Religious Education at BYU: An Open Letter to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Michael Ing is a BYU alumnus and an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. This letter was sent to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, BYU’s regional accreditor, during the public comment period of BYU’s reaccreditation visit. The Commission will accept written comments from any member of the public through March 6. Comments should be addressed to: NWCCU at: Attn: Third Party Comment, 8060 165th Ave NE, Ste 100, Redmond, WA 98052.


To Whom It May Concern:

I write in accordance with Brigham Young University’s cycle of reaccreditation with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. I write as a graduate of BYU (BA, 2002), an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, and an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am writing with regard to credit granted for Religious Education courses.

For some time, BYU has required students to enroll in Religious Education courses to fulfill graduation requirements. This is understandable for a religious institution aiming to meet its unique learning outcomes. The current requirements fall under a section of the University Core requirements titled “Doctrinal Foundations” where students are required to complete 14 credit hours (usually taken as 7 classes with 2 credits each). Students are to take two credit hours in each of the following areas: “Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon,” “Christ and the Everlasting Gospel,” “Foundations of the Restoration,” and “The Eternal Family.” Students also take 6 hours from a longer list of courses that function as electives. These 14 hours are meant to be spread out during a student’s undergraduate years such that the student is almost continually enrolled in a Religious Education course; these credits factor into the student’s GPA and also count toward the 120 credit hour minimum for graduation.

Regarding the University Core, the current undergraduate catalogue explains, “The integration of sacred and secular knowledge is the hallmark of a BYU education. While the Aims of a BYU Education states that all disciplines should be ‘bathed in the light and color of the restored gospel,’ religion courses engage the student mind and heart in an ever deeper understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ through close and meticulous study of the scriptures and teachings of the living prophets.”[1] It goes on to state that “religion courses are not meant to be a mere devotional supplement but an integral part of the university curriculum that conforms to university standards and expectations.” I take “university standards” here to refer to norms for university education more generally, and to refer more specifically to the standards for accreditation as well as the eligibility requirements outlined by NWCCU. While some Religious Education courses may conform to the NWCCU’s standards, many do not. The nature of Religious Education, as I will explain below, is such that it cannot be made to conform. It is best seen as a unit geared to achieve the religious aims of BYU, but not a unit that should be granting college credits that count toward a student’s GPA, the 120 credit minimum for graduation, or college credit that might be transferred to other institutions of higher learning.

Allow me to outline 3 of the most important reasons why this is the case.

1. A significant portion of Religious Education faculty are not qualified to teach accredited courses about religion.

A sampling of these faculty (all of whom are CFS faculty—BYU’s version of tenured/tenure track faculty) shows the following: 5 faculty with doctorates in Educational Leadership, including the dean; 5 faculty with doctorates in curriculum development, including an associate dean; 6 faculty with doctorates in Family Sciences; 2 faculty with JDs, including an associate dean; and 1 faculty with a PhD in Computer Science. There are also another half a dozen faculty for whom it is unclear what they earned their doctorate in, but their biographies suggest that it is in fields similar to those just listed. It is worth noting that the majority of these degrees were earned at BYU and many of these faculty have no academic experience (as a student or faculty) at any other academic institution. These 25 faculty teach widely across the curriculum—teaching all of the Doctrinal Foundations courses and many of the electives. Only 3 of them are women and all 25 of them are white. There are another 30 or so adjunct faculty that teach in Religious Education. A brief review suggests that most of them have credentials similar to this group. The remaining CFS faculty (approximately 40) have doctorates that could be relevant to the study of religion when broadly defined (including training in history, philosophy, philology, and literature). Among them there are 8 women and 3 people of color.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has every right to determine who is qualified to teach its doctrine. As an accredited institution of higher learning with religious components in its mission, students should expect a college with religious learning outcomes. The Church, however, does not have sole authority in granting university credit for BYU’s Religious Education courses; and a significant portion of the faculty are not in fact qualified to teach accredited courses related to religion. Problems with these faculty have manifested themselves in various ways. Here are 2 examples:

A) In response to national and local issues of race, BYU assembled a task force to examine the situation on campus. In February 2021, BYU released a document titled “Report and Recommendations of the BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging.” [2] The report singles out Religious Education as a place where students have been adversely impacted by misleading ideas of race. The report explains that students and alumni had “reported particular difficulty in religion classes” and that “the religious education curriculum lacks formal discussions on issues of race, unity, and diversity.” This has been an ongoing issue with Religious Education. In 2008, a program featuring 4 professors from Religious Education was pulled from BYU-TV because of the troubling views they advocated about race.[3] In 2012, Professor Randy Bott (PhD in education from BYU) was interviewed by the Washington Post about race and Mormonism.[4] In discussing why Black people were denied the LDS priesthood until 1978, Bott likened Black people to young children prematurely asking for the keys to their father’s car—they were not ready to receive those keys until 1978. Since they were not ready, “blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.” Most recently, Professor Brad Wilcox (PhD in curriculum and instruction from the University of Wyoming) made news in February 2022 for giving a presentation to an LDS group that touched on the topic.[5] In discussing the priesthood restriction Wilcox stated, “Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978, maybe what we should be asking is, ‘Why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829 (i.e., the year Joseph Smith received the priesthood)?’” The fact that Bott and Wilcox thought it appropriate to make these statements to public audiences and a national news outlet demonstrates how cavalier these kinds of attitudes were and are in Religious Studies. Since Wilcox gave this same presentation multiple times, it is almost certain that he included it in his classroom teaching; the same is likely for Bott as well.[6] This is a result of not only the racial composition of Religious Education faculty but also a lack of academic training among them to think about religion in more complex ways, specifically with regard to race.

The situation is similar when it comes to sexuality and gender. In May of 2021, Professor Hank Smith (PhD in educational leadership from BYU) made international news for using an LDS slur on Twitter to label a gay BYU student with whom he was disagreeing.[7] As a result of the exchange, the student was sent death threats, and I believe has since left BYU. This was one factor in the Department of Education’s decision to investigate BYU for its treatment of LGBTQ+ students.[8]

B) On April 14, 2017, Professor Kent P. Jackson (PhD in Near Eastern studies from the University of Michigan) delivered a lecture to the faculty of Religious Education on the eve of his retirement. The lecture, titled “Adventures in Religious Education,” recounted his 37 years of teaching in Religious Education. The atmosphere he describes, particularly in his early years, is one where “We believed that we had a different mandate, a special assignment at BYU that precluded us from the responsibilities that other faculty members had.” Part of this mandate entailed a disdain for those who were trained in fields more closely associated with the study of religion. Jackson recounts that soon after his hire, “The chair was obviously not impressed with my graduate education, and he let me know that. He took me out into the hall alone and said, basically, ‘We don’t want people like you here.’” Jackson explains that “Early in my career, there was much talk of having to overcome ones PhD once one joined the faculty.” While there may have been much talk like this at the beginning of his career, I know more than 1 candidate or faculty member that was told the same in the past 10 years.

Another part of the special nature of Religious Education was discouraging academic scholarship. Jackson recounts that after a university wide address calling for better records of publication, the attitude in Religious Education was “This doesn’t apply to us.” Their approach was, “We’ll hire people with limited interest in scholarship and find ways to help them meet the University’s expectations.” Jackson concludes, “This was the prevailing idea through much of my career.” This attitude impacted the school at various levels: it discouraged those with training in the study of religion from participating in those fields, while also encouraging faculty to continually reach out to an LDS audience in their teaching, speaking, and publishing efforts. The result was an insular conversation about religion among those who had little training in the study of religion. Tied together with the perceived authority that members of the Church assign to Religious Education faculty, the attitude within Religious Education was often one of them against the world where any criticism of them was dismissed as part of a worldly orientation that did not value or recognize the things of God. While in recent years Religious Education has worked to support faculty in producing academic scholarship, that scholarship is always bounded by “living in a glass house” (a metaphor commonly used at BYU). In other words, faculty are constantly encouraged to avoid any topic that might remotely be perceived as controversial.

Part of the issue highlighted by Jackson is that Religious Education is administered in much the same way the Church is. He notes two problems with the leadership within Religious Education: “First, a top-down leadership mindset that they had brought from their previous employment [i.e., working in the Church Education System], in which transparency and democracy were not virtues. And second, a belief that we in Religious Education were special and thus should do things differently from how they were done in other colleges and departments.”

