - religous ministers of a secular education more than religious ministers per se, but the division between the temporal and the spiritual, is mostly a modern creation, especially in Mormonism. Brigham Young considered chemistry to be a part of the gospel(!). That goes a bit far, but we have "the glory of God is intelligence" and "truth in one great whole", and all truth is spiritual, no truly temporal laws, etc.

In other words the classical Mormon (and Christian) perspective on education is that it is an adjunct of theology, with hardly a perceptible division between the two. And indeed the more one pursues the philosophical basis of various fields from science to sociology, the more one finds this to be the case.

So perhaps BYU faculty do not like to think of themselves as religious educators, but classically that is a distinction without a difference, something those hostile to Catholicism made up during the Enlightenment.

Very thoughtful comments on the issue, Dave. That's the kind of thing that keeps me reading your blog.

Regardless of the fact that universities historically have had a religious mission and that their scholarship was done in that context, there seems to me to be an inherent contradiction in religious universities. The scholarly search for truth assumes that even one's basic ideas about the world may be incorrect, while the religious institution typically holds certain things are beyond doubt. In such a setting, questioning those things places one at risk of offending those in power.

This is just one more reason why the Church should set BYU free. Cut off the tithing money and make the $20k per year per student that we all pay come from somewhere else. Perhaps that money could go into the Perpetual Education Fund instead and could be available as loans to all LDS students. Maybe then there would be money for LDS kids in other countries to go to college with PEF money instead of just technical schools. This would free BYU to be an actual academic institution. It will never happen because those tithing dollars mean control. Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves indeed.

Nielsen's letter could have stated his opposition to the Church's position without calling it immoral. He could have also skipped the part where he goes on about correlated history. In short, it looks like he had some issues he _really_ wanted to vent about and thought that this was his big opportunity. He's getting his 15 minutes of fame and I would guess that this is exactly how he thought it would go down.

The biggest issue with this as a BYU alumni, is that it simply reduces the value of my degree. BYU is currently an accredited organization, however if it becomes the norm that intellectual freedom is not allowed, and that professors are seen as nothing more than Mormon Ministers, then we are have a real threat of losing that accreditation.

Why would a graduate school or an employer treat a BYU degree equally to another school, if they have the impression that students there are not able to be involved in a full an honest debate about these kinds of topics. It is a slippery slope.

As a Mormon Liberal, this is disturbing to me in another way. I have been able to rationalize the conservative politics of many in the church as that being their decision, but not necessarily endorsed by the church. Now I am afraid that we are seeing more endorsement of U.S. Conservative positions and parties, and that is a personal bother to me.

I already commented on this on two threads at Our Thoughts. If anyone cares to look, our leaders are being less than honest on their tolerance of dissent.

Following your advice, the civil rights era would have never happened. We'd still be living Jim Crow and be much poorer for it. Somebody has to stand up and follow their convictions in the face of bigotry.

BTW, the guy was indeed fired, just given advanced notice of the termination date (probably to avoid a breach of contract lawsuit). It’s Orwellian to say otherwise.

"Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves"

When I was there a generation ago, that JS quote was on a plaque in an obscure dark hallway in the basement of the admin building, the outer darkness of somebody's fiefdom. That said it all about the place. The motto should be “Free agency and how to enforce it”.

With the skyrocketing rates of higher education in America, BYU's low tuition rates do untold good in the lives of thousands of its students. I think it's great that the school is subsidized. Best argument for going there.

The cry to cut off funding over small potatoes like this is overwrought.

With some notable exceptions, BYU has not become more conservative in the past fifty years, rather the left has become much more liberal. If anything I would say that BYU is considerably more liberal than it was in the 1960s, though perhaps not as liberal as it was in the 1930s.

A very wide spectrum of opinion considered liberal in the fifties and sixties is now considered neo-conservative. Outside the college of religion BYU is probably best described as a moderate, neo-conservative institution - something far from the caricature that contemporary liberals like to paint.

By the way, if there is virtue in not holding to any fixed principles of morality, we would have to disband the Church tommorrow, or at least convert it into the second coming of Unitarianism.

The maintenance of agency is the leading motif of classical liberalism. Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.

"Free will and how to subsidize it" is probably the best summary of contemporary liberalism. Pretty much the same thing, just no more soul, no more self control, and a lot more law.

