BYU and Cryptic Standards

A couple weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that BYU-I was declining to renew[fn1] instructors’ contracts based on nebulous and unexplained criteria.

And yes, I understand that the BYUs have odd and specific contractual provisions, one of which is that employees’ employment is contingent on getting an ecclesiastical endorsement from their bishop. But here’s the thing: the bishops of the two instructors the story interviews did provide ecclesiastical endorsements. That is, the people in question went to their bishops. They answered the questions bishops are supposed to ask. Their bishops endorsed them. They had current temple recommends. They had done everything that the BYUs say they needed to do.

But they were told they weren’t renewed because they didn’t get “ecclesiastical clearance” and therefore didn’t qualify to teach at BYU-I.

A quick interjection here: the BYUs can certainly have cryptic, unstated, unknowable reasons for firing/not renewing employees’ contracts, provided those reasons don’t conflict with state law, with the employees’ contractual terms, or with their accreditor’s requirements. Other than that, though, this is something that the BYUs can do.

But can is not should. And the BYUs absolutely should not fire employees for failing to meet nebulous, unstated standards. Doing so is harmful to employees, to students, and to the schools themselves.

Harm to Employees

This one is probably the most obvious. One of the fired instructors points out that losing this job cost her family more than 1/3 of its income. And contingent faculty is generally in a precarious position anyway—they lack job security, they’re underpaid, and they often teach so much that they can’t do the research and publishing that might land them a tenure-track position. That’s a shameful part of academia writ large, but it’s doubly shameful for schools that profess to be followers of Jesus.

And it doesn’t just hurt the faculty who are fired. If your colleagues are getting fired for not meeting some unknowable standard (and, since BYU-I refuses to explain why they were fired or what this “ecclesiastical clearance” standard is, it’s an unknowable standard), that’s going to affect your security and satisfaction.

Harm to Students

This kind of firing hurts students, too, in a number of ways. The discouragement and uncertainty makes it less likely that qualified instructors will go to BYU-I. The BYUs are often able to get overqualified faculty, in part because many church member feel a call to help the development and growth of Mormon students. But if you might lose your job at the whims of someone you don’t even know, I suspect you’ll think twice about taking that job. If you can get a job somewhere else, you’re likely to do that. So BYU students will, as time goes on, have less qualified instructors.

And they won’t get the faith mentorship that they so desperately need. Both instructors featured in the story believe that their firing has to do with their positions on LGBTQ rights. And here’s the thing—their positions were absolutely the opposite of radical. They amounted roughly to the idea that they should consider the wellbeing of the LGBTQ community.

And here’s the thing: that baseline of concern for the LGBTQ community is an absolute floor for most of the rising generation. There are exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of our young people know their LGBTQ siblings, like them, and believe that they should enjoy a baseline of civil rights and civil treatment. And if we want to keep them in the church, we need to provide some kind of model for how to maintain activity in the church in spite of many of its policies on LGBTQ members. It’s not an easy line to walk, and teachers who can model that tension will do far more for our young members than sermons about religious freedom.

But to the extent we (figuratively) excommunicate those people from our society, we send a message to our young people (straight and LGBTQ alike). And it’s not the message we should be sending.

But if professors and instructors at church schools are afraid they’ll lose their jobs for modeling faith in the face of that tension, those who continue teaching face significant incentives not to model that critical behavior.

Harm to the BYUs

Finally, the schools themselves will be hurt. They’ll attract less-qualified professors and instructors. They’ll attract less-qualified students. The students they do get will have a harder time getting into grad school. Getting jobs.[fn2] Etc.

Some Last Thoughts

Look, I’m not suggesting that the BYUs cannot decline to renew contracts of instructors. I’m not saying it can’t fire people. But I am saying that it needs to be transparent. If it’s laying people off to save money, that sucks, but sometimes we have to save money. But be explicit about it. If they don’t want their professors expressing concerns about the treatment of LGBTQ individuals, well, that sucks but say it in advance. If there is some other ecclesiastical qualification necessary to work for the BYUs, tell employees and prospective employees in advance.

But firing people for failing to meet unknown and unknowable standards is academically and religiously unacceptable.

[fn1] I initial wrote “firing,” but it’s not clear whether they’re being fired; in fact, the headline says they were “fired.” But the intricacies of academic contracts—and particularly contracts for contingent and part-time faculty—are varied and I don’t know what these instructors’ contracts looked like. But either they were fired or their contracts, presumptively renewable, were not renewed. For purposes of this post, it doesn’t really matter which it was.