Jackson summarizes, “The University wanted us to hire the best scholars with advanced degrees, but many of us were certain that this was not what God wanted. The University wanted us to publish, but most believed that this didn’t apply to us and that people who are good scholars can’t be good teachers. The university wanted us to have transparent hiring and rank-and-status procedures, but we had a better way.”

These examples call into question NWCCU eligibility requirements and standards for accreditation. More specifically, these issues fall under the eligibility requirements laid out by the NWCCU under the headings of “non-discrimination,” “faculty,” and “academic freedom.”[9] The section on non-discrimination calls for the accredited institution to be administered “with respect for the individual in a nondiscriminatory manner”; the section on the faculty calls for the employment of “qualified faculty members”; and the section on academic freedom calls for the institution to maintain “an atmosphere that promotes, supports, and sustains academic freedom and independence that protects its constituencies from inappropriate internal and external influences, pressures, and harassment. Faculty, students, staff, and administrators are free to examine and test all knowledge and theories.

2. The Church dictates the curriculum in Religious Education.

In 2015, Religious Education began using the curriculum now known as “Doctrinal Foundations.” The curriculum was proposed in 2014 by the Church with little input from Religious Education such that the faculty initially voted to reject the curriculum. The Board of Trustees (comprised of the highest leaders in the Church), however, wanted a uniform curriculum across the Church Educational System (comprised of all the BYUs and the Church’s Institute programs). The Religious Education faculty voted to accept the curriculum as long as they could exercise “institutional options” where a variety of their courses could fulfill the requirements. This prompted a letter from the Dean and other Religious Education administration to the faculty, stating that the curriculum would go into effect in fall 2015 and that the institutional options would have a limited shelf life.[10] They reminded the faculty that “One of the things that makes BYU a unique university in all the world is a Board of Trustees comprised of prophets, seers, and revelators and inspirited leaders of the Church. We need to trust that inspiration and honor their sacred responsibility.” The letter explained that the curriculum came straight from the Church and was “an inspired proposal whose time had come.” The faculty, in short, could only continue to oppose the curriculum if they dared to oppose the leadership of the Church.

This same letter explains that “Curriculum will be drawn from scripture, words of prophets, and key source documents such as The Family: A Proclamation to the World and The Living Christ.” “Words of prophets” refers to non-canonized teachings of Church leaders since the time of Joseph Smith. “Key source documents,” in this case, refers to words of the prophets collaboratively composed by the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles (the 15 highest leaders of the Church). A look at the curriculum reveals that these 3 sources do in fact comprise the curriculum.[11] There is, as far as I have seen, not a single reference to anything else—no reference to scholarship on the Bible, American religious history, or anything on religion. Besides this, some of the lessons themselves seem problematic. Each course is structured with 28 lessons (assuming a 14 week semester with 2 meetings each week). The course titled “The Eternal Family” has 4 consecutive lessons titled “Marriage between a Man and a Woman is Ordained of God,” “Gender and Eternal Identity,” “The Divine Roles and Responsibilities of Men,” and “The Divine Roles and Responsibilities of Women.” The lesson on marriage contains the following prompt:

Write the following doctrine on the board: “Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” Ask students what the word ordain means in this sentence. (Possible answers include the following: to order, decree, or appoint by virtue of superior authority.) Ask students how this definition helps them to understand the meaning of the doctrine on the board.

The lesson on gender begins with the following statement:

Our gender was established before we were born into mortality and is an essential characteristic of our eternal identity. Church leaders distinguish between same-sex attraction, which is not sinful, and homosexual behavior, which is considered sinful because it conflicts with Heavenly Father’s plan for our exaltation.

The lesson on the role of women opens by stating, “As an important part of His plan of happiness, Heavenly Father has given women the divine roles of being wives and mothers.”

While there is a certain degree of latitude allowed at BYU to stray from the curriculum, the learning outcomes and key principles are nonetheless the same. This is shown in the experience of a bisexual BYU student who reported being brought to tears in every meeting of the Eternal Family class through the first two weeks. She recounts, “It’s just hard, even when the professor is doing their best, to sit week after week in a class that’s core curriculum is about teaching you why it’s wrong to be yourself…. It’s something that just brings up a lot of trauma and hard feelings.”[12] This, in short, leads to a situation that may not only be traumatizing for a student, but also a situation where a student receives credit and a grade for courses accredited by the NWCCU only inasmuch as they agree with (and conform to) the LDS Church’s position on these kinds of issues.

The problems raised here are in tension with NWCCU standards 1.C.5, 1.B.3 and 2.B.2. The first calls for “the institution recognizing the central role of faculty to establish curricula”; the second requires “a structure of governance that is inclusive in its planning and decision-making” as well as “a commitment to student learning and achievement in an environment respectful of meaningful discourse”; and the third insists on students being “intellectually free to test and examine all knowledge and theories, thought, reason, and perspectives of truth.”

3. The hiring practices and guidelines for Continuing Faculty Status ensure the maintenance of the status quo.

espite efforts by some faculty in Religious Education to produce CFS guidelines more in line with other schools and departments at BYU, the Board approved new guidelines in 2019 in a document titled “Strengthening Religious Education Institutions of Higher Education.”[13]  This document not only explains the purpose of Religious Education and the criteria they should use for hiring and granting faculty CFS, but perhaps more importantly it demonstrates that reform is not possible internally—Religious Education will always be fully subject to the direction of the Church, which sees BYU’s Religious Education as an extension of itself where the standards of academia are only relevant inasmuch as they accord with the standards of the Church.

The document begins, “What gives religious education its distinctive character is its focus on teaching the restored gospel of Jesus Christ directly and devotedly… Religious education has a critical role to play in strengthening the faith and deepening the conversion of [BYU] students.” The purpose of Religious Education, in short, is to foster active commitment and participation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is, in fact, how faculty success or failure is often judged. Kent Jackson in the lecture mentioned above describes several “unforgivable sins” faculty ought not commit. Number one on his list: “It is an unforgivable sin to weaken the testimony of a student.” The result is that teaching in Religious Education is often first and foremost geared toward further activity in the Church, and at a distant second is commitment to the mastery of a body of knowledge or the acquisition of skills and attributes related to a particular discipline. Faculty in Religious Education often refer to their jobs as “building the kingdom,” where the kingdom is the Church. The learning outcomes are thus geared toward the betterment of the Church before the betterment of the students (learning outcomes on syllabi may suggest more flexibility but in practice the measuring bar is commitment to the Church). This kind of consequentialist approach to education is detrimental to basic norms of student development and is at odds with NWCCU standards and eligibility requirements. Specifically, it is in tension with standards 1.B.3 and 2.B.2 as well as the requirement under the category of “Academic Freedom”; it may also be in tension with the category of “Operational Focus and Independence” inasmuch as the language of “organizational independence” refers to independence from the aims of the sponsoring institution. I have already quoted from 1.B.3 and Academic Freedom above, so I will not quote them again, but the language of 2.B.2 is relevant: “Within the context of its mission and values, the institution defines and actively promotes an environment that supports independent thought in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. It affirms the freedom of faculty, staff, administrators, and students to share their scholarship and reasoned conclusions with others. While the institution and individuals within the institution may hold to a particular personal, social, or religious philosophy, its constituencies are intellectually free to test and examine all knowledge and theories, thought, reason, and perspectives of truth. Individuals within the institution allow others the freedom to do the same.”

The document goes on to “provide a framework for assessing the work of the faculty and for making decisions about faculty hiring and promotion.” Criteria for hire include demonstrating “unusual potential for excellent teaching of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. This will often, but not always, be demonstrated by teaching experience in religious education in CES.” Candidates must realize that “scholarship is important but secondary” and “candidates must also be sound doctrinally.” Nearly all 25 of the faculty mentioned previously with questionable training in the study of religion came into BYU via the Church Educational System (CES); meaning that they were instructors in the Church’s Seminary program for high schoolers or instructors in the Church’s Institute program for college students. The professionalization required for CES instruction is wholly different from the academy. Only rarely are they trained in the study of religion or any other related discipline; most of their graduate training is in education or related fields as seen above. The language of this document ensures that these kinds of people will not only continue to be hired in Religious Education but given preference for hire. 

