New book explores academic freedom at BYU, amid controversy

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    By KATHRYN PETERSON

    “The Lord’s University: Freedom and Authority at BYU” is hot off the press and creating a stir of controversy among those reading the 453-page book.

    Written by BYU graduates Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel, the book recounts the history of academic freedom issues at BYU, focusing especially on skirmishes within the last decade.

    Documented descriptions depict a university colored by a history of academic restraint, administrative control, stringent policies and codes, censorship and “nineteenth-century notions of gender roles.”

    The dismissal of BYU English professor Cecilia Konchar Farr and anthropologist David Knowlton in 1993 prompted the two authors to write a history about academic freedom issues. Waterman and Kagel use such cases to show that “BYU more than ever remains determined to deviate from contemporary academic models and preserve a safe space for Mormon education, even at the expense of outstanding faculty and national reputation.”

    Later controversies, such as the cases of former BYU English professor Gail Houston and Brian Evenson, are also examined. Waterman, a former editor of the off-campus Student Review, and Kagel, former editor of The Daily Universe, admit in the preface that the book leads toward the experience of faculty members “due to (their) level of personal access to them.”

    BYU’s Statement on Academic Freedom, drafted in 1992, protects the individual academic freedom of faculty and the university’s institutional academic freedom to pursue its religious mission. The book’s narrative, however, emphasizes the administrative measures taken to ensure BYU’s freedom over the freedom of faculty and students.

    Waterman, 28, said he hopes students will form their own conclusions about the documentary material, even if some consider it biased.

    “We hope people will read critically. My fear is that too many people at BYU just don’t want to know exactly what happened behind the scenes during these controversies. Their fear will keep them from reading,” he said.

    But Waterman also said he hopes readers will enjoy the lighter moments of the book, such as the Neil Diamond episode.

    In a chapter devoted to the history of BYU’s Honor Code, it relates the experience in 1976 when Diamond gave a concert on campus. In response to several letters to the Universe chastising the singer’s “thick, feathered hair” as not “keeping with the Lord’s standard of grooming,” Diamond told the crowd that some people “worry too much about what goes on top of someone’s head rather than what goes on inside it.”

    The book focuses largely on the role played by Ernest L. Wilkinson, a former BYU president “whose influence is still felt today,” Kagel said. References to Wilkinson convey his “Napoleon” role, his ardent conservative political agenda and his views toward women, dress and behavior codes.

    But what underlies the entirety of the book is the tension between a historian’s need for documentation and BYU’s restricted access to university archives.

    Gary Bergera and Ronald Priddis’ “Brigham Young University: A House of Faith,” published in 1985, pressured administrators and librarians to restrict access to the university’s official archives, Waterman and Kagel’s book says.

    “Perhaps future historians will have access to accounts from administrators and board members — stories we were denied,” the authors wrote.

    Brian Reeves, a BYU archivist, said the restricted access unfortunately gives the impression that BYU is hiding something. He said some documents, especially presidential records, need to be kept confidential in order to maintain the administration’s right to speak freely without reprisal.

    “If you want people to have free and open discussion on administrative decisions, then they need to be able to express themselves freely without worrying about what will be published in the next day’s newspaper,” he said.

    Documents such as the Wilkinson papers are kept confidential because they include records like confidential letters, files containing the denial of continuing status, and minutes to Board of Trustees meetings. Not everything is confidential, Reeves said. But because the Wilkinson papers, a collection of over 1,000 boxes of material, is so enormous to go through individually, everything is considered confidential and is restricted.

    “The tension in the church between historians who want access and people who are administrators has existed for some time. I think it will always exist,” Reeves said. “Historians who value their church membership will steer away from controversial topics. Those with an axe to grind, with a jaded view, choose to write about controversial topics.”

    Kagel, 30, an online communications consultant, said he and Waterman worked hard to frame the issues fairly.

    “(We) worked hard to frame the issues both within the context of what is happening in the academy at large and what has occurred in Mormonism and at BYU historically,” he said.

    BYU German professor Scott Abbott said he thinks “The Lord’s University” is an important historical document that will in the long term , have an effect on how policies are determined and implemented at BYU.

    “The detail with which Waterman and Kagel have documented academic freedom issues at BYU is astonishing. That BYU refused these responsible historians access to official archives is further proof that at BYU the relationship between freedom and authority is profoundly unbalanced,” Abbott said.

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