[fn2] It’s beyond the scope of this particular post, but if you believe that students at BYU are going to be bigoted, why admit them into your program? why hire them? It’s only going to create problems for you down the line. And this isn’t a purely hypothetical problem: when I was at BYU, a number of BYU-grad med students were apparently making misogynistic remarks to their female classmates. The med school let BYU know that it wasn’t inclined to admit BYU students if that was how they would act. Was it resolved? IDK. I went to law school and know very little about the BYU-to-med-school pipeline.


  1. The problem goes well beyond leadership roulette, which is already baked into the entire process. Now BYU faculty (and staff) must try to divine what attitudes, ideas, and scholarship the star chamber (aka Clark Gilbert and the ECO) believes should be acceptable. The idea that BYU has any academic freedom has evaporated completely. The reality is that anyone teaching at BYU–from adjuncts to full professors–are contingent faculty.

    The morale problem among BYU faculty right now cannot be understated. There is deep concern on the Provo campus (and I would guess in Rexburg and Laie as well) about the lack of trust the administration has in the faculty…despite the fact that the faculty are the most closely vetted people working for the Church. The students have noticed; they wonder why some topics that are relevant to the course material do not get discussed (or they get shut down). Scores of current faculty, some of whom have been at BYU for twenty years or more, are seriously considering either early retirement or other positions.

    Like Sam said, BYU can do what it wants…but it will have to deal with the consequences.

  2. I wish we would set up a BYU system simply affiliated with and supported the LDS Church, not run by the Church directly. The Board of Trustees should be composed of academics and educators, not church leaders. Having a university system owned by the Church is so problematic. BYU is my alma mater, but my children did not attend. I steered them in other directions because I feared that the academic prestige of their degrees would decline in the near future. I have seen nothing that has made me regret our decision.

  3. I have a friend/acquaintance who left a “better” teaching job to go teach at BYU. He is a BYU grad and undoubtedly wanted to pay-it-forward, so to speak. Earlier this year he left BYU because he could no longer tolerate the way the institution was being run. I can’t speak to his academic credentials, but I know that BYU has chased off a wonderfully kind, loving person. He’s the sort of person I would want teaching my kids. If this continues for the next decade, I greatly fear that irreparable harm will be done to the institution, and that too many people won’t notice until the damage is already done.

    There is another effect of these policies that concerns me. When I was a student at BYU, all of my student ward bishops were faculty members. If BYU faculty is entirely comprised of the most orthodox, conservative and anti-LGBTQ members (the ones that can maintain their employment there), that can significantly change the calculus of playing leadership roulette. BYU students already face increased stakes from the power that a bishop has over their lives. If my child goes to BYU, do they need to be cautious about being too supportive of their transgender sibling?

    I loved my time at BYU. It is quickly becoming a place that I would have to actively discourage my own kids from attending.

  4. This is an issue near and dear to my heart, because I was once an adjunct at a Church school–LDSBC, when it was still called that–shortly after I got my MA from the U, about a decade ago. I still distinctly remember attending the faculty Christmas party, when the Dean casually thanked all the adjuncts present, “because you all make up 90% of the faculty, we couldn’t do it without ya!”

    I was flabbergasted. 90%?! Even at that time, the highest ratio of contingent-to-fulltime at most colleges nationwide was an absolutely indefensible, immoral, and unethical 70%–yet here, LDSBC was even worse! And the Dean wasn’t even ashamed of it! Even the Dean at SLCC, where I was also adjuncting (because teaching at two colleges without health insurance was the only way I could live above the poverty line), had the decency to act embarrassed about employing 70% adjuncts–though even they were at least taking concrete steps to hire more Tenure-Track faculty (the SLCC English dept. alone opened an unprecedented 4 new F/T positions when I finally landed my own TT position). When you are exploiting your instructors even worse than secular colleges, you cannot exactly claim to be morally superior to the “ways of the world.”

    I also remember asking the English Chair at LDSBC why I kept getting stuck with the disgustingly-early 7:40am classes; she informed me it was because they employed a number of single-mothers as adjunct instructors, who needed the morning time to get their kids ready for school. I grimaced and chivalrously agreed to keep teaching the early-morning classes; it wasn’t till I got home that I realized, “Wait a second? LDSBC knows for a fact that they are employing single mothers, yet still knowingly pays them sub-poverty wages with no health insurance?! Inhuman!”

