I am entirely out of the loop regarding the brou-ha-ha with Bro. Nielsen at BYU. I have worked there and hope to work there again. I have been asked by friends and colleagues why I want to work there, when stuff like what happened to Bro. Nielsen happens. I have personally expressed concern myself regarding what the potential effects of my decision to blog might be on the possibility of working there. But I still teach (when they let me) and I still would like to.
I have a story to share. It is apocryphal. I have a friend who, when teaching at BYU, expressed some frustration with the presence of ‘the man’ in his classroom to a full-time faculty member in his department. What was intended was that my student felt constrained by what his students considered kosher within classroom discussion. For that matter, he perceived some pressure from his department regarding what he ought to teach and how. The full-time faculty member told him that, if he couldn’t deal with that pressure, perhaps he shouldn’t attempt to get a job at BYU.
What is the moral of the story? I’m not entirely sure. Many people at BYU feel like there is a vast conspiracy housed there. It doesn’t seek to oppress the truth, but rather it seeks to make sure that you tell the most appropriate version. However, there is some disagreement regarding what that version is. This of course makes it a little harder to bow to the will of the conspiracy.
I have heard some awfully speculative things said by teachers at BYU (occasionally, I am one of them (although I try not to do it in class)). In fact, I am not sure that such a thing as LDS orthodoxy really exists in any sort of systematic way. Even correlated materials can appear contradictory, as if they were put together by different committees (as they often are).
I have also heard people disagree with the Brethren in classroom settings at BYU (which are inherently public). I should say that any such disagreeing was done politely and with all due respect. But it is possible to do. I can say and have said in class that I respectfully disagree with Elder McConkie, for instance. I don’t dismiss Elder McConkie’s ideas out of hand (in part, because I believe Elder McConkie was someone who took the scriptures very seriously, which is always a good thing), but I don’t feel compelled to accept everything that he wrote as the sole means to understand the Gospel, either. He and I can disagree, while still treating each other with respect and not assuming the worst of the other.
I haven’t heard anyone call the Brethren ‘immoral’ or imply that they were ‘immoral’ at BYU. To me, this is where Bro. Nielsen stepped across the line. I don’t know the exact cause for the decision to not re-hire Bro. Nielsen, but I do know that bad-mouthing the Brethren is frowned upon in all areas of BYU. I don’t know Bro. Nielsen at all and have read only the ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version of his editorial. I can’t comment on what he had to say specifically. However, in my experience, it is the academics who take it into their heads to tell the Brethren how things should be that risk censure (and usually get it). Outside of their ecclesiastical callings, the Brethren are grown men who have, generally speaking, made something of themselves, and if having someone call you an uneducated idiot doesn’t sit well with you, imagine how it sits with them. If institutional change is going to come from you and your ideas, you are much more likely to get a hearing if you approach the Brethren on their own terms. Throwing your disgust with the Brethren out into the public is highly unlikely to influence them in your favor.
In point of fact, I am one of those people who could live with the ‘vast conspiracy’ at BYU. Sometimes I get irritated, but generally it is with the same sort of administrative flim-flam that one encounters at any large institution. I don’t believe that the limits on speech at BYU in any way affect my ability to research or to express my opinions. Nor do I believe that, if properly applied, they should interfere with any possible research. So perhaps I am not the ideal person to address Bro. Nielsen’s dilemma. I am not sure that the conspiracy exists in any case or, if it does, I am sure that it isn’t enforced by the faculty. If anything, I have found students to be the most rigorous enforcers of status quo at any institution of higher learning. That is probably another story.