...it is embarrassing that the church can't tolerate dissenting political views. As an organization, its focus is firmly on doctrinaire obedience over spiritual pursuit. The Brethren look weak and scared, not strong, with this latest heavy-handed tactic.

While Brother Nielsen might disagree, the issue of gay marriage is profoundly religious at its core. He could have absolutely debated the war in Iraq or the merits of affirmative action without consequence. However, at least one part of BYU's mission is to provide a unique environment where students can learn from bright, successful individuals who are dedicated to gospel teachings and doctrines. It is their prerogative to expect this in a professor. There are many things that a member of the church can do that are not accepctable at BYU (such as growing a beard). BYU is designed to provide a definite, distinct experience. Brother Nielsen was not excommunicated from the church but dismissed from a post at an institution. That says it all.

Seth R.,

You'll have to forgive me for thinking that the approximately $600,000,000 of tithing money spent at BYU is not only not a good investment but is doing actual harm to both the university and the Church. But let's ignore my terrible bias for a moment and ask what that money could do in the PEF and opened up to students in need of help from all over the world, including the USA, and even at BYU. Why is a rich kid from California entitled to $80k worth of giveaway subsidies but an RM from Brazil can't get even a PEF loan to go to college? Oh, I'm sorry, make that eight RMs from Brazil that could have their educations completely funded. Why not give both the RMs and the BYU student PEF loans? Give them to the kid that wants to challenge himself and go to Harvard as well. Though that kid should have his head examined for not going to Stanford...

The money thrown at BYU is a cancer on our faith both in the way it allows for tight control of BYU and for the good that it doesn't do in the wider world.

ARJ, you could make roughly the same criticism of all publicly subsidized higher education. If the criticism works for BYU, it works for any other public university. In fact, it works for private ones too: Think how much good the Harvard endowment could do were it distributed to the poor and needy!

Yet subsidized higher education (both public and private) still seems wildly popular with people in general, especially students and parents. I guess most people just don't see things with the same selfless and charitable character you bring to the question. That is, assuming your argument for discontinuing the subsidization of higher education is sincere.


If the criticism works for BYU, it works for any other public university.

Not surprisingly, I disagree.

I think it is pretty easy to distinguish between state funded schools, private religious schools, and secular private schools when looking at how and why they are funded. I don't have time right now to go into all the reasons, (I'm sure you can come up with more than I can) but clearly a religion has a different relationship with and duty to all people than say, a state. At the very least a religion (especially one that considers itself a "world religion") should have a duty to educate all of its members rather than spending half a billion dollars a year on a giveaway mostly on kids from Utah and California while offering very limited loans to those not in the USA. Again, why do the kids from CA and UT deserve more from the Church than converts in less affluent parts of the world? If anyone could answer this one question I would appreciate it.

I think that it the real numbers on BYU were made public and contrasted with the PEF it would not be "wildly popular" as you suggest. In fact, I think that it would cause some soul searching. Why are those numbers not public?

Certainly if BYU were to take a more needs based approach to individual subsidies as practiced at many private universities that would be a great first step. I'm not holding my breath for even that though. Again having control over 2/3rds of the money for the instition allows for tight ecclesiastical control. Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves applies neither to individuals nor institutions.

But isn't there an inherent differences in publically expressing disagreement and publically calling the leaders of the church immoral?

Yes, there is.

Adjuncts are habitually temporary, and most of them are looking for a way to move on.

I would think that this is a major, positive career move for an adjunct in a crowded field who is otherwise at a dead end. This is probably his shot at getting a tenure track position somewhere.

See The Invisible Adjunct for some very good reading.

The fact that Nielsen was an adjunct makes it easier for BYU to release him and would make most adjuncts (i.e., those who wanted to be rehired) be more circumspect in their public statements. But it seems a little callous to tell him how lucky he is to get fired because, after all, he's only an adjunct. Nothing I've read suggests he wanted to get dropped.

And it's not like there's a lower standard of academic freedom for adjuncts. The BYU Statement on Academic Freedom applies to students as well as faculty, so it certainly applies to adjuncts.

John F: If you disagree with Jesus Christ, you're just wrong.

