Reduction of academic freedom diminishes education
David R. Keller
The dismissal of Brigham Young University adjunct philosophy
instructor Jeffrey Nielsen, on account of an op-ed published in these
pages, brings to light several important issues regarding academic
freedom in different institutional settings.
First is the difference between private and public academic
freedom. The mission of BYU is the study of reason circumscribed by
faith. Recently at Utah Valley State College, President Kim Clark
responded to my question about academic freedom at BYU-Idaho by
stating that open inquiry is unfettered as long as this scope is
Those critical of Nielsen's firing are quick to point to the
American Association of University Professors ongoing censure of BYU
for violations of academic freedom. This criticism, however, misses
the point. Private institutions have the right to implement rules and
enforce them, no matter how unfounded those rules may be to public
sensibilities. As long as professors choose to teach, students choose
to enroll and the LDS church chooses to fund, BYU has every right to
its own standards.
Second are the differences among private institutions. Both Nielsen
and I did graduate work at Boston College, a Jesuit school, where one
morning I saw the chairman of the philosophy department coming down
the hall clutching The Future of an Illusion and The Communist
Manifesto. After greeting him, I remarked on the strange choice of
reading material for a Jesuit priest. He looked into my eyes and said,
"David, I've got to master Freud and Marx so I can explain how they
This experience contrasts with another at UVSC. I enrolled in a
general biology course, and, on the day we reached the topic of
evolution, attendance dropped from 70 to seven. Puzzled, I quizzed the
instructor, who informed me that this happens semester after semester.
Students decide that evolution is something they do not wish to learn
about - before they learn about it.
The lesson is that religious cultures have dissimilar philosophies
of education. One approach is to learn about many subjects in order to
engage in dialogue with others, bolstering and promoting one's faith;
the other is to avoid topics which are inconsistent with one's faith
the worry that such exposure could threaten spirituality. Catholics
seem to favor the former approach, LDS and evangelical Protestants the
No wonder Notre Dame philosophy professor Janet Kournay expressed
befuddlement on KUER's RadioWest June 19 regarding Nielsen and BYU.
Kournay pointed out that Mark Roche, dean of the Notre Dame College of
Arts and Letters, publicly questioned in a The New York Times op-ed
("The Bishops and the Catholic Vote," Oct. 11, 2004) the alignment of
Catholic bishops with the Republican Party.
Presumably, as inquisitive persons of faith, Roche and Nielsen had
the same motivation in publishing their opinions. But the outcome was
opposite. Roche set an example for thinking Catholics, while Nielsen
set himself up for disciplinary action.
Third is the question of the role of education in the drama of
democracy. Given the case at hand, is the on-campus silencing of
reasoned concerns by an instructor a favorable example for students
preparing for civil dialogue with persons of a plurality of
perspectives in the public square?
The answer is no. Democracy cannot function without an educated
citizenry. This requires students be well-versed on complex
public-policy issues. Muting voices in a critical preparatory stage
for citizenship hinders moral education and hampers civic engagement,
no matter the institutional setting.
Moral injunctions by the upper hierarchy of any social organization
affect the common good. Such injunctions consequently are fair game
for informed critique and frank discussion, those of ecclesiastical
leadership not excluded.
David R. Keller is director of the Center for the Study of Ethics
and associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley State College.