The document also explains that CFS status will be based on the following criteria: “The candidate has become a powerful role model for our students in matters of character, faith, testimony, and qualities of life…. The candidate is an excellent teacher of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ whose teaching centers on the scriptures and modern prophets in a way that helps each student develop faith and testimony.” Continuing faculty status for Religious Education is based on modeling devotion to the Church and encouraging the same from students. The content, structure, and outcomes of Religious Education courses cannot be decoupled from the aims of the Church such that Religious Education courses should qualify for college credit.

The problems I raise here will not be solved by providing time for BYU to bring Religious Education more in line with NWCCU’s standards and eligibility requirements. Any changes promised can be turned on the proverbial dime by the Church or other university administrators. The question is how to allow BYU to achieve its religious aims while meeting these academic standards. The Church, through CES, already has hundreds of Institutes of Religion that operate near universities throughout the US. The one by Indiana University, for instance, is right across the street from the university. LDS students register in classes at these Institutes in addition to their college coursework. The Institute classes do not count for college credit, but they serve purposes almost identical to Religious Education. There is no reason that BYU could not create a similar situation, but in their case, these would be courses required for graduation while not counting for college credit or counting toward a student’s GPA. BYU also does not have a department of Religious Studies. The faculty in Religious Education with legitimate training in the study of religion could be moved into their own department with criteria for CFS similar to the philosophy or history departments at BYU. Inasmuch as their courses fulfill the aims of the Doctrinal Foundations guidelines, they could count toward those requirements while still counting for college credit. Alternatively, faculty could be moved to departments where their training is more directly relevant.

More could be said, and if necessary, I am willing to discuss these issues further. I am best reached by email at


Michael Ing






[6] Wilcox in 2020:




[10] 2015





  1. I took classes from Kent Jackson and several other Religion professors who apparently were undesirable because their background was “worldly” and brought an outside perspective that you can’t get from Sunday School and Seminary. These professors provided kind of rigor we should expect from university level classes. That same rigor is not happening in the core Doctrinal Foundation classes and I’m doing my best to guide my children as they attend BYU to find challenging professors who help them critically examine the scriptures in a faithful manner.

    I hope letters like this push BYU to reconsider their direction with CES.

  2. This detailed and important letter will be ignored, given my experience with accreditation teams. That is unfortunate. BYU students deserve better instruction from qualified professors of religious studies.

    The continuing reports on new BYU policies and the thoughtful responses to them (“Opting IN,” for instance), occur in a kind of time warp for me. We fought against increasing control and anti-intellectualism at BYU in the 1990s and, as I mentioned last year in a conversation with Michael Austin, made little lasting difference. That is depressing, of course, but the memories of the battles are good ones…we stood up to actions that were undermining the university we loved.
    As for the qualifications of the faculty of religion, here are the figures I published in 1992 (the entire essay, “One Lord, One Faith, Two Universities: Tensions between ‘Religion’ and ‘Thought’ at BYU,” appears in my new BCC Press book: “Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger: Personal Encounters with Mormon Institutions”:

    The pattern of hiring in Religious Education indicates an increasing preference for candidates with BYU Ph.D.’s and Ed.D.’s and Church Education System (CES) faculty. In the department of ancient scriptures, only three full professors have their final degree from BYU, while nine have degrees from other universities. Of the associate professors, three are BYU graduates and five are from other programs. Of the most recently hired faculty, the assistant professors, five are from BYU and only two from elsewhere. The percentage of faculty with BYU credentials thus progresses from 25 percent to 37.5 percent to 71 percent in the department of Ancient Scriptures. In the department of Church History and Doctrine the numbers are even more skewed toward BYU and the trend is similar. Of full professors, seven are from BYU and four have degrees from other schools. Among associate professors nine have degrees from BYU and only one from elsewhere. And all six assistant professors have their degrees from BYU. The percentage of home-grown faculty here progresses from 64 percent to 90 percent to 100 percent. Another way to put this is that only six of twenty-three faculty hired from 1984 through 1991 have degrees from schools other than BYU. Faculty hired for 1992 change this picture only slightly.

    …For this factual account, my stake president, an academically unqualified member of the religion faculty, set out to “priesthood break” me…his term. It was not my prerogative to question the authorities, but to obey them.

    plus ça change

  3. it's a series of tubes says:

    Grateful for the chance I had to take courses from Professor Jackson. That being said, I also derived a lot of value from other courses (including BOM as a freshman with Prof. Largey).

    This letter raises some good points about religious education at BYU. Unfortunately, much of the letter sounds cheap and petty. Other parts made my eyes roll, particularly much of Section 2. Citations to buzzfeed? Someone is crying? Please.

  4. Someone is crying? Please.

    Srsly. Like, the idea that a religious university has a stake in the spiritual well-being of the individuals it counts among its flock is ludicrous on its face—the institution über alles!

  5. I think this letter is well-reasoned and offers important matters for discussion. Moreover, it shows the way for the accreditation body, the church, and the university to accomplish their respective goals. Well done.

  6. I’m kind of horrified by how the requirements have changed. Back in the Stone Age (early aughts) they required two Book of Mormon classes, a New Testament, a D&C, and then you could choose your own adventure, I think. I had some good professors and some not so good ones. My Old Testament class was taught by an adjunct who was outstanding. Hers was probably the most meaningful and faith-affirming of all the religion classes I took at BYU; it was also the course taught most like an academic course in religion.

    There is no way that I could bear to take “The Eternal Family” (which sounds like the title of a dystopian novel), and no way my kids would stand for it either. I used to think fondly that my kids would continue the family tradition of attending BYU. I got a great education there.

    It’s been many years since that I’ve wanted my kids to have nothing to do with the place, which makes me sad.

    Thanks to Professor Ing for notifying the accreditors. I hope they’re paying attention.

  7. Well done. BYU could be so much more than it is. My youngest children have refused to take even the Institute classes at state universities because in their experience CES no longer takes learning and education seriously. CES needs to raise the bar.

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    Srsly. Like, the idea that a religious university has a stake in the spiritual well-being of the individuals it counts among its flock is ludicrous on its face—the institution über alles!

    3 comments in, and Peter quickly checks the Godwin’s law box.

    Grow up. An assertion that teaching a religious tenet of a particular faith is “traumatizing” to a particular individual is a basis for revoking accreditation?

  9. Leonidas Zelensky says:

    In many ways, you are correct. The coursework is not the same as other universities as far as “religious curriculum,” However, I will still take the position that these courses should count as college credit. Although I did not attend BYU, I attended three public universities, including graduate school. In my undergraduate experience, I took many courses that were without rigor, syllabus standards, etc. The institute classes I took were much more fulfilling and helpful than say, Online Beatles History.

    The hiring policy practices of BYU is a secondary issue…

  10. Maple Mom says:

    My daughter is currently attending BYUI. She describes her religion classes as “warmed over seminary”. The profs stick to the manuals and only occasionally wander into more interesting fields of scholarship. My daughter is a returned missionary and complains that she isn’t learning anything she didn’t already know. If she could move beyond the cornerstone classes and register for more scholarly topics she would be happier and far more interested. Why is it that we keep recycling the same stories and scriptures over and over again, pounding in the same doctrinal points, while avoiding historical context or meaningful discussion?

  11. Go ask any BYU student what they think of religion classes *academically*. I was at BYU back at the turn of the century and *no one* thought of those classes as remotely academic. The classes were Sunday School with a few multiple choice tests sprinkled in. Complete some reading assignments, demonstrate a basic understanding of the plot of whatever book of scripture you’re covering and move along. The religion classes I took were mostly a pleasant break from the day and stress-free. I generally paid attention (except for that 7am BoM class; bad idea!), picked up a few interesting nuggets of information and didn’t dislike attending, but they were neither intellectually challenging nor stimulating. If you were to ask me to rank every course I took at BYU by how challenging it was, the only classes that could possibly complete with them would be some gym classes and maybe that 1 Portuguese class I took as an RM. It’s rather insulting to a university education to call these college courses.

