Jeffrey Nielsen interview

KUER from Salt Lake City is podcasting an interesting radio interview with Jeffrey Nielsen here. Apparently Graham Mof Tarkin slipped the nefarious letter into Nielsen's campus mailbox, and didn't bother discussing the issue with him in real-time beforehand. Classy!


10 responses to “Jeffrey Nielsen interview

  • Todd

    By the way, I don’t know from this Graham dude, but given my intimate, nauseating knowledge of BYU culture, you may appreciate a different point of view. The letter he left Nielsen is pretty chicken shit, for sure, but he actually very subtly makes it clear in the letter that the command was coming from on high and he blames the hierarchy and “rules” of BYU for the dismissal. This doesn’t absolve Graham, but it does put it in perspective a little: It is highly probable that Graham knows how deeply unethical this institutional action is and how problematic, but that his job would be under direct threat if he refused. This is again an illustration of how problematic the learning environment is at BYU, where professors make decisions based on their relationship to the church hierarchy rather than on their academic search for truth, justice, and beauty.


  • trevor

    Thanks for dropping by, Todd. I’ve had a chance to peruse your website this afternoon and find myself nodding my head a lot at what I’m reading. I appreciate your comments here, too.

    Your point that Graham is essentially a messenger in this situation is well-taken, and it’s precisely the reason I compared him to Tarkin in the Star Wars films. Tarkin, as you might remember, is the Emporer’s agent, and as such does his bidding. He is cold, calculating and exact in carrying out his orders. Graham strikes me as a similar character; I can’t imagine one can become a department chair at BYU without these qualities.

  • Todd

    Oh yeah, I totally get that. I guess what I was saying is that he may not actually be cold and calculating about it, like Tarkin; but rather he may be trapped. BYU, like other universities, rotates its chair positions among deparmtental faculty, so it is probably just Graham’s turn (at least it used to, when I was a student there 12 years ago). I just have a bit more compassion for the faculty because I watched my professors get eaten up by that system (I was an undergrad during BYU’s first round of purges, most notably Farr, Houston, Knowlton, and the creative writer who’s name I’m spacing but you’ve talked about elsewhere. The chill and fear and nervousness on campus among faculty at the time was palapable. So I’m just a little more willing to say that Graham may be in that position of fear, rather than someone who loves the power and agrees with it and exercises it gleefully.

    This is just me trying to exercise a little compassion where, it is possible, your interpretation is quite accurate.

    Glad you like my blog. I’m looking forward to dropping by yours frequently as well.

  • Trevor

    Your compassion is well-placed; after all, you did attend the U, so you have a much better sense of the day-to-day climate than I ever would. I can’t help but think, though, that taking a teaching position at BYU has to involve checking at the door an extra-large helping of that egalitarian, Enlightened notion of academic freedom Berube talks about in his post/speech. If doing that is something one does willingly, I’m certainly not as sympathetic to the plight of being “trapped” in such an abusive relationship. It’s a lot like spousal battery, I’d imagine.

    /lovefest: LOL 🙂 that’s an instant classic for sure. You and I are going to get along just fine.

  • Mike Jones

    Well, as a U of Utah alum and current BYU professor, I have to say that your view of academic freedom at BYU is almost comical. I haven’t met a single professor in my department (Computer Science) who slinks about the hallways in abject fear and loathing shuddering under the eye of Big Brother while toiling to advance the party line in.

    Switching back to reality for a second, every professor I know works at BYU primarily because they have the freedom to pursue bona fide academic research in the light of the restored gospel (forgive the Mormonism there, but I am sure you can follow the reasoning). That idea isn’t nearly as hip as the gray Orwellian image of BYU you put forth, but it’s the reality I see on a day-to-day basis.

    Now to some people, the idea of pursuing credible academic research in the light of the restored gospel is pure garbage. But isn’t that, in part, what universities are about? Academic freedom means pursuing all kinds of ideas, even ones that many people think are just plain stupid. For some people, like me, the search for truth and beauty leads straight into the LDS doctrine as taught by the Church heirarchy. This may not be your current path to truth and beauty, but doesn’t your sense of moral relativism tell you that it’s ok for it to be my path?

    The odd twist to this whole thing is that if I taught at a public university, like say the University of Utah, then I would not have the freedom to do what I can do at BYU. Honestly, I am ok with that. Public universities need to remain purely secular. In the interest of academic diversity, I am glad that there’s places like BYU that strive to connect the academic with the religious. That is where universities came from in the first place.

    Last time I checked, working at BYU was not a saving ordinance–even in the LDS church. If one decides that one is stiffled from one’s true greatness and potenial by the academic atmosphere at BYU, then why doesn’t that person just leave and go do great things elsewhere? Which brings me to today’s pet peeve: disgruntled oppressed BYU faculty who still work at BYU. I mean realy, do us all a favor and go do great things somewhere else. Cecilia Farr seems to be doing quite well in her post-BYU life at the College of St. Catherine. I would even guess that getting fired from BYU, while painful at the time, gave her some credibility amongst her peers.

