For most of this decade, the annual Sunstone Symposium has been taboo for Brigham Young University professors.
However, at least one professor participating in this year's symposium at Salt Lake Community College did so only because he says he was encouraged to present a paper by a university administrator."To my knowledge this is the first time that any chair of our department has given us any indication that Sunstone was appropriate," the professor said.
Sunstone Foundation Executive Director Elbert Peck sent a letter several months ago to all BYU department chairs, asking them to encourage professors in their departments to participate in the symposium.
At least one department chair forwarded the letter to professors, adding the invitation, "If you have any papers or panel ideas, please contact Elbert Peck."
Peck and Sunstone Board of Trustees Chairman Stan Christensen both tried to put a kinder, gentler face on the symposium that in the past has drawn the ire of leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for discussing topics such as temple worship.
"Specifically, we are uncomfortable supporting any individual or group whose aim is to attack the church or directly criticize its leaders," Christensen wrote in a July 2 memo sent to all Sunstone participants.
Despite the more amiable tone of Sunstone organizers and the apparent approval of at least some BYU administrators for professors to participate in the conference, the attitude about Sunstone at the Provo campus doesn't seem to have really changed.
"It hasn't loosened up," Peck told the Deseret News. "If anything it's gotten worse. The university is actually being more vigilant about screening just who participates in Sunstone."
Peck relates with a laugh stories about BYU professors who want to participate in Sunstone but are afraid it will hurt their standing at the university, so they try to conceal their affiliation with BYU while at the symposium. Some BYU professors who would like to participate but don't are not afraid of recrimination but just want to avoid the hassle they might be given by colleagues, Peck said.
Although Peck said he has been told by some professors that BYU administrators have warned them against going to Sunstone, the university has never stated a policy against the symposium.
"It is an individual decision," said BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. "Each person needs to look at the statement by the church and make their own decision."
In 1991, the LDS Church First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve issued a statement that warned church members to be wary of symposia that publicly discussed sacred matters such as temples and openly criticized members or leaders of the church. It was at that point, Peck says, that BYU professors began avoiding Sunstone.
Although the university has no official policy against attending the symposium, participation - depending on what a professor says or does at Sunstone - can definitely be detrimental to a BYU professor's career.
In 1995, former BYU English professor Gail T. Houston related a brief experience at Sunstone during which she referred to praying to Mother in Heaven. That statement became a central part of the controversy that eventually led to her dismissal from BYU in 1996, for which the American Association of University Professors censured the school and alleged academic freedom violations.
Jenkins said that administrators don't label professors mavericks simply because they participate in Sunstone, but they do take into account the strength and validity of a professor's research presented at Sunstone - as with any academic conference - when conducting tenure reviews.
Despite the general negative view of Sunstone at BYU, some professors say they feel comfortable participating in the symposium. At least a half-dozen current BYU professors are listed in this year's Sunstone program, and several other former professors and students also par-ticipated.
On Thursday, BYU journalism professor Alf Pratte presented a paper, and BYU law professors Edward L. Kimball and Marguerite Driessen and German professor Scott Abbott served as panelists during discussions. On Friday, zoology professor Brian Maurer commented on a presentation by another scholar.
"I think the perception still exists in some quarters at BYU" that Sunstone is off-limits, Maurer said. "I guess there's enough grist there that a BYU professor could go there and say certain things and get an official response."
However, Maurer said, he feels insulated from recrimination by BYU's own "Statement on Academic Freedom," which was adopted several years ago.
A portion of that statement reads, "It is not expected that the faculty will agree on every point of doctrine, much less on the issues in the academic disciplines that divide faculties in any university. It is expected, however, that a spirit of Christian charity and common faith in the gospel will unite even those with wide differences and that questions will be raised in ways that seek to strengthen rather than undermine faith."