  12. I am SO glad I didn’t have to take these new religion classes, cuz I probably would have failed them. I loved my classes with actual scholars like Dr. Strathearn, who brought in much of her research into our New Testament class. Even my first BoM professor was pretty good and used a lot of historical and linguistic context to teach. Brother Griffin, however, was somehow worse than like, an EFY speaker. I’m sure he’s a decent dude, but I consider him to be the exemplar of what the church would prefer to hire (CES taught Sunday School teachers) and basically responsible for ruining the real, academic study of religious thought (which was still extremely spiritual).

  13. Maple Mom: When I was at BYUI, I had mostly the same experience *except for* an Ancient Temple and Temple Texts class from Bruce Satterfield. This was probably six years ago, so it may still be an option. The course was very academic and rigorous (not proof-texty at all).

  14. This is a poor letter on at least two accounts:
    1. It does not come off as unbiased or fair, but with an axe to grind.
    2. You do a terrible job getting to your “ask”. Tell them the purpose of your letter up front, and then support it, and then reiterate it. I have to wade through line after line of axe grinding, wondering what you’re doing all this sharpening for. Just say up front, “the purpose of this letter is to ask the commission to reevaluate whether BYU religious course should continue to remain accredited based on their primary devotional emphasis.”

    But really, every BYU religious class I participated in was well done. I didn’t like most of them. But they were rigorous, and probably much more rigorous than many classes at other universities that were accredited.

    All that said this letter really does reveal far more about your bias than the failings of any professors or BYU administrative direction.

  15. Tubes, you are correct that no-one is going to revoke accreditation over one student’s bad experience in one class. I believe that Michael’s point in bringing up that anecdote is that it is illustrative of an LGBTQI+ student’s experience in the Religion curriculum. Now you may argue that this is an isolated or fabricated case, but I’d be willing to bet it is a pretty typical experience for queer students of all stripes.

  16. Sute,
    My lived experience directly contradicts yours. Most of my religion classes were not academically rigorous and I find the letter convincing because it supports both its criticisms and it’s proposals. So neener neener I suppose

  17. Avi, this comment is not to undercut yours or to criticize Dr. Strathearn, but she too is a case in point for what is wrong with Religious Education. By all accounts, she is a lovely human and heaven knows we need more people of her training and decency among the RE faculty. But when you mentioned her research it made me curious. After checking her CV, which is linked to her faculty page, I was surprised to find that among multiple books and dozens of articles, not a single publication indicates any research published outside of the BYU/LDS world. Over her long career it appears that Dr. Strathearn has never attempted/dared/bothered to engage in the much bigger world of biblical studies. That must be a conscious choice. Of course, it is certainly far easier to get a paper published in one of BYU’s various publishing outlets than, say, Journal of Biblical Literature or New Testament Studies or Journal of Early Christian Studies, but that can’t be the explanation for this complete avoidance of the field she was trained to participate in and on which she trades as being an expert. Why this rejection of her field? What or who are the motivators? And how does a person advance to the level of full professor and even associate dean (per her faculty page) without ever having published a single, scholarly article within her field of expertise? This is stunning, when compared to any other college at BYU. Choose any department at BYU and your employment will be terminated at the standard third year review if you don’t have at least one article published (and no amount of BYU publications or Ensign articles and Sperry Symposiums will save your job).

    Again, this isn’t an attack on Dr. Strathearn. But her career choices and advancement are very odd and raise questions, not so much about her, but about the kind of college at BYU that supports or pressures or demands or rewards the utter rejection of her field of training. If I were visiting for an accreditation review, this would be mystifying to me.

  18. Angela C says:

    I had some good religion professors and some bad, some I liked, and some I didn’t, but unlike my academic classes, none of the religion classes I took had any sort of academic rigor. They were extremely soft classes, more like Sunday School. Any tests were full of softball questions. I was pretty disappointed on the whole because I was interested in finding out more about the history of various world religions and also digging deeper into scriptural scholarship.

    This was back in the 80s, and it has gone straight downhill since then. Now we’ve got classes in culture wars and other pet topics with quotes from church leaders instead of scholarship. It’s kind of crazy that any accrediting body would ever consider putting a stamp of approval on this. I just assumed there was no accreditation of this department, and my only hope for BYU was that at least they wouldn’t apply these lax academic standards universally.

    The worst religion professor I had seemed to be suffering from some kind of early onset dementia. The grade was based entirely on attendance, and every lecture was the same lecture, in some cases word for word. One of the stories he would share included his lascivious description of a comely woman. He was practically salivating when he shared this story, and he shared it almost every class. Not great.

  19. 3 comments in, and Peter quickly checks the Godwin’s law box.

    You’ve lost me. Or wait—because I used German in my post I must be channeling Hitler? Is this what you tell people who smirk about Schadenfreude, send their children to Kindergarten or enjoy a brat on the weekend? Get a grip.

  20. it's a series of tubes says:

    Now you may argue that this is an isolated or fabricated case, but I’d be willing to bet it is a pretty typical experience for queer students of all stripes.

    John, I’ll do you one better – I’ll agree that it is a pretty typical experience for LGBTQI+ members of the LDS church, wherever they may be. That certainly would be consistent with the experiences of my extended family members who so identify, with the experiences of my next door office colleague who has a trans daughter, with the experiences shared with me by the (then so-called) “same-sex attracted” members I befriended as a missionary back in the 90s, etc, etc.

    But the point remains. “I don’t like this / this hurts my feelings / I am offended by this / you are mean / your doctrine is mean / your religion’s teachings dehumanize me” is not a basis for an accreditation decision, whether they represent individual stories or the totality of every student who ever took the courses in question.

  21. Tubes, I wish I could give you thumbs up, I agree with what you’re saying about what is a relevant argument for or against a university’s accreditation.

    peterllc, stop playing the innocent. The first verse of the Deutschlandlied, which contains your “über alles” was the verse used by Nazi Germany. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

    “During the Nazi era only the first stanza was used, followed by the SA song “Horst-Wessel-Lied”. It was played at occasions of great national significance such as the opening of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin when Hitler and his entourage, along with Olympic officials, walked into the stadium amid a chorus of three thousand Germans singing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”. In this way, the first verse became closely identified with the Nazi regime.”

    It goes on to say that since the end of WWII only the third verse, which does not contain your pet phrase is used. You know that but thought you were being clever throwing in a Nazi dogwhistle. You weren’t.

  22. anon,

    I think Dr. Strathearn’s publication history is part of a larger trend within the university, a trend of becoming more insular and inward focused in terms of scholarship. In a particular department in the humanities I was once associated with, all of the recent faculty hires are almost exclusively focused on topics related to some fact of the church or its members “X among return missionaries” or “the absence of Y among LDS populations”. Further, despite becoming full time (and presumably tenure-track) hires, their CV’s are kind of pathetic compared to scholars of similar experience in their field. They were hired directly after finishing their PhDs and they only have 1-2 peer-reviewed journal articles on their CVs, which at virtually any other department of X at other universities would get sneezed at. In short they would have zero chance of getting hired anywhere other than at a CES school.

    To me this speaks of a trend of the university becoming more insular, less engaged with the wider academic world of research. The university is more interested in research and scholarship about itself and Church-adjacent topics, (but only uncritical research).

    However I cannot say if this true of the colleges outside religion, social science, and humanities. The folks in the STEM fields might be less affected, although I would bet that there are similar off-the-record prohibitions for researchers in the health sciences relating to sexuality and LGBTQ research.

  23. HokieKate says:

    Victor Ludlow (PhD Brandeis or Harvard?) wove his Judiac studies background into our Book of Mormon classes.
    Wilfred Griggs (PhD UC Berkley) translated from Greek in front of the class, refuted the KJV “in the beginning was the Word…”, and brought valuable scholarly insight into our New Testament course
    Randy Bott (Doctor of Education, BYU) had open-scriptures tests called “celebrations” with questions listed in the order their answers were found in the text. He was entertaining.

    Scholarly courses would be excellent BYU offerings. Move the rest back to Institute.

  24. klc – it’s not a Nazi dog whistle. It’s certainly a nationalistic impulse made infamous by the Nazis. But it predates them. No doubt many a racist has sung the Star Spangled Banner, doesn’t mean any reference to the home of the brave is racist. Yes, regarding uber alles, wise people would run from using it in serious dialogue. But it’s clearly tongue in cheek and this is a blog comment.

