If you were a Mormon child any time before the mid-1970s, you probably remember the Pennies-by-the-Inch” campaigns in primary. They worked like this: from time to time, they would bring out the Pennies-by-the-Inch materials, and we were all supposed to collect one penny for inch of every of our height. We would measure ourselves to discover how much we owed, and then we would spend the next week or two gathering pennies to donate to the Church-owned Primary Children’s Hospital. For many of us, it was our first brush with philanthropy.
It has been some time since I have seen a “Pennies by the Inch” or any other fundraising campaign for a Church hospital. Largely, this is because there are no Church hospitals any more. In 1974, the First Presidency announced that the Church was getting out of the hospital business. “The growing worldwide responsibility of the Church,” they wrote, “makes it difficult to justify provision of curative services in a single, affluent, geographical locality.”
This does not mean that the Primary Children’s Hospital, LDS Hospital, and the Church’s thirteen other hospitals were kicked to the curb and left to fend for themselves. The Church created a new non-profit organization to run these enterprises. It recruited a Board of Directors, set up endowments, and gave them everything they needed to survive and thrive as independent entities. And thrive they have. The Primary Children’s Hospital, which was once supported by the pennies of Mormon children, is now one of the top-ranked pediatric hospitals in the country—despite not having any official Church support for more than forty years.
Now, let’s talk about BYU. You may have heard that the Lord’s University is currently embroiled in a dispute over the way it investigates reports of rape and sexual abuse. As all universities must, BYU has a Title IX office to handle such investigations; however, unlike nearly every other university in the country, BYU uses information gained in Title IX investigations to investigate rape victims for other Honor Code violations. Whatever one thinks of this policy from a religious or moral perspective (and, to be clear, I think it is reprehensible), it is simply not an acceptable position for an institution of higher education in 2016. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is going to win this one. They have all the cards because they control access to federal student aid money. There is no endgame scenario that does not involve BYU backing down.
But there’s more on the horizon. The Brigham Young Universities are on a collision course with federal regulators and accrediting bodies on a number of issues, including same-sex marriage, gender-specific hiring practices, diversity training (including sexual-orientation diversity), housing policies, and the recognition of transgendered students. If the LDS Church continues to operate BYU essentially as a Church, they will continue to run into conflicts over these kinds of issues—some of which will place what they perceive as the mission of the Church in direct conflict with the expectations that our society has for institutions of higher education.
There are lots of ways to deal with these tensions, and there are a lot of models to use. Thousands of colleges and universities in the United States have religious missions, but very few of them are operated entirely as extensions of their sponsoring denominations. And none that I know of have the level of operational oversight, or the level of institutional investment, that BYU has with the LDS Church.
This is decidedly not true in my world of Catholic higher education. Of the 247 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, for example, only one university (The Catholic University of America) and a handful of seminaries and small colleges are owned by the Catholic Church. The rest are ministries of individual dioceses, religious orders, or just Catholic investors who want to create a religious experience for Catholic students. Among Protestant universities, there is an even wider range of models, ranging from schools like Southern Methodist University, where the religious affiliation is little more than a faint cultural memory, to Bob Jones University, whose religious positions have made it difficult to secure accreditation for its programs.
These current and pending conflicts between the Church and the World™ provide us with a good opportuntiy to reflect on the extent to which running institutions of higher education really is part of the Church’s three-fold mission. I do not mean to say that the Church should run and hide because the big bad civil rights agencies are being mean to them. I would suggest, though, that the current regulatory conflicts expose some of the difficulties inherent in being a school that is also a church. It is just possible that such a reflection about education in 2016 might suggest to Church leaders the same thing that reflection about hospitals suggested in 1974: the wisdom of partial or complete divestment.
I’m not saying that the BYUs (-P, -H, and-I) should become a secular universities. That is not going to happen under any plausible scenario. They will always be LDS schools with Mormon traditions, values, student bodies, and faculty members. And they will always be able to provide exceptional educations and social environments to LDS students. None of this requires the Church to maintain its current level of investment and control. There are a lot of positions in between total separation and and complete existential sameness–and the country is full of religious organizations that have found such positions with regard to the schools that they sponsor.
What would change significantly would be the price. Currently, about 2/3 of a BYU students’ education is subsidized by the Church, making BYU’s tuition far less than that of comparable private schools and about equal to that of a large state university. If BYU became an independent entity, tuition would probably double or go even higher. But I have no doubt that the market would bear these increases easily. BYU is a great value, and it would still be a great value even if it charged the same tuition as most other private schools. LDS students would just have to pay the market value of their education–just like, you know, everybody else.
And this is perhaps the most important reason that the Church should consider divestment. When I started at BYU in 1984, the acceptance rate was 96%. Almost everybody who wanted to go got in. The rate is now 47% and falling fast, while the academic profile is going through the roof. This means that some of the wealthiest, brightest, and most academically prepared LDS students in the country—the same students who already have a wealth of educational opportunities—have their tuition subsidized by the tithes of the Church members—a majority of whom do not live in the United States and do not have even theoretical access to Church-sponsored education.
In the end, this is just as much about justice as it is about separating the functions of churches and universities. I believe that it is important that BYU be free be a university. But it just as important that the LDS Church be free to be a Church, and that it spend the bulk of its resources doing Church-y things. Remember what the First Presidency said in 1974: “The growing worldwide responsibility of the Church makes it difficult to justify provision of curative services in a single, affluent, geographical locality.”
Might not the same sentiment apply to the provision of educational services to the small fraction of Church members who are now able to attend Brigham Young University.
 It is important to note here that the Church’s decision to divest itself of hospital holdings eliminated one of the most high-profile positions for women in the LDS Church, as, before divestment, the Primary President served as the Chair of the Primary Children’s Hospital Board.
 The acceptance rate at BYU-Hawaii is even lower. But, giving credit where credit is due, we must note that BYU-Idaho currently accepts 100% of its applicants.