    Malachi 3:5 (which is endorsed by Christ himself in 3 Nephi 21:5) states that the Lord will come as a “swift witness […] against those who oppress the hireling in his wages.” Other translations are even more explicit: “against those who defraud laborers of their wages” (NIV), “who cheat employees of their wages” (NLT), “who oppress the hired workers in their wages” (NRSV), and so forth. LDSBC, the BYUs, CES in general, are oppressing, defrauding, and cheating their workers. This is not up for debate. They are taking advantage of academic desperate for work; they are exploiting them. In the parlance of CES, that is following the ways of Babylon, not Zion.

    I taught at LDSBC for about two-and-a-half years before returning to grad school myself, by which time I was the longest-serving adjunct there. So yes, if you want to talk about how students are harmed by treating faculty like garbage, consider this: 90% of LDSBC instructors are deeply inexperienced, and never stay there long enough to get good at their jobs.

    Side note: And for the inevitable folks who pop up in these sorts of discussions to say that PhDs shouldn’t complain about exploitation because they have such low-unemployment rates or whatever: just stop. Your argument is dishonest, disingenuous, and made in bad-faith. PhDs obviously get their PhDs because they want to be college professors–and given how essential a college education is for competing in the global economy, we should be encouraging all these PhDs to become college professors anyways. Instead, we are actively discouraging them out of the field, where they will be the least useful in preparing our youth for the future. It is just such a lazy, myopic, short-sighted argument.

  5. I don’t have a direct connection to the general concern of teaching at the BYUs, so this is not something I’ve followed beyond casually reading about it in these parts. But is it really as simple as the administration focusing just on how faculty feel about the LGBTQ+ issue? Or are we all reading that into places where it is not actually known? The longer I read BCC (and I’ve done it for well over a decade), the more it seems that everything is converging lately on that one issue. But I struggle to believe that in the complex systems of our society, even just within the church, so many different areas would boil down to that same issue.

  6. Adam F., if you read the Trib’s story, that’s one of the significant problems: the school won’t tell the people why it fired them. It claims to have been because they didn’t meet some ecclesiastical standard, but they got the ecclesiastical endorsement from their bishops and they held temple recommends. So they met all of BYU-I’s explicit ecclesiastical requirements.

    It’s possible that their firing had nothing to do with LGBTQ issues. But the school won’t tell them and that seems like at least a reasonable assumption.

  7. As you mention Sam, BYU can do whatever it wants. But this is NOT what Jesus would do. And I expect the church to do what Jesus would do. It’s very disappointing (though not surprising which is truly unfortunate) and my heart truly aches for these faculty members. Losing a job isn’t just about money, it also affects you personally as we often tie part of our identity to our employment and profession. To not know the reason you were not renewed is sure to create mental harm in this regard. I’m very sad.

  8. Given the list of questions that are asked of faculty–that go well beyond the temple recommend questions–to assess “worthiness” under the new Gilbert/ECO regime, and given the anecdotal evidence from the Tribune article and from other faculty who have been let go at the BYUs, how can one *not* believe that LGBTQ issues are driving recent developments? I would be willing to wager large sums of money that a faculty member would be less likely to be fired if s/he had a drinking problem that they confessed to their bishop than if they asserted that supported same-sex marriage in a lecture and it was reported to the ECO.

  9. I have a very orthodox sister-in-law who is distinguished in her field (I’m attempting to be vague, but not too vague, because of current policies . . . ) who has been asked by full-time faculty to apply. Her husband is currently nearing the end of his time as a Stake President. They are very ‘in-line’ with the Church on all the current policies. And yet. She is bothered by the amount of effort and force they use in the new hiring practices to make everyone is and will stay in line–along of course, with the accompanying surveillance. If she is worried about it, I can’t imagine a world where very many potential new faculty aren’t/won’t be. I can’t believe BYU is turning into a place where the student body will play the part of turning in faculty for supposed violations and believe they are doing the Lord’s work while doing so. But here we are.

  10. I don’t understand why anyone here is surprised/dismayed by the control exerted at BYU. This has long outlasted The Notorious BKP, is well baked in, and very likely exists in similar form at Baylor & Liberty. I can’t speak for the Catholic schools but my experience tells me they’re more secure and less reactive. They also understand that today’s zero may be tomorrow’s hero (Galileo).

  11. Anon for this one says:

    Here’s a thought. I think we should do a deeper dive on the published work (or teaching) for those reported in the Tribune story. There’s a few reasons for this:
    (1) the Tribune story might be a bit exaggerated.
    (2) As pointed out in the OP, there are likely other reasons than just the ecclesiastical endorsement. If so, then what would those other reasons be? (rhetorical question). Frankly, focusing on LGBTQ+ issues is a little narrow. There are a host of areas where disagreement with Church policies and procedures seep through a faculty.

