All Brigham Young University faculty members are being surveyed about academic freedom and faith at the LDS Church-owned school.
Approximately 1,500 full-time professors and instructors received a copy of the questionnaire, "Spirituality & Education," this week. Similar surveys have been conducted at Notre Dame, Boston College and Baylor."(BYU is) unique in so many other ways; we ought to know how loyal and unified our faculty are," said Keith Wilson, a professor in the ancient scripture department who has an academic background in secularization theory.
Wilson, in conjunction with Baylor University professors Michael Beaty and Larry Lyon, is conducting the survey. Once the results are tabulated, they will be published along with those from Baptist-affiliated Baylor, Catholic-affiliated Notre Dame and Boston College, which has Jesuit roots.
"I can imagine lots of people will answer because it's a fairly hot topic right now," said BYU German professor Scott Abbott, who is president of the campus chapter of American Association of University Professors.
"It's a topic crucial to our self-definition as a university," Abbott said.
Wilson and Beaty have been working for 18 months to prepare the eight-page questionnaire. Questions range from whether professors endorse BYU's mission statement to whether they think the focus at the school has shifted toward more academic freedom or a greater commitment to faith during the past 10 years.
BYU administrators point out that they are not sponsoring the survey, although they did grant approval for it to be sent to all faculty. Also, Academic Vice President Alan Wilkins sent a memo to faculty members encouraging them to return the completed questionnaires.
"It will be interesting to see the comparisons among the different universities," said Associate Academic Vice President Jim Gordon. "This is credible and legitimate research."
The latitude afforded BYU professors in publishing and teaching has sparked much debate on campus since English professor Gail T. Houston left the school in 1996 amid charges that she publicly contradicted LDS Church doctrine. Last year, two AAUP investigators published a negative critique of BYU's academic freedom situation.
At an AAUP conference in October, Abbott and Wilson - the only BYU faculty members present - engaged in an emotionally charged discussion about what BYU professors should or shouldn't be allowed to do. The two may not see themselves as polar opposites, but they do seem to represent the extreme limits of BYU professors' attitudes about academic freedom.
AAUP, which counts among its numbers a small percentage of professors nationwide and a handful at BYU, will vote this summer whether to place BYU on a list of universities that the association feels have violated academic freedom principles.
Wilson expects the survey to offer an accurate picture of the feelings of BYU faculty as a whole. The responses likely will show that BYU professors are more orthodox in their respective beliefs and practices than are professors at Baylor, Notre Dame and Boston College, he believes.
But Abbott wondered if the wording of some of the questions would influence professors toward certain answers. He said that academic freedom and commitment to the LDS faith don't have to be pitted against one another, as they seem to him to be in some of the questions.
"I think that's our problem right at the moment," he said. "We've set them against each other, while I think they're totally compatible."
Both Abbott and Wilson agree that while the results of the survey shouldn't be overemphasized, they could provide valuable information about faculty attitudes, something no one has been able to evaluate effectively on a significant scale.
Another survey, which also asked questions about academic freedom issues, was sent to some faculty members several weeks ago. An introduction said the questionnaire was being administered by a BYU psychology student but some faculty doubted that when they realized they were supposed to return it to "John and Goody Proctor."
The Proctors are a persecuted couple in the Arthur Miller play, "The Crucible," leading some faculty to believe that whomever sent out the first survey had tipped their hand. It may have been an attempt to discredit the later survey, Wilson said. No one has come forward with results of the first survey.
Wilson expects most of the "Education & Spirituality" surveys, which promise faculty they will enjoy confidentiality, to be returned within a week or so. The data will be analyzed at Baylor, so results won't be available for several weeks after that.
The survey comprises 62 questions. Among the questions it poses are "Is it possible for BYU to achieve academic excellence and maintain an LDS identity?" and "Do you have more freedom at BYU to teach your subject matter in the way you feel is appropriate than you would at other universities, or do you have less freedom here than you would have else-where?"