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BYU Professor, Part 2 7 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Democratic Theory, Mormonism/LDS Church.

I’ve been following a messy (but civil) debate about Nielsen’s Op-Ed in the Salt Lake Tribune on a believing-Mormon’s blog called Messenger and Advocate. Guy Murray is arguing simply that Nielsen was violating church and university policy by speaking out against the general authorities of the LDS church. The conversation is difficult to follow if you don’t know the conflicted ins-and-outs of how mormons reconcile their belief in “free agency” (freedom of conscience and action as part of mortal life) with their beliefs in “sustaining the brethren” (obedience to church leadership). Here’s my brief addition to the debate:

I’ve been wading through these lengthy comments kind of baffled at how, or whether, to respond. I’d like to add just a couple things to mull over.

academic freedom: In America’s past, we’ve gone through periods when the U.S. government has prosecuted professors for speaking out against its policies, and where state politicians and captains of industry were allowed to direct the contents of research and teaching (especially 1918-1940). That is where the concept of “academic freedom” comes from in American culture. It’s intricately connected to the purpose of a university. According to the AAUP’s 1940 document:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

The debate, then, should be about about what effect it has on the search for truth when professors are told a priori what truths they may or may not explore, express, research, teach, or write about. The problem at BYU isn’t a “free speech” issue–in American democracy he can obviously say what he wants. Nor is it a religious issue–the American democracy also allows free association to churches, giving them the right to set their own membership boundaries. It is about the quality of the “search for truth” on a campus that shackles its professors from the beginning as does BYU.

[By the way, BYU’s is not normal behavior for a religious university. Notre Dame, for example, tightly controls student groups and university politics, but does not control the content of its professors courses or publications.]

biology of homosexuality: Although much of the research on the biological origins of same-sex desire is pretty much consensus among scientists at this point, there is much that we have yet to learn. That is simply part of scientific uncertainty that drives research and discovery. But Nielsen’s gloss in his article apty and succincty states the state of the research.

So the argument here on M&A is a fantastic illustration to gay and lesbian rights advocates as to why the biological argument ultimately fails in the public sphere.

It seems the real issue at stake is a democratic one. Does the majority have the right to impose its lifestyle choices on the minority? Well, sometimes, when the minority’s lifestyles cause demonstrable harm. The base measure of harm is a balancing of rights, the classic question, “Where do your rights end and mine begin.” I would add to this, with John S. Mill, that offense does not constitute harm. That is, merely being offended is not having your rights curtailed. [Ironically for our present conversation, in On Liberty, Mill used Mormon polygamy in Utah Territory as his illustration of why offense does not equal harm.] So the question becomes does recognition of same-sex relationships harm individuals’ rights or cause damage to a society such that rights would be harmed? The burden of proof on that one lies with the proponents of the amendment. There is literally zero social scientific or scientific research that demonstrates anything other than offense on the part of the traditionalists. In fact, tradition is really at the heart of the matter: Seeing society change to make room for homosexuals is offensive to the traditionally minded. [Don’t even get me started on how the tradition of “one man/one woman” marriage is a historical fantasy.] And so we wait for any rational, scientific demonstration of the harm caused by recognition of same-sex relationships (about 4-6% of all relationships).

Previous post about Nielsen/BYU here.

The conclusion of this Nielsen/BYU mess here.

[posted with ecto]



1. mayan elephant - 7 June 2006

excellent stuff todd.

hey, is there an underground community among mormon professors? they must talk and rant about their plight somewhere.

2. Guy Murray - 8 June 2006

Todd, And my response:

Guy Murray said…

J. Todd Ormsbee: I’m not certain I accept your blanket and unsupported statement about the problem at BYU as:

“It is about the quality of the “search for truth” on a campus that shackles its professors from the beginning as does BYU. ”

While BYU may not be as prestigious an institution as some of the Ivy League schools, it certainly has improved its national reputation, both in the undergraduate program, and now in the graduate schools, such as the Business and Law Schools. Yes, BYU faculty must adhere to a code of conduct, and if LDS, I believe must also be professed believing LDS members. I don’t see how that translates into the quality for the search for truth on campus.

Please provide some sources for your proposition that the search for truth at BYU is so unqualitative that the institution suffers academically. Mr. Nielsen’s problem arose not in the context of academic search for truth. In fact his publication had nothing to do with this BYU association, other than perhaps to enhance his ability to make a big splash once published in the press.

In short, I think you unfairly tarnish BYU’s academic reputation today with a broad brush, which I think is unsupportable. Otherwise, BYU would be on a par with say Liberty University or Bob Jones, or even ORU, and it’s just not. There are at least three, and probably more BYU professors who either actively blog in the bloggernalce, and many more graduates from BYU who also blog in the ‘nacle. I have never heard any of the professors complain as you assert in your post:

“It is about the quality of the “search for truth” on a campus that shackles its professors from the beginning as does BYU. ”

I also disagree with you on the science aspect of the argument; but, we can agree to disagree on that issue. You will read the studies to support your position, and I will read them to support mine. The fact is, Nielsen’s piece was never meant to be a scientific dissertation. It was meant to raise eyebrows, in a charged debate. In that, I believe he succeeded.