    Thought: this is a dry run at BYU-I in preparation for similar actions at BYU-P. Elder Holland has specifically addressed faculty a couple of times in the last few years. We all know how the Church doesn’t want to attract bad publicity. If this is going on at BYU-I, they may be weighing the “publicity cost” of a house-cleaning at BYU-P.

  12. It’s quite clear that Clark Gilbert is conducting a holy inquisition and cannot see that the proposed cure will be far more damaging than the alleged disease.

  13. Anon, why would you want to do a deeper dive into the published work of the people in the story? To save you some trouble: there’s likely little or none. They worked as adjunct instructors, roughly. And like I said earlier, that doesn’t leave much time for scholarship. Moreover, my understanding is that BYU-I doesn’t put a huge premium on scholarship.

    And your initial assumption that the story is exaggerated strikes me as strange. It’s well-sourced, with contemporaneous documentation, and reflects the experience and feelings of several people here who have commented.

    As for whether it is LGBTQ issues, I’ve addressed that at least once in the OP and once in a comment.

  14. I’ll add a data point to the discussion. I’m a STEM faculty member at a flagship state university and hold a named position. BYU has asked me to apply for open positions on a few occasions. The last time they reached out (a few years ago, prior to the new endorsement policy) I politely declined and also told them that I’m uncomfortable entangling my career and my ability to be critical of the church. This wasn’t the only reason I declined to apply, but it was a contributing factor.

    BYU ended up hiring an early career person for the position. They fit the BYU mold and will likely do well. So, BYU got what they wanted, but at the opportunity cost of getting an established scholar.

  15. Funny that there is a secret layer of “worthiness detectors” above and beyond the Bishops, who are called of God to be Judges in Israel, with 1st presidency approvals.
    Seems like BYU-I administration and The board of trustees do not trust God who called those bishops? Or they are lying as to why those 2 people were fired.

  16. There are always two sides to these situations. BYU-I and the Church generally never tell their side for various reasons, including employment laws and a desire not to besmirch people’s reputations. That does not mean there is not another side to the story, however. This approach allows the former employees to frame the narrative and present the facts in the most sympathetic light to their position.

  17. anony1, do you have any evidence—or even reason to believe—that these instructors were let go for reasons other than not getting “ecclesiastical clearance,” whatever that is? Because I don’t. The reporter has seen emails and talked to a number of people.

    So while I applaud reading news stories cautiously, it you want to argue that the employees are being untruthful about the reason they were fired, it’s probably worth providing some sort of evidence,

  18. lastlemming says:

    SCW’s comment makes me wonder if the Church hasn’t caught on to the inequities introduced by “bishop roulette” and decided to level the playing field by applying the standards of the most conservative bishops to faculty members endorsed by less conservative bishops. It would save them having to give a “musket fire” talk to the bishops.

  19. p, the current level of “control” is significantly higher than it was just a few years ago. The change is why it is newsworthy.

  20. “this is a dry run at BYU-I in preparation for similar actions at BYU-P.”

    One can only hope. One can only hope. I hope everyone here has feels otherwise can continue to stay faithful as well.

  21. Sute, one can only hope not. One can only hope note. I hope everyone here that feels otherwise can continue to stay faithful.

  22. Does this mean that there’s one level of treatment for instructors/adjuncts, and another for tenured professors? Or does BYU-I not tenure its professors? Or do the BYUs manage to get around the tenure protections?

  23. Cate, I’m not at a BYU so I don’t know entirely, but my understanding is that they don’t technically have tenure–they have “continuing status,” which is tenure-like but less protective. (I’m not sure what the law school does, since ABA accreditation requires tenure at law schools.) So, while contingent faculty is afforded different treatment (at the BYUs and, essentially, every other school), there’s no reason this couldn’t filter into the continuing status professors.

  24. @Cate

    I don’t think that the BYU’s, (even BYU-P) actually have ‘tenure’, they have ‘continuing faculty status’ (CFS), which, they say, is ‘comparable’ to tenure.

    I use to think that this specific choice of words was motivated by the Church wanting to eschew the vocabulary of ‘the world’ or whatever, and that CFS status is tenure, but with a different name. However, I now think that’s not the case, I think CFS status is actually different from what everyone else calls ‘tenure’ and probably has provisions that would allow the university to terminate even “”””tenured”””” faculty in scenarios exactly like this one.