    The only people who take offense at blog comments are those who are feigning offense as another form of rhetorical warfare. Let debate ensue if it’s not intentionally done to malign. Corporations, even llcs are people with feelings too my friend.

  25. sute, of couse the letter is biased. It is meant to be apersuasive writing piece, not purely descriptive. Michael is touching all the right bases of rhetoric for this style writing.

  26. Anons 1 and 2, you both have good points. I was trying to illustrate a gap between professors currently at BYU, but you are right that its an even bigger gap between BYU and other levels of scholarship.

  27. BYU Adjunct says:

    Among the tragedies here is that rigorous religious scholarship and teaching would produce exactly the kind of resilience and open-eyed faith that the Church so desperately needs its young people to develop in order to stay in the boat. It’s the cowering CES version of the faith that is so brittle.

  28. Michael Ing is a legend in my book effective today.

  29. @BYU Adjunct: “Among the tragedies here is that rigorous religious scholarship and teaching would produce exactly the kind of resilience and open-eyed faith that the Church so desperately needs”
    Yes, exactly this! A million times.

  30. Ronald G. says:

    “the point remains. “I don’t like this / this hurts my feelings / I am offended by this / you are mean / your doctrine is mean / your religion’s teachings dehumanize me” is not a basis for an accreditation decision, whether they represent individual stories or the totality of every student who ever took the courses in question.”

    The OP provides like 20 reasons for an accreditation decision; this is but one, and it is unfair to call it a “basis” for such a decision. Furthermore, the OPʻs point doesn’t seem to be that “I’m offended” is a point blank reason to reconsider accreditation, but rather that questionable curriculum is already compelling students to choose between maintaining their GPA and speaking their mind in ways that accord with the accreditor’s standards. This may not be the most compelling reason of the bunch, but it seems to make sense in its context.

  31. g.wesley says:

    Just here to echo others on the accuracy, fairness, and necessity of the letter.

  32. There is no reason for BYU to change anything. It’s a private school, and it’s a religious institution. I recommend reading or watching the talk Elder Holland gave a couple months ago.

  33. Basically the only decent religion classes I took were taught as joint classes with the philosophy department: one on how to close read the writings of Paul, the other on Buddhism. Methinks such courses likely wouldn’t be considered kosher in the current regime

  34. Hokie Kate: Agreed. Griggs’ New Testament class was one of the best religion classes I’ve ever taken. His influence helped seal the NT as my favorite book of scripture, even decades later. I learned, and in learning came to love the New Testament.

    Bob and others: I have said before that some years after I graduated, BYU closed my graduate program due to disagreement with accepted national standards. My degree immediately became a liability; job interviews were harder. My experience leads me to believe that a loss of reputation or (much worse) accreditation would be very bad for BYU graduates. Yes, BYU is a private school and can do what it wants. All decisions have both good and bad consequences. But those choices will most likely have real world consequences for its students that will be difficult to manage.

  35. Kevin Barney says:

    Several of you have mentioned Griggs. I never had a class with him, but he nevertheless was an influence on me. In late 1977 I was beginning my mission in Colorado. Griggs came to do a Know Your Religion fireside in the Denver area. When he read from the NT, he translated from the Greek on the fly. (About three years later I would realize he had been using the UBS maroon edition.) That was about the niftiest trick I ever saw, and eventually was influential in my decision to study ancient languages at BYU.

  36. Kevin Barney says:

    I also worked as a TA to Kent Brown for a couple of years. He kept about 30 volumes of non-LDS scholarly works on reserve at the library for the use of his students. I remember one time a student was transferring to the U, and naturally his religion credits wouldn’t transfer. Kent sent over his syllabus and the U immediately accepted credit for his classes. That wouldn’t happen today.

  37. You know that but thought you were being clever throwing in a Nazi dogwhistle. You weren’t.

    I regret the distraction from the excellent post that my reply to Tubes’s obnoxious comment caused, but I hope you will be relieved to learn that your characterization of the phrase “über alles” as a Nazi dog whistle—full stop—is at odds with actual usage.

  38. anon_2,

    “To me this speaks of a trend of the university becoming more insular, less engaged with the wider academic world of research. The university is more interested in research and scholarship about itself and Church-adjacent topics, (but only uncritical research).

    However I cannot say if this true of the colleges outside religion, social science, and humanities.”

    Some actual examples or even a shred of evidence would be welcome here. With the departments I’m familiar with in both the social sciences (sociology, history, polisci, even the school of family life) and the humanities (English, classics), I’m confident in suggesting that the faculty, generally speaking, have never been more qualified, well respected in their respective fields, or more well published than they are right now. And it’s not really even close.

  39. BYU adjunct – agree 100,000,000%.

    CES is brittle faith taught by brittle men.

    I attended a Jesuit university where we were required take theology courses, but they were worlds apart from BYU’s offering. They were rigorous, interesting, and faith-building for me. I also attended institute as an undergrad and had a great teacher, those classes were also faith-affirming. But this 22 years ago back when we studied the scriptures instead of whatever it is they’re doing now. I don’t recall a single marriage lesson (and this was all young singles!). I do recall being inspired to be a better disciple of Christ.

  40. Kent P. Jackson says:

    Every mention of me in Professor Ing’s letter is wrong. And because he apparently had before him the document from which he quoted me, and hence knew the context of which I was speaking, I have a hard time not wondering what his motives were with his misleading letter.

    The lecture from which he quotes me was a private talk to faculty colleagues. I have no idea how Professor Ing got a copy of it, but because he uses it as prime evidence for how bad things are at BYU, readers should have noticed with some concern that he doesn’t provide a reference for it in his footnotes. Readers should also note that most of the articles he cites are not particularly friendly to BYU, and he doesn’t include cross-examining responses from BYU or its faculty members. He nowhere cites a conversation with BYU faculty members to assess the current state of affairs. This would be considered bad journalism, and it’s certainly not good scholarship.

    Professor Ing’s “sampling” of Religious Education faculty members is hardly representative and therefore misleading. Readers are welcome to go to the list of Ancient Scripture department faculty members ( and see for themselves the educational backgrounds of the tenure-track faculty. He cites some well-publicized anomalous stupid things said by BYU faculty members with the implication that such things are common. But he doesn’t consider the embarrassment and anger of the other faculty members at those stupid statements, precisely because they knew that outside observers would take them as representative, which they aren’t.

    Now back to the quotations about me: The point of my talk, in 2017 when I retired, was that Religious Education had changed enormously since I was first hired in 1980. Most of Professor Ing’s quotes from me describe the situation in the early 1980s, forty years ago! Some describe attitudes that lingered into the 1990s. It is hardly honest for him to present my observations, as he does, as somehow representing the institution now. Indeed, my point was that they don’t, and I know better about this than does Professor Ing.

    Professor Ing writes, “Jackson recounts that soon after his hire, ‘The chair was obviously not impressed with my graduate education, and he let me know that. He took me out into the hall alone and said, basically, “We don’t want people like you here.”’”

    How am I to interpret the inaccurate “soon after his hire” statement? Here’s what I wrote immediately before the words “The chair was obviously not impressed with my graduate education”: “In the years leading to the completion of my degree, I was able to make a couple of trips to Utah to meet with the dean of Religion and talk with him about my job prospects. On one occasion, he introduced me to the department chair.” That conversation was a year or two before I applied for the job at BYU, sometime in the late 1970s. What are Professor Ing’s motives for saying that it was after I was hired? That same department chair later hired me and was supportive of me throughout my career. I was never considered “undesirable,” nor were others of similar backgrounds. And I always loved and appreciated the professionalism of my colleagues, no matter what their backgrounds were. As time went on, my educational background became the norm for new hires.

    My final observation is that it is curious that Professor Ing would care enough about this issue, concerning which he knows so little, that he would expend so much time and effort to write a letter to an accrediting agency about it.

  41. anon obvs says:


    You have to be bothered by how BYU Religious Education has abandoned any veneer of academic credibility. You were trained at the highest level and made some real contributions to your field. You know that you can be a scholar, a first rate one too, and an outstanding teacher of scripture and religion. I heard you with my own ears, in years past, decry the state of CES and the pseudo-scholars that were (and are) making it an embarrassment. Direct your ire that direction.

