BYU Professor Fired 13 June 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Cultural Critique, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Mormonism/LDS Church.
[This is a continuation of the discussion about the BYU professor who protested the church’s political and partisan backing of the Federal Marriage Amendment earlier this month. See my two previous posts, BYU Professor Speaks Out and BYU Professor, Part 2.]
The Salt Lake Tribune reported today that, as expected, Jeff Nielsen, adjunct professor of philosophy at BYU, was terminated based on his letter to the editor challenging the church’s political stance on same-sex marriage. The termination letter from the department chair, Daniel Graham, read in part,
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. … 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.
I have an unverified letter from Nielsen responding to his termination. I’ll get a citation as soon as I can and post it here. I thought Nielsen’s thinking about the role of the church in the academic freedom of BYU to be worth putting up here for those of you concerned with issues of free speech, academic freedom, and the role of religion in American politics. I think it specifically illustrates the deep intellectual problems inherent in an institution of higher learning that tries to “serve two masters.” [Emphasis in letter mine]
June 13, 2006
Daniel W. Graham, chair
Department of Philosophy
Brigham Young University
I regretfully read your letter of June 8 informing me that because of my opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune of June 4, you have decided not to rehire me to teach the philosophy courses I had already been scheduled to teach through next year. I have only the utmost respect and admiration for you and for the students, faculty, and staff in the Philosophy Department at Brigham Young University. In my experience, the students and faculty have always been engaged and lively participants in the academic pursuit of truth. Now let me address some of the issues you expressed in your letter.
Church leaders have consistently opposed same-sex attraction and gay marriage. I have never agreed with this position believing that it was based in misunderstanding and in a purely human bias of cultural place and time and not reflective of divine will. Yet I have never publicly, or in the classroom, opposed their policy. Yet when church leaders take a political stand on a moral issue, then I am not only engaged as a member of the church, but also as an American citizen. As an American citizen, I publicly expressed an honest opinion contradicting a political statement by our church leaders. I fear for the church and the university if the time comes when the members of the church, including faculty at BYU, are not allowed to disagree, either in public or private, with political positions taken by the church. If such conformity is required, then we deserve to be called neither a church nor a university.
I also strongly disagree with the implications of your statement that faithfulness and loyalty to the church and church leaders never permits expressions of disagreement, or questioning of our church leaders – especially in an academic setting. Unquestioning acquiescence and blind loyalty to leaders in positions of power over human beings have no place in any institution of higher learning that values the pursuit of truth and search for justice. And in my mind, what is philosophy but the quest for truth and justice. I believe that there is great potential at BYU that will never be realized if the faculty, in certain areas of study, are limited in their research and work by the necessity of arriving at pre-approved answers given by church leaders.
Finally, when it comes to the sustaining of church leaders, I will always argue for the privilege of church members to examine, question, and dialogue with each other and with their leaders in order to genuinely sustain and support church doctrines and teachings. I do not believe that sustaining leaders requires either silent acquiescence or unquestioning conformity, but it does require active engagement with one another and with our church leaders, regardless of our place or position within church leadership hierarchies. If sustaining our leaders is to be real and genuine – not a sham as are elections in totalitarian governments – then members must be free to examine, question and benevolently criticize. Ultimately, I strongly believe that every person possesses the privilege to speak and the obligation to listen.
Again, I have only respect and admiration for you. I have enjoyed our association, and I also wish you the best.