  25. Continuing Faculty Status is not, in fact, tenure. The protections that tenure affords do not exist at BYU.

    Basically, CFS assumes that your contract will be automatically renewed provided you adhere to the requirements (i.e. worthy of a temple recommend for faculty grandfathered in, temple recommend holder for newer faculty…plus the new extra layer of expectations for everyone that came out early in 2022); do not make comments/do research/do anything that might reflect poorly on the Church in the eyes of the ECO or Gilbert (AKA limits on academic freedom); and do not run afoul of priesthood leadership roulette at some level.

    Moreover, TPTB have found ways to force people who did not opt-in to the new requirements to do so. Contingent faculty get new contracts every semester; CFS faculty who want to be a chair/dean or do a study abroad program or teach a night class must sign new contracts with the new expectations.

    Here’s the thing: none of this is going to stop the attrition of Gen Z. The faculty are not the ones making their decisions for them, even if they express support for LGBTQ causes or people. Many times, the faculty are the ones trying to keep students engaged with the Church. This is all a band-aid on an arterial wound. Faculty are being scapegoated and paying the price for issues far beyond their control.

  26. Thanks for the clarifications, all.

    Of course, I’m really depressed now….

  27. The donors are refusing to donate to the BYU schools because they are getting to be “too woke”. This is the reason for Elder Holland’s talk and for these firings. And yes, the LGBTQ issues are a huge part of this.

  28. Well, no name, it goes both ways. This donor, for example, is refusing to donate because of exactly the opposite reason as the reasons you cite.

  29. I would think that No Name is correct, the spectre of wokeness at BYU is scaring donors, the big fish donors anyway.

    But at the same time, I wonder if the reactionary pandering is scaring away students. I wonder what enrolment levels will look like over the next 5 years or so. I imagine that freshmen enrolments took a dip with COVID, but I wonder if there will be declining freshmen enrolments over the years as Gen Z becomes college age and (presumably) increasingly decline to go to BYU due to BYU and the Church’s hostility to LGBTQ people.

    However maybe there won’t be, comparatively cheap tuition is hard to say ‘no’ to. If I were a teenager now and had more or less the same positions on LGTBQ issues that I do now, I think I would still try to go to BYU and pretend like I was on board with all of the marriage and family doctrine for 4 years to get my degree and then move on and disavow such doctrines later.

    Other factors may contribute like loss of accreditation, then I would expect to see a noticeable decrease in enrolments.

    But it also may be hard to detect because I think prospective students are starting to abandon post-secondary education in general, there’s just so little ROI now (and everyone knows it) that I think over the next decade or so lots of people will just opt out of getting a university education altogether.

    Interestingly, there rumours and rumblings going around staff and faculty at BYU about how the current university president wants to get BYU “more involved” in Latin America. No one I’ve talked to is sure what the means exactly, but I speculate that perhaps the Church is concerned about youth in USA as being ‘too woke’ and are thus looking to import more students from Latin America, which probably skew more to the right on LGBTQ issues.

    That would be interesting, and if were to happen, I’m sure at least someone would point to it as the fulfillment of those “lamanite apocalypse’ prophecies in the BoM, about how in the last days it will be the descendants of the lamanites who adopt the gospel and overcome the gentiles (whites) that increasingly fall away from the gospel.

  30. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I really don’t see there being any impact on enrollment at BYUs. The number of applicants may decline, but the schools will still see sufficient numbers of accepted and enrolled students. I don’t think that will change as a result of these ecclesiastical clearances, or loss of accreditation (won’t happen), or poor faculty morale, or decline in instructor quality (will definitely happen). The classrooms will be full, the athletic teams will be competitive, and the business and law schools will produce the future leaders of the Church. But the quality of those who fill the classrooms, and graduate with degrees, will decline, and the willingness of major corporations to hire those graduates will decrease, as will the prospects for graduate school. And…the Church seems fine with all of that.

  31. Trying to figure out whether No Name is being satirical?

  32. Concerned Citizen says:

    I’m one of the adjunct instructors who lost their jobs (although I didn’t want to keep teaching so I was okay with it). Nowadays, there are two levels of ecclesiastical clearance. There are the standard temple recommend questions for everyone, and there are a few other questions for instructors of any kind. The two questions that get people are whether or not it has been a year since intentionally viewing pornography (a fair question, I’d say) and if the instructor approves of all First Presidency decisions and policies. The last question is not fair, in my opinion..

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