Ralph Hancock’s excellent article on the future of BYU

We urge all readers to take a look at Prof. Ralph Hancock’s excellent articles on BYU. As many readers know, there is widespread dissatisfaction among Latter-day Saints regarding the type of education students are receiving at BYU, specifically BYU-Provo, but also other BYU institutions.

To summarize the dissatisfaction from the conservative and traditional perspective, the concern is that BYU is becoming too worldly and embracing too many “woke” causes. But progressives are also unhappy that BYU is not like other universities in the U.S.

Prof. Hancock addresses these are other issues here.

Clearly something is stirring at Brigham Young University. The university is re-examining its fundamental mission, taking stock of how it has drifted away from this mission, and undertaking a realignment with that mission. All Latter-day Saints, and indeed all friends of religious higher education in the United States, have a stake in this challenging ongoing process. The university’s leading officers, under the direction of the Commissioner of Church Education, Clark Gilbert, and of the Board of Trustees in Salt Lake City, have addressed the university audience repeatedly, clearly, and emphatically — especially over the last two years — concerning the need to realign BYU with its distinctive religious as well as intellectual mission as a university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is much less clear, though, how these efforts to redirect BYU will unfold or what will be the eventual outcome of the present ferment. This article is mainly a reflection on the university’s annual conference, August 22, 2022, as well as on meetings and conversations at the college and department level that same day, and on subsequent reverberations throughout the institution that I have witnessed directly or that have been reported to me by BYU colleagues who share my concerns. I aim both to clarify the nature of the changes being called for by BYU leadership and to explain the very significant obstacles that stand in the way of these changes. Let me say at the outset that I wholly embrace the present call for mission realignment, and that I also understand that the obstacles to it are in many cases structural and not a result of deliberate opposition or disloyalty on the part of recalcitrant faculty.

As I will show below, President Kevin Worthen and Vice President Shane Reese made it very clear in their respective addresses on August 22, 2022 to the whole BYU community — and to the whole faculty — that improved alignment with the Church and the Restored Gospel is a high priority in the school’s updated strategic planning. VP Reese, in particular, offered some very bold and suggestive reflections on BYU’s need to articulate a “gospel methodology.” What remains unclear is just how the re-commitment to a gospel-centered education approach is to be articulated and just how this mission realignment is to be conceived and implemented, given the university’s deep involvement with and dependence on the mainstream establishment of higher education in the United States. I will argue, further, on the basis of observations at the “operational” level of the university (academic colleges and departments), that in the absence of a clear and substantive articulation and organizational incentivizing of the administration’s mandate to integrate religious faith and intellectual learning, the faculty as a whole will likely continue in their familiar professional grooves, and that many professors will continue to interpret gospel imperatives in ways that align conveniently with the humanistic religion, now largely driven by victimhood identity politics, that is prominent in the mainstream academy.

Finally, returning to the most important message from the annual university conference, I intend to show that a careful reading of Elder Christofferson’s speech of August 22 provides the key to a fuller and more practicable articulation of BYU’s mission and shows the way forward to a difficult and gradual but necessary implementation.

Truth and Authority, Religious and Secular

Brigham Young University has striven from the beginning to meet the challenge of being a University that embraces high academic standards necessarily grounded in the larger world of higher education, and at the same time rooted in and fully supportive of the doctrine and mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was never going to be easy to reconcile these two sides of the university’s mission, the dual commitment to reason (as practiced in the academy) and to faith. For those who, like me, fully believe in the truth of the Restoration, the problem is not one of any fundamental incompatibility between the two poles of BYU’s mission, that is, between learning that is at once “by study” and “by faith.” The Restored Gospel is not only true but intellectually rich and satisfying, and so the activities and attitudes of careful thinking on the one hand and humble openness to revelation are of necessity allies in the understanding and application of truth. The difficulty, however, is that we are never in full possession of the whole truth as we undertake the educational process; in both the exercise of the gift of our natural reason and in the application of our faith to the pursuit of fuller understanding, we are always on the way and never at the end of our search for truth.

Where faith and revelation are concerned, we have the benefit of fundamental principles and doctrines that we accept in part on the basis of our trust in prophets (scriptural and contemporary) as mouthpieces for Heavenly Father. I am grateful for the ordained authority that supports and clarifies revealed teachings, both for me personally and for Brigham Young University as an institution. The authority of such basic teachings is not in question in this essay. Indeed, my view is that more careful and faithful attention to truths expounded by prophets and apostles, including very recent apostolic counsel, is essential to helping the BYU community recognize and overcome the difficulties that arise from the limited and imperfect exercise of our natural intellectual faculties.

It is too rarely considered by academics and intellectuals that the influence of authority on the pursuit of truth does not operate only on the religious side of the educational equation.It is important to reckon with the rather obvious fact that there is a secular academic establishment, a network of institutions and a force-field of professional prestige that necessarily exercises great influence over all universities.

It is impossible, moreover, that BYU should be completely immune or indifferent to this influence. Our very sense of what it means to be a real, reputable university is not something we can create for ourselves, and BYU depends, like every other recognized university, on a thousand incentives and cues that emanate from the sources of validation that are built into the academic enterprise. A literature professor who wants to succeed in his profession cannot afford to be indifferent to the norms represented by the Modern Language Association any more than a political scientist can define political science according to her own idiosyncratic taste or beliefs, with no regard for the definition that is operative, for example, in the American Political Science Association. Similarly, BYU may well seek to be “unique” as a university in important respects, but as long as it aims to maintain and enhance its reputation as a university, it cannot heedlessly flout the understanding of higher education represented by Harvard or Stanford or the University of Utah. To be a unique university, we must first of all be a university.

Read the whole thing here.

2 thoughts on “Ralph Hancock’s excellent article on the future of BYU

  1. An interesting place to be for BYU. Do we go full “Benedict Option”? Or is BYU powerful enough to retrench and try and right the ship, while still offering students a quality education that they can use in their lives? I have long wanted BYU to divest itself from most, if not all, Federal monies, and research grants. It would take effort to fund research and to make sure that students were not being defaulted on their educational investments, but I don’t think it would be impossible. I know many, like me, in the alumni community would be willing to support a new and improved, and gospel aligned BYU. No parent should have to worry about sending their kids to BYU and worry that they will lose their testimony. That said, parents, take off the blinders. If you send your kids to BYU, send them with strong testimonies, and know they will face more opposition from within than from without. It might be worth repeating as well, that there are many good colleges with strong institute programs, Arizona State Univ comes to mind, that offer the secular education and a strong spiritual component at the Institute. My first 3 years of college were in a community college that feeds into ASU. Some of my best friends to this day are from my time at the Institute.

  2. This particular statement, quoted below, is one of the most refreshingly honest takes not only on the culture at BYU but on the culture of church leadership. Do we believe in an Almighty God who has power over Earth and Heaven, or do we believe in ourselves and worldly institutions first, and accommodate God in our plans when convenient?

    “in the absence of a clear and substantive articulation and organizational incentivizing of the administration’s mandate to integrate religious faith and intellectual learning, the faculty as a whole will likely continue in their familiar professional grooves, and that many professors will continue to interpret gospel imperatives in ways that align conveniently with the humanistic religion, now largely driven by victimhood identity politics, that is prominent in the mainstream academy.”

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