    Anywho, hope that doesn’t sound like an abused spouse saying “but it’s not that bad”.

  • trevor

    Thanks for posting, Mike. I very much appreciate you sharing your point of view here.

    I'd like to make it clear that my opinions are largely fueled by the adjunct experience, and less so by BYU, Mormonism, or the inner politics involved there. As I posted in a different thread, what troubles me most is how quickly and easily Nielsen was dismissed, and I strongly believe this is an important issue for all of us in academia, regardless of our religious leanings. If a college or university ascribes to the purposes and practice of academic freedom, it strikes me as counter-intuitive for that institution to dismiss a faculty member for, as Nielsen claims, acting as a concerned citizen and voicing his opinions as such.

    Maybe you don't share this concern? I can't really tell what you think about Nielsen's situation, and I'd be very interested to hear it. From everything I've read and heard over the past week, Nielsen was very happy teaching there and never felt "disgruntled" or "oppressed." If you listen to the interview, he is quite clear in expressing how much he enjoyed working at BYU, and is remarkably forthcoming in saying he's not entirely sure speaking his mind was the right thing to do.

    For me, that's where the red flags go up, and it has absolutely nothing to do with "moral relativism"; if a university professor cannot pen an editorial expressing his or her personal views on matters of public policy without fear of administrative reprisal, there is something very wrong. Again, I can't tell what your thoughts on the matter are, but I'm assuming you don't share this point of view?

    I'm delighted to hear that your quest for truth and beauty are in lockstep with your faith, and all of these factors have crystallized for you in your current position at BYU. Although I would obviously never teach there myself for reasons already expressed or intimated here, I don't begrudge someone like yourself for doing so. Clearly your institution has a very distinctive mission, and it's inherently going to draw people who ascribe to that core set of beliefs.

    What I find peculiar, though, is what happens to faculty who see having those core beliefs as being predicated on asking tough questions (much like the U's "academic freedom" policy suggests, by the way) *about* said beliefs. I'm most familiar with the cases of Brian Evenson and D. Michael Quinn, who were both threatened with excommunication (in Quinn's case, the threat was carried out) for pursuing the writing and research they believed was in step with their personal and professional obligations to acting "in the light of the restored gospel." And of course as you know, it was *precisely* this writing and research that pressured their demanded resignations from the university. I am not familiar enough with Farr and the others to know what kind of post-firing street cred they might have earned (I'm sensing you smirked more than a little when you typed that, by the way 🙂 ), but I do know that in Evenson's and Quinn's cases, the price of that secular credibility you nod at came at a tremendous personal price to each of them. It's more than a little dubious for a university to claim it has created a true haven for academic freedom (the "academic freedom" policy, by the way, is one of the top links on the U's website, which has always struck me as a proactive and well-calculated PR move) when it deliberately forces its faculty members in the humanities to choose between their professional interests and their faith, *and especially* when it has created/demanded an environment where those two things are intricately woven together.

    But let me end by asking a fairly simple question: supposing Nielsen *did* feel oppressed at BYU, is it really collegial and to the larger benefit of your university community to give him a swift kick on the way out? I don't know much about Computer Science departments, but "Love it or leave it" has always—in my experience at least—been a fallacious argument at best in the humanities, and it creates all sorts of problems for freedoms of research, teaching, and personal expression. Binary propositions are for machines, not human beings; we may understand either/or thinking, but it's certainly not what makes us rational in the first place.

  • Jeremy

    A response to Mike: why is it that those who act within the constraint of ideology, particularly the religious type, can’t see the inherent contradiction in crying “persecution” with respect to their ability to express their beliefs while that belief system simultaneously persecutes others?

    Let’s assume no profs are unhappy at BYU. Then let’s assume that ‘s because it upholds the values stated by Mike , wherein “….Academic freedom means pursuing all kinds of ideas, even ones that many people think are just plain stupid.”

    Then let’s assume that maybe that was why Jeffrey Nielsen was happy there, right up until his right to pursue ideas other people think are stupid was viciously curtailed.

    It’s one thing to support an ideology. It’s another to support concepts that persecute others without socially relevant justification or scientific support. Perhaps Mike would be better off using his doubtless grand education to pursue a study of the damage done over the course of human history by non-transformational orthodoxies, rooted in beliefs that have been proven ridiculous as the larger brotherhood of mankind passes them by.

  • Legal Eagle

    Although questions of academic freedom are certainly applicable to this case, one crucial fact has been ignored in this debate – the issue of contractual behavior.

    As much as we academics bemoan the fact that the modern university (even private universities) have transformed from an entity focused on the creation and dissemination of knowledge to an entity focused largely on the bottom line, this is an inescapable fact. Thus, contracts between the university and its faculty are important because they govern the terms of the relationship between the two parties.

    In agreeing to work at BYU, Dr. Nielsen contractually assumed the responsibility to keep his actions in line with the sponsering entity of the university (namely the LDS chuch). When he broke his contract he was swiftly let go. This is simply a breach of contract matter. This