If Abraham had thought that way, then Lot would never have survived the assault on Sodom and Gomorra.

a random john This is just one more reason why the Church should set BYU free. Cut off the tithing money and make the $20k per year per student that we all pay come from somewhere else.

I absolutely agree. I'd like to see BYU set free, and the church education subsidy program converted to a merit based scholarship program that gives the cash to Mormon students to choose whatever accredited college they can get accepted into. (I don't care how cheap BYU is, it won't save me a dime if I send my kids there because I've paid for it with my tithing. As it is, there's a sense in which Mormons have to accept a financial penalty to send their kinds somewhere besides BYU--they pay for their kids education at BYU and at the other school.)

DKL ...

The question is whether or not BYU should become an LDS USC or SMU -- a place for rich LDS kids to meet, marry and exclude the hoi p or whether it should be a place the provides a core culture experience and provides a unifying corps and trend line.

The Church maintains BYU to provide the second element, as a cultural artifact. That has been the intent since the 1970s, to have a place that provides a unifying thread in a very diverse Church. It is also why there are strong diversity intents in admissions.

The net cost of BYU as a percentage of anyone's tithing is extremely small, and the intended benefit of BYU is not the chance to have your kid educated there, but for the connecting thread that they are hoping to create, and that appears to exist.

It is much like the MBA program is not geared so much at creating MBAs as it is in exporting people back to the mission fields they served in so that they can be of further service (the school felt it was wrong, somehow, to encourage those with foriegn language missions to seek employment that exploited that experience. One of the few times members of the Quorum of the Twelve had a direct discussion with them about the school. Now they see it as a chance to be of service and encourage it, including special supplementary language and culture classes).

Anyway, a scholarship program would not meet any of those needs or purposes, but would dissolve them instead, and "setting BYU free" would merely create a large, LDS themed, great and spacious building. We have enough of those.

Dave ...

You missed my point, I must not have been clear enough. because, after all, he's only an adjunct -- actually, I think the entire adjunct system is a terrible sadness the way it works for most. I don't know if it was his intent or not to get dropped, but if he is hoping to move up or out from being an adjunct, this is his best chance. Assuming that is what he wanted, which I don't know.

I don't know what he expected, only what he knew or should have known. One hopes that consultants and those trained in logic are competent and intentional. But I don't know it for a fact, and do know of many cases where they are not.

But I did not mean to be callous about adjuncts.

Stephen, a very eloquent defense of BYU. I've heard, off and on, that the brethren are themselves divided on the issue. I certainly don't think BYU has come close to its ideal promise. I wish it would. I think BYU's biggest problem (and perhaps people on all sides would agree on this) is that it focuses far too much on superficial issues. Further the worry is less on real effects than the perceived issue of "effects" that they ought be worried about. (The Rodin exhibit being a good example)

My view is that the basic stance of BYU is great it's just that its so focused on irrelevancies that is misses the core things that it isn't focusing on.

But I fully agree that having a central place like BYU is a good idea. Further I think as a practical matter it really is an excellent undergraduate education. Some departments obviously are better than others. And I suspect many are chaffing by the end of their senior year. But I think simply far more things are available of interest to Mormons at BYU that aren't elsewhere. Especially for Mormons outside of the Mormon corridor. (i.e. Idaho, Utah, Arizona) I suspect that had I grown up in that corridor BYU would have less to offer simply because there already were avenues for discussing Mormonism academically but in an aspect of faith.

Just for the record, Jeff Nielsen isn't an adjunct professor. He is a quarter-time at-will instructor on a year-to-year contract. That doesn't change the fundamental issues, of course, but it's not irrelevant to properly understanding the nature of BYU's action.

My understanding is Jeff Nielsen was a part-time non-tenure track instructor on year-to-year contracts. Doesn't the term "adjunct" generally cover that sort of position? See, for example, the definition at this university FAQ, or this definition from the ABA. Looking back at my post, I see I did use the term "adjunct professor"; I suppose "adjunct faculty," or "adjunct instructor," or even the nominalized "adjunct" would have been more accurate.

Forgive me if I am incorrect, but didn't the letter on the SSM amendment just encourage the members of the church to express our opinion on the amendment? Wasn't Jeff Nielsen doing just that? Although it is pretty clear what the church leadership meant, the letter was intentionally vague. I think his departure from BYU serves only as more bad PR for the LDS church

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