    If you can honestly state that you think the current curriculum mandated to be taught in Religious Education deserves to be accredited, you are the one who has no business commenting on the state of things. But you can’t honestly state that. You know, and I know, and every trained academic who does the work of real scholarship and teaching knows, that the current state of things is so much silliness.

    Or maybe an entire career spent inside the BYU Religious Education bubble has warped your sensibilities. I’ve seen it happen to others. In fact, I am disappointed that you haven’t been more vocal in your criticisms of what passes for RE curriculum these days. But you are retired and I do grant you that rest. The conversation and debate is no longer yours.

  42. Bro. Jackson,
    You have offered up quite the Petersonian defense. Maybe you can get a future, 27-part response published in the Interpreter.

  43. Loursat says:

    I understand Professor Jackson’s discomfort at being brought into this controversy without warning. However, I want to say a word about whether Professor Ing has any business raising these issues. He does. He is an alumnus of BYU. Presumably, he cares about his alma mater.

    The academic quality of courses in BYU Religious Education is literally a joke, notwithstanding the exceptional work that teachers like Professor Jackson have sometimes done. Ask a student on campus about the rigor of these classes and you are as likely as not to be answered with a laugh. How else can one reasonably respond to the idea that you get college credit for these classes? The truth about these courses is as open as open secrets get.

    This charade has damaging consequences both inside and outside the university. It degrades the school’s integrity and its reputation. What a relief it would be to make the simple change that Michael Austin suggests: require religion courses for graduation but not for academic credit. It would be so much easier to be honest about it.

  44. g.wesley says:

    1. Objection: How did the author get access to Kent Jackson’s farewell address, when it was not necessarily public?

    Uh, not sure this invalidates anything.

    2. Objection: statements by Bott and Smith and Wilcox are anomalies.

    If so, why does the pattern recur? (See also: Bytheway).

    3. Objection: Other Rel Ed faculty are embarrassed by the ‘anomalies.’

    No doubt, and the letter is careful to qualify and distinguish between different faculty with different training and levels of academic suitability. It’s even sympathetic to the faith-based religious goals of the Church and BYU, just separate from the academy. Nowhere does the letter lump all Rel Ed faculty together much less blame them all. As I read it, the letter is a critique of the board and top admin, and of the way they are running the ‘college,’ not a critique of the faculty per se.

    4. Objection: anecdotes from Jackson’s address have been taken out of context.

    I’m not convinced this isn’t just a quibble, but let’s say there was some relative progress seen by Jackson and others during those years. Where is that progress now, after the latest top-down curriculum and hiring trends/injunctions? Gone. Whatever exact decade the anecdotes belong in, they show that time is a flat circle with the perennial woes of the institution and its long history of anti-intellectualism.

  45. It is poor form to publish Dr. Jackson’s words, without his permission, which were apparently meant to be private among colleagues, to argue that his former employer should be penalized. It’s especially poor form when the intent and meaning of the words were misrepresented. The same critique could have easily been made without the mischaracterization. My guess is any of the authors on this page would not want to be subjected to the same treatment.

  46. It’s not poor form to publish Jackson’s words. His talk was delivered to a large audience, typed and formatted like a college bulletin article, and distributed. It was not private. He was quite proud of it.

  47. “ It’s not poor form to publish Jackson’s words. His talk was delivered to a large audience, typed and formatted like a college bulletin article, and distributed. It was not private. He was quite proud of it.”

    How ironic that you make this comment anonymously.

  48. I think I understand the strength of feeling and rhetoric for people who have a personal stake in religious education at BYU as it is and as it has been. Neither I nor my ancestors nor my descendants have any such stake, so I have nothing to add on that score. But I wish we could separate out suggestions for going forward. Because it seems so obvious and easy to run an Institute program alongside the several BYU academic programs, and then discuss whether BYU should have a Religion department. A separate Institute program would answer many of the concerns raised in Professor Ing’s letter. Other concerns do suggest ongoing problems with a Religion department within any university controlled as BYU is controlled. I’d like to think those concerns have answers. In my opinion that’s the moving forward discussion worth having.

  49. g.wesley says:

    Another objection: whistleblowing may involve some collateral damage.

    Sure, and? So institutions of power/money should just go unchecked then?

  50. Many thanks to Prof. Jackson for taking the time to share his perspective. His comment offers useful context for his quoted words. But to return to the letter itself, Prof. Ing cites Jackson’s talk mainly as background to describe the history of Religious Education at BYU. What matters today is the academic qualifications of those currently charged with teaching credit-bearing courses in those departments. The accreditation board, and anyone else, can easily compare the degrees, publications, and engagement with the scholarly field between BYU religion faculty and those teaching at similar private, religious institutions such as Baylor and Catholic University of America. Well, actually, there’s no comparison. Likewise, it would be difficult to dispute that faculty in Religious Education do not have control over their own curriculum (at least with regard to the required cornerstone classes), and that hiring practices have recently shifted even more toward non-academic seminary and institute personnel. Ing has highlighted the anomalous nature of Religious Education at a university where other departments hold to high professional standards. Not every faculty member in Ancient Scripture or Church History & Doctrine is happy about the direction of their department, but it is difficult for them to express such opinions openly. I would hope that, in response to Dr. Ing’s letter, the NWCCU would give particular attention to that college and interview numerous faculty to determine what they really think about the academic qualifications of their colleagues, the nature of their curriculum, and current guidelines for hiring new faculty. In my opinion, Ing’s concluding suggestion is quite reasonable. Religious Education at BYU should be transformed into an Institute program, which could be a model for other Institute programs around the country. Indeed, their required cornerstone classes are identical, and they use exactly the same church-produced textbooks. Religious education is integral to BYU’s mission, and students could be required to take a certain number of Institute classes for graduation, but not for college credit.

    Let me stress again that the Church has every right to require BYU students to be instructed in Church teachings and doctrines, but many religion courses, and particularly the Four Cornerstones, do not merit academic credit and should not figure into a student’s GPA since they have absolutely no connection to the field of religious studies, and they bear no resemblance to religion courses taught at any other university in the country. Because they operate outside the standards of accreditation, they should be separated from the rest of the university. Dr. Ing, as a BYU grad with a Ph.D. from Harvard and a tenured position in religious studies at a major public university, comes to this topic with considerable professional expertise. I could also note that he is an active member of the Church, with two scholarly books from Oxford University Press and another under contract.

    As for Prof. Jackson’s final question about Prof. Ing’s motivations for writing the letter, I cannot speak for him, but I assume that his experiences are similar to my own. I went to BYU excited to study the scriptures with faculty whom I had admired as a teenager. Indeed, I took several classes in biblical languages. Nevertheless, I soon found that my religion classes (with just two exceptions) were very non-academic compared to what I was learning in other departments. When I was in graduate school, I discovered that most of my BYU religion professors, whom I had long assumed were well-respected scholars in their fields, had no reputation at all outside of LDS circles. In fact, as I learned more about religious studies and scholarship in general, I came to realize that many faculty members in Religious Education either didn’t know what they were talking about or had entirely mispresented the field. I am still unhappy about that, and I hate to think of current students being subjected to pseudo-academic discourse masquerading as actual scholarship. (For what it is worth, I myself am a professor who publishes regularly with mainstream university presses. I have been an active member of the Church all my life, holding callings of significant responsibility at both the ward and stake level. I, like Michael Ing, care deeply about BYU and want it to become a better university.)

  51. Brook Nelson McDonald says:

    If you comment here, you should consider sending your affirmations the board too.

  52. Michael I. says:

    The question of motive as raised here is an interesting one (note Jackson’s use of “most of the articles he cites are not particularly friendly to BYU”); not because it undermines anything I’ve said, but because I suspect that it highlights a mentality I’ve found prevalent in Religious Education—their work is about “building the kingdom,” and anyone who challenges them (even if offering fair criticism) is seeking to destroy the kingdom. What’s at stake here, and what I’ve argued for, is not the end of Religious Education, but rather not counting Religious Education courses toward the 120-credit hour requirement, nor calculating those courses into a student’s GPA.

