Who defines academic freedom? Are definitions derived by objective criteria or based on a school's position along the ideological spectrum? How much self-determination should a private university be granted in establishing a learning environment that may or may not be respected by outsiders?
Those are questions that come to mind as Brigham Young University faces censure from the American Association of University Professors for its record on academic-freedom issues.AAUP's compulsive concern with climactic conditions at BYU has put the organization at recurring odds with administrators at the nation's largest private university. Last September, a 19-page report by an AAUP committee probed the firing of a BYU professor and the teaching environment there. It found the climate "distressingly poor" and infringements widespread.
The root of the evangelical zeal demonstrated by AAUP to cure BYU of its purported deficiencies is simple: It insists the church-owned institution conform to its rigid secular model and standards. In short, it is demonstrating organizational inflexibility and intolerance of a university that doesn't fit the mold due to its religious foundation. Remove religious requirements from BYU students and faculty, and AAUP would rest easy.
But that is not about to happen, nor should it. A private institution has the right and responsibility to adopt and enforce faculty standards consistent with the mission of its sponsor, in this case The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Academic freedom on any campus is largely relative. Try injecting religion in many discussions at state-run schools and listen to people demand separation of church and state. Intellectual freedom is self-determined, a product of individual and collective choices, philosophies and biases.
It is obvious, based on the overwhelming demand to get into BYU, that countless students are comfortable with the learning climate there. And these are not mindless sheep.
The top 2,000 of Brigham Young's fall freshman class has average GPA and ACT scores on par with some 2,000 freshman who will enter Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. There is no educational compromise in their minds with their choice to attend BYU.
For faculty, there is likewise strong demand to teach on the Provo campus. Faculty members who dislike the university's standards and mission are free to seek work elsewhere.
If an instructor departs and truly is as renowned as he or she believes, the institution and its students will miss out. If they leave and nobody cares, perhaps their influence as a teacher was overstated to begin with.
If enough good faculty leave, students and alumni will recognize that over time, and support from the cream of the crop will wane.
Currently, there is no evidence of that at BYU. In fact, the contrary is true, with outstanding students being turned away in droves. Maybe the campus climate is not as grim and restrictive as AAUP is making it out to be.