3. mattblack - 8 June 2006

I absolutely agree with Todd that the problem at BYU is “about the quality of the ‘search for truth’ on a campus that shackles its professors from the beginning as does BYU. ”

While there are certainly areas of study, such as business and law, that rarely conflict with the teachings of the LDS church in the search for their slice of the truth, professors in other disciplines, such as in the humanities and social sciences are not so lucky.

I was at BYU during the last round of intellectual purges and the effect it had on the sincere and intense search for truth, both among professors and students, was chilling. One of the saddest results was that those who were working hard to reconcile their faith and intellect simply opted out (myself among them). I continued my search, but not at BYU and not within the LDS faith.

This is exactly the danger. Perhaps the reason Mr. Murray never hears any complaints from professors on his blog is that those that would be complaining have selected themselves out of the mix. Or perhaps the ones that remain, like Mr. Nielsen, know exactly the kind of response they will get for stepping out of line. That kind of academic climate, you can be sure, hurts the search for truth.

Truth be told, I am not all that interested in what Mr. Nielsen has to say about gay marriage. I think the most interesting part of his Op-Ed piece is his rejection of the idea that it is wrong for a loyal member of the church to criticize “The Brethren” publicly when compelled to do so by his or her own conscience.

4. Randy - 8 June 2006

IIRC, one of BYU’s restrictions on professors is that they never, ever criticize the Bretheren, even if that criticism is true. That in and of itself hobbles the search for truth, to the extent that the policies and actions of the Bretheren cannot be questioned.

My own alma mater, Louisiana State University, had a policy back in the 1920s & 30s under which the professoriate and campus paper were free to say whatever their little hearts desired, unless it amounted to criticism of Governor Huey Long. Seeing as how he was essentially a dictator and a crook on a spectacular scale–though, arguably, the only remotely progressive gov. in the state’s history–this prior restraint was a serious impediment to investigation of truth, and one that never went over well on campus. Huey was hurt by opposition to this policy, seeing as how he had dumped tons of money on top of LSU.

I suppose, then, that the Bretheren are the Huey P. Longs of Utah. The analogy isn’t nearly as ridiculous as one might think. Boyd Packer’s own nephew was run off from KSL, then BYU, for refusing to leave the Paul H. Dunn story alone. That story was about personal corruption, not doctrine or policy. It doesn’t matter–the appearance of incorruptability was far, far more important than the truth.

5. Equality - 8 June 2006

Guy said:
“Please provide some sources for your proposition that the search for truth at BYU is so unqualitative that the institution suffers academically.”

Guy, he did. Read his first post on the subject, where Todd said:

“The American Association of University Professors has had BYU on its shit list of universities who regularly violate academic freedom for over 10 years now. For example, they have dismissed feminist scholars, scholars studying LDS missionaries, a creative writing professor whose fiction was deemed dark and violent, and scholars criticizing the church’s historical and current racism. [At this point, attending BYU is my biggest regret in life, to the extent that I harbor regrets.]”

The fact is that outside of the Mormon Bubbleworld, BYU IS thought of in the same category as Liberty, ORU, and Bob Jones by many people. And, as I said on your blog (thanks for letting me comment there, BTW), if Nielsen suffers negative employment consequences as a result of expressing the mild notion that a faithful Mormon might disagree resepctfully with the “Brethren” on a controversial political question, that act of repression will, I think it is reasonable to suggest, result in a deepening disregard for BYU’s academic standing among its collegiate peers.

6. J. Todd Ormsbee - 8 June 2006

This post has been removed by the author.

7. J. Todd Ormsbee - 8 June 2006

Oops, hit a series of wrong buttons; Here’s the post again:


Thanks for taking the time to respond on my blog. I appreciate serious engagement with important issues, and your input is welcome here.

Universities and the Search for Truth:
The issue of what constitutes a good and effective “search for truth” has intrigued scientists and philosophers for the past 150 years or so, since formal, modern institutions first started popping up in Germany. Basically, the issue boils down to a debate about the method for inquiry that will arrive at “truth.”

Through experience, we have learned that the best way to conduct such a search for truth is a free exchange of ideas, where conjectures, hypotheses, ideas, theories are put out into the ‘ether’ to be vetted, tested, scrutinized and debated. This is a pretty organic process of back-and-forth, give and take, point and counter-point. What emerges over time is a forward moment toward ‘truth’ (albeit, a destination that, most serious scholars agree, is an end-in-view that is never fully attained). This ongoing, rigorous dialogue among scholars/researchers keeps things honest, helps minimize the effects of bias (religious, political, economic), and verifies and substantiates results.

In formal academic research, this includes the presentation of research at conferences and the publication process, where audiences of peers (people educated and experienced in the field in question) vet the research for accuracy in data and analysis. Research that doesn’t pass muster is rejected for publication and research presented at conferences that isn’t methodologically or theoretically sound is stopped in its tracks and the scholar then goes back to rework, redo, re-examine the research based on the criticisms received.