    My motive for this is largely professional. For 3 years I served as our department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, where one of my responsibilities was approving transfer credit for religion courses taken outside Indiana University. When there were questions about a course, students would provide a syllabus along with other supporting material. Students would with some frequency transfer from a variety of religious schools. I tried to be charitable yet fair in evaluating courses, but after a while I developed a standard email explaining to students the difference between a devotional and academic course (e.g., if the learning outcomes were about increasing faith then it was probably devotional). I learned, though, that even if I denied students transfer credit into our department, they still often received transfer credit into the IU system that just wasn’t labeled “Religious Studies.” So students were getting credit for these courses, which could even be counted toward their GPA. This got me thinking more about the situation at BYU where students, even if they didn’t transfer, would be evaluated by employers and graduate schools with a GPA that included these kinds of courses. As I stated in the letter, I have nothing against religious colleges, but as a professor of Religious Studies, I do have a stake in the way the study of religion is recognized and accredited in the academy.

    This year marks 20 years since graduating from BYU. At the time I was an “OPT” in the Church Education System, meaning that I was on a short list to be hired as a seminary teacher. I decided to things different though after applying and being admitted to Harvard Divinity School. I had applied to at least one other school as well, and while visiting that school I met with the department chair, who was quite pleasant but also took the time to stress that I shouldn’t be studying religion simply to reaffirm the truth of my own tradition. I was a bit taken back by this, but after starting at Harvard, I knew what he meant. I had taken more Religious Education courses than anyone I knew, but I was woefully unprepared to talk or think about religion outside of an LDS context. Max Muller, a 19th century scholar of religion, famously said something to the effect of “he who knows one religion, knows none.” I felt this acutely. Fast forward to a few years ago at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion. One evening, BYU hosted a reception attended by BYU faculty and others with a BYU connection. When one of the Religious Education faculty found out I was teaching about Chinese religions at IU he said something to the effect of “You should come back to the Y; it’s only here that you’d be free to really teach the truths of those traditions.” Too many Religious Education faculty are unaware of their own insularity.

    Regarding Jackson’s talk, the reason I did not footnote it is precisely because it hasn’t been made public. If Jackson would like to do that, I’m sure the moderators at BCC can oblige. It’s nearly impossible that my _every_ mention of him is wrong. It is possible that I got the chronology wrong of him being told that people with his training are not welcome in Religious Education. If so, I apologize, but I do believe the points I raise still stand, and I do believe I appropriately nuanced my statements to show that I am not over-simplifying the situation in the past or present in Religious Education. The bottom line is that the issues I raise show not only persistent patterns of occurrence, but also show that the administration of the departments ensure the possible continuance of the pattern. Jackson might call these “anomalies,” but these anomalies are baked into the system; and the system in general should not be granting credit for its courses.

  53. I just want to shout into the void. I met my hubby at BYU-Provo. We both graduated from there. He even got a masters. Married in the temple. All the things. All the things times ten. Times evey benchmarker of faithful all-in Mormonism.

    Our children will not go to any of the BYUs. Our alma mater is not just a bad joke, but a shining example of hypocrisy.

  54. PNWTxpat says:

    I’m a financial administrator at a large university in the northwest. Our faculty code makes the dept chair the final, nonappealable arbiter of who is qualified to teach a particular course. Thus, it is practically possible for me to be assigned to teach one course per year as a non faculty lecturer for catalog credit on any topic a dept chair believed I could deliver to dept standards. Based on that, I don’t see any successful argument that BYU’s religion faculty are not qualified. I attended at Provo in the 80s. My religion professors included a dentist who was later a GA, and a Dean. Very different styles, but highly effective at stimulating close reading of the scriptures. While I don’t believe BYU is the be-all, end-all of higher ed, it has its place. I question the motives of those who want to “improve” BYU only in the direction of wokeness.

  55. I question the motives of those who want to “improve” BYU only in the direction of wokeness.

    I would too. Unless, of course, they spent 4000 words explaining how that is not what they are doing. But yeah, in the absence of a carefully reasoned explanation, I can totally see how one might be tempted to fill the void with unfounded assumptions.

  56. g.wesley says:

    @PNWTexpat: Here are some differences …

    In your case, the chair of Religion at your institution is not going to approve you to teach a course on the Bible, let’s say, given your sterling credentials in finance much less your temple recommend, testimony, and track record of church service.

    If the instructor doesn’t have relevant academic training in the field (masters at the least), no chair of any academic department of Religion would — or at least should — do that.

    But in BYU Rel Ed, that could happen and totally does — while the faculty with legit training are constrained in what they can teach and how, constrained and even threatened with termination in ways that most Religion faculty at other schools are not.

    Furthermore there is the issue of how chairs and deans are and should be appointed to their positions at accredited institutions, through some measure of shared faculty governance at various levels, versus how they are pre-screened, screened again, and then micromanaged by the black box of the board and top admin at BYU, especially in Rel Ed.

    To go hyperbolic: If a chair or even a dean in Rel Ed wanted to hire the very most famous and academically qualified scholars of religion in the world, both in terms of research and teaching, with glowing evaluations from peers and students alike, they could not do it. The board and top admin would not allow it, for reasons having nothing to do do with the budget, and everything to do with indoctrination and anti-intellectualism.

    Also: your apparent disdain for ‘wokeness’ is concerning.

  57. When I was at BYU in the 90s I had two accounting classes taught by a math PhD (he also taught beginning calculus courses for the math department and an occasional religion course for the religion department). BYU’s accounting program was ranked in the top 2-3 in the nation, depending upon the ranking source (a d it still is). Are you wokesters saying that a top ranked accounting department doesn’t have the ability to decide who can teach it’s classes? Should they loose their accreditation, along with the religion department, because they let a math PhD teach intro accounting courses (similar to the religion department letting him teach BoM?)

    Btw, the letter to the accreditation body is embarrassingly weak. It’s also amusing that Prof Jackson and his clout/reputation were used as evidence for deaccreditation, and yet when he objects this misuse, the wokesters jump on him.

  58. Just to add a data point- I was listening to two BYU religious studies ancient sctripture professors’ Come Follow Me podcast and they were interviewing fellow professor Joshua Sears (who actually has a PhD in Hebrew Bible) about the early chapters of Genesis. Sears was blowing their minds talking about the two different creation accounts side by side in Genesis 1&2, and their links to contemporaneous creation accounts, such as the Enuma Elish. Unless it was an act by those professors for the sake of drama, this was all entirely new information for them. But this is information that is covered in any academic class or scholarly book that talks about Genesis; it’s not some newly discovered or obscure information on the Hebrew Bible. I don’t understand how these men are supposed to be professors of Ancient Scripture but know so little about it? (A similar thing happened on their episode about the flood narrative) I really hope this was an act on their part. Even if they hadn’t encountered this information in their own education on ancient scripture, I would hope that they would have encountered it in their personal studies. This showed a concerning lack of knowledge about their subject matter that they are offering college level courses in.

  59. Ronald G. says:


    Math : accounting :: history : religious studies. Curriculum development : accounting :: curriculum development : religious studies. Why not have Brad Wilcox or Randy Bott teach accounting? At least there would be fewer opportunities to discuss race….

  60. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    This OP and the accompanying/related posts (about CES employees “opting in” and the analysis of federal financial support of the BYUs and their students) have been fascinating, enlightening, and deeply troubling. There are a host of issues at play here; one of the issues being focused on is the form and function of religious education at BYU and the particular role of that dynamic in all this. Resonant with everyone else’s well-explained reasoning in the posts and comments, I concur that moving RelEd courses to an “institute” model seems like the best/obvious route for the institution to go. AND…. I can also add my voice to the chorus of voices that celebrates (for the most part) my own religious education at BYU back in the 90s; as a student i didn’t find it overly challenging to find the rigorous/interesting faculty. And while the “standards of the field” issue is certainly relevant for biblical studies etc, I’ll also point out that I also felt very well served by even some of the outstanding LDS-specific religious topics taught by educators like Susan Black (who taught a riveting, honest, comprehensive and unflinching course on the life of Joseph Smith that in hindsight seemed somewhat risky, pre-JS Papers etc, and ultimately was highly faith-promoting to me, and not in the Brad Wilcox-esque, sanitized/fake/brittle CES way) and Robert Matthews (who taught a course on the JST and also a course on the Lectures on Faith – again very nuanced, historically accurate and comprehensively informative and critical… but of course these courses didn’t involve any “standards” for RelEd in the larger field of Religious Studies, since they focused on specialized ‘insider’ LDS topics). I also had classes on the Old Testament and near eastern history while at the Jerusalem Center that were similarly outstanding. Yet I recognized that everyone’s anecdotal tales of the Randy Bott / Brad Wilcox problem are undoubtedly also true, and I find it troubling that – based on the evidence laid out by Professor Ing for instance – the institution seems to have systematically moved AWAY from the model that was at least *available* to me as a student 25 years ago, TOWARD the “warmed-over-seminary” approach dominated by many unqualified and non-nuanced faculty in RelEd. It’s a shame. And combined with the new policies for faculty on ecclesiastical signaling that are likely to predominantly foster brittle orthodoxy and avoidance of anything “questionable” or intellectual, it certainly seems like there’s a systematic momentum at BYU toward the erasing of thoughtful faith. Again: it’s a real shame. Ugh.