In a an environment purporting to be a University, the very idea that the institution would foreclose certain lines of thinking or expression is antithetical to the method of seeking truth. You can see on its face that it stops the dialogue before it begins. The impact this has on education at BYU isn’t a measurable quantity–how do you measure the knowledge or ideas that would have been produced had the University not squelched the speech, research, expression of its professors and students?

I would argue alongside you that BYU has the right, if it chooses, to stop the research of and prevent the public expression of ideas it finds offensive. But BYU and its advocates must then bear the consequences of their policy, which is that the academic reputation of the University suffers, and students graduating from the University are suspect because their education did not occur in an environment of inquiry, but rather in an environment of foreclosed and controlled learning.

As Matt mentioned, you are right that in areas where real inquiry doesn’t matter (law or business), BYU’s reputation is fine. But in areas where real, rigorous inquiry matters, in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, BYU’s reputation has suffered. I speak from personal experience of searching for a professorship after completing my Ph.D. that an undergraduate degree from BYU makes a candidate suspect, both in their abilities to think critically and to deal with the real world. (Luckily for me, I’m gay, left the church 10 years ago, have graduate degrees from other institutions, and peer reviewed publications, so I was able to negotiate these extremely uncomfortable conversations in job interviews.) [Your point about posters in the bloggernacle who are BYU graduates is (excuse my frankness) simply a common error accepting personal experience as evidence.]

What I find both interesting and troubling about BYU’s actions against professors it deems unworthy are the focus of the administration on social issues. It seems that professors are fired for feminist or sexual scholarship. It is telling to me that evolutionary biologists at BYU have, as yet, not been losing their jobs; and the BYU scientist who spoke out about the biological origins of homosexuality a few months ago, I believe, is still in good standing at the university. The administration’s ire seems aimed primarily at the social sciences and humanities, where its values are (or should be) subject to scrutiny and research.

Science of Sexual Orientation
Finally, I actually cannot agree to disagree with you on the science of homosexuality. There is a difference between an opinion (an unsubstantiated claim) and an argument (based in research and evidence). Per the method of inquiry I outlined above, ideas and research must be vetted by experts and verified in further research. The idea that “you can look at your studies, and I’ll look at mine” is the anti-scientific stance of post-modern conservatism. By refusing the process and method of science, this kind of anti-science stance creates a false sense that there is no truth or that scientific research is highly suspect. In fact, there are often issues in science of great controversy and contradictory research, but they work themselves out over time, as research accumulates and scientists arrive at a consensus, which in turn stands until enough anomalous observations accumulate to warrant the search for a new consensus (what Kuhn called “scientific revolution” or “paradigm shift”). Anti-science conservatism uses this normal part of science to create doubt where there is none [see public evolution debates for further illustration].

I trust the scientific process, and I trust evidence and peer review, so I am confident in the science as it stands. There simply is no research that has past through the process that casts significant doubt on the biological components of sexual orientation. The closest I can think of is the ex-gay research, which has been put out there and tested repeatedly in numerous studies. What testing of the ex-gay hypothesis has found is simply that the ex-gay process does indeed provide a social support network that allows a gay person to live and behavior in a heterosexual-appropriate way, but does not change the sexual desires of the individual. Again, the process of review and testing in the academic world *works*. I am open to the possibility that future research may demonstrate in a way that we don’t know of right now that homosexuality is a choice or a result of childhood trauma or some other causality–in other words, there may be a “scientific revolution” at some point in the search for the etiology of sexual orientation. But the state of the research as it stands now is clear, and Nielsen has aptly and succinctly summed it up.

8. J. Todd Ormsbee - 8 June 2006

A brief clarification in the paragraph beginning “As Matt mentioned”, I meant to add a sentence there about the institutional consequences BYU has borne since the mid-1990s (e.g., sanctions, etc., from national scholarly organizations). I didn’t mean to leave it as merely my own job search experience. I should also clarify that the problem in taking posters in the bloggernacle as evidence isn’t one of personal experience but of generalizing from a limited, unscientific pool to draw a system-wide conclusion, which Matt also pointed that out in his comment.

9. Allen Lambert - 8 June 2006

Allen Lambert comments:

Todd Ormsbee said…
biology of homosexuality: Although much of the research on the biological origins of same-sex desire is pretty much consensus among scientists at this point, ….

Allen replies:
Although Ormsbee fails to specify what view has found consensus, I take it he means the view that there is established strong scientific evidence in favor of a biological basis for homosexuality. NOT SO. Apparently he had not read my piece. The conclusion of extensive genetic research is that no genetic basis has been or will likely be found. This conclusion is so strong that that path of research has dwindled to nearly nothing. And despite much effort, no hormonal differences have yet been found. Etc. Go back to my original piece. So, the only “consensus” is that no biological basis for homosexuality has been found. Therefore, it is not scientifically defensible to argue in favor of the biological view on the basis of current state of empirical research.

10. J. Todd Ormsbee - 9 June 2006

Mr. Lambert,
You raise some key points, so I took the time to respond in a detailed post on my blog. Thanks for responding.

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