    Here’s two other observations/angles that haven’t been brought up yet, that somewhat relate to all this. (And let me state at the outset that these two anecdotes fall squarely into the “first world problems” category of related issues… so bear that in mind. The world is full of deep existential problems – e.g. war in Ukraine – and the frictions I’m describing here are minor and irrelevant in comparison. Nevertheless i think they DO illustrate other facets of the issues being discussed.)

    1) A current high school senior from the East Coast possessing a flawless academic record and two ACT 34’s that actually superscore to a perfect 36, was recently accepted to BYU. (yay!) This student’s academic strength would have historically (even last year) made the student a shoe-in for a full tuition scholarship, and the student’s extracurriculars (e.g. award-winning musician, community service, etc.) might have even (historically) put them in contention for a Nelson scholarship. (This is BYU’s 4-year full ride award, and they only give out 50 per incoming class.) However, this student received only a one-year half-tuition scholarship. (boo!) And I know, I know, in a world full of injustice and problems, a high-achieving student only getting a partial scholarship seems like a protesteth-too-much complaint. But the interesting backstory here is that a BYU scholarship counselor directly confirmed that this student indeed would have received a full-tuition award previously, but starting just this year (!) BYU changed its scholarship model and process and algorithm to a “holistic” process that also (for the first time) takes need-based considerations into account. Hence the outcome. And the family this student comes from, while not wealthy per se, are financially comfortable enough to fall outside of need-based criteria. End of story. Frustrating for the student, who burned the candle all through high school based on assumptions about the “old” academic merit-based system, now to some disappointment. But not the end of the world. Interestingly, the scholarship counselor volunteered that going forward, the institution is likely to move more and more toward need-based scholarships and generally away from academic merit-based scholarships. The counselor recognized the fallout for this (and other) students, but was nevertheless repeatedly clear that these decisions were made deliberately, knowing what the implications would be for academically excellent students who come from more financially secure families.

    Let me state the obvious: in higher education, the problem of upward mobility and access to higher education itself is certainly a far more important societal problem to “solve for” than making sure cream-of-the-crop academic superstars are adequately rewarded. Especially since those top students also often benefit from privilege-based support structures that enable the high performance. All that is true. So in the end, perhaps BYU’s movement toward a more need-based system will improve access for underprivileged applicants writ large, and this might be a big-picture “good thing.” Yes.

    Nevertheless, if anyone is seeking evidence that the institution is beginning to devalue intellectual performance and academic standards, here is yet one more data point. Make of it what you will.

    2) Most of the conversation around the topic of Religious Education and underqualified/self-referential faculty has assumed that the associated classes are – in practice – a “joke” and consist of lightweight courses that can even unfairly “pad” a transcript with credits containing good grades without the underlying rigor. (e.g. Randy Bott’s “celebrations”) I think this is definitely, truly a feature (bug?) with the way RelEd is currently approached at BYU. Mike Austin and Professor Ing and many commentors point out the problem with this approach for transfer students and grad school applicants etc. Yet it’s also true that the unsupervised/wild-west, exception-to-every-rule approach to RelEd can nevertheless cut both ways. In other words, the other thing that can happen is that otherwise good/strong students can run afoul of a RelEd instructor, and that instructor can deliver bad grades as well, in examples of arbitrariness that mirror the “bishop roulette” problem. Case in point: a current (2022) 2nd/3rd year BYU student who matriculated to BYU post-mission, without any incoming scholarship, qualified for a half-tuition award as a sophomore based on excellent freshman academic performance at BYU. However, during this student’s second year, the student enrolled in a New Testament course in which the evaluative criteria involved a series of 7-minute timed, difficult quizzes on New Testament content that proved arbitrarily challenging. Despite getting A’s in Calculus and other difficult courses simultaneous to this RelEd course, the student found it impossible to perform at an “A” level on these artificially-difficult quizzes, subsequently earning a course B, putting the student’s retention of the hard-won academic scholarship in jeopardy.

    Again, I’m not suggesting that this “tale of woe” outranks other substantive societal/institutional problems. What I AM suggesting is that the lack of governance in RelEd can also produce a result like this one: an arbitrarily, capriciously impossible grading mechanism that punishes students for reasons that have little to do with – for instance – their actual understanding of the New Testament itself. My sense is that these attempts to look academically “tough” are a misguided attempt by some RelEd instructors lend a sheen of rigor to what they’re doing… when in fact all they’re doing is cooking up evaluative mechanisms that are the equivalent of asking right-handed students to hand-write an exam left-handed, and then grading their penmanship. What does that have to do with a better understanding of the New Testament?

    What this means, I think, is that it’s increasingly difficult to systematically find RelEd faculty who actually serve students very well in any substantial way. The entire system becomes fraught, creating downstream effects that weed out thoughtful faith. Either students enroll in CES-style “celebration” courses that are solely devotional in nature, or they end up in courses that seem more rigorous but end up being largely capricious, risking their transcripts in the process. I have to believe that this dynamic merely encourages students to enroll in the “easy A” lightweight courses. Somewhere in all of that I also presume there must remain some good RelEd faculty who are still trying to retain the kind of approach Susan Black and Kent Brown and Robert Matthews used to exemplify…. but all signs are that these individuals are endangered species and current practices/dynamics certainly don’t support this “Rough Stone Rolling” kind of approach. All of which seems likely to ultimately encourage students to shun the arbitrarily-difficult RelEd classes and flock to the Brad Wilcox courses. Which ultimately ends up producing a generation of BYU grads who have never experienced anything other than warmed-over seminary. Ugh!

  61. BlueRidgeMormon, I am very pleased that BYU is apparently taking needs into account when handing out financial aid including scholarships. What I don’t understand is WHY a young man with such stellar academics would choose BYU? There are better options! Especially with the likely deterioration of BYU’s quality of education.

  62. Sandyanon says:

    BlueRidgeMormon, awarding scholarships mainly based on financial need has been common in the Ivy League for decades. I benefited from this in the 1980’s. This policy does not seem to have negatively impacted these universities’ levels of academic achievement. Not to say that BYU is at the same level, but the new approach is much more in line with the Savior’s teachings.

  63. your food allergy says:

    I just want to add my anecdote that, counter to the one above, I know someone who was just awarded a full scholarship at BYU and she doesn’t have any such financial need. I have my doubts about this supposed need-based move, although I would wholeheartedly support it.

  64. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    I think i had a comment stuck in moderation (?) or maybe i just didn’t click the final button.

    As mentioned in the prior comment, I couldn’t agree more that a movement toward more need-based financial aid for BYU students might be a terrific aggregate outcome; however, it’s worth noting that prior to this year BYU awarded need-based aid as well, but as part of a separate system than the academic merit-based system, so it’s unclear whether this change results in a net increase in need-based aid and access. (If it doesn’t, I’m not sure it’s the positive move some may think it is.) And as Sandyanon points out, many top institutions do in fact operate in a blended way already; for instance I believe the Ivys have a VERY high academic bar for admission, followed by any subsequent financial aid being SOLELY need based.

    What’s worth asking is whether this maneuver by BYU is a movement toward greater need-based assistance and student access (yay!), coupled by a continued commitment to high academic standards (a la “Harvard of the West”)…. or … if instead it’s just another indication that academic performance is being gradually devalued in general in Provo. I worry that it’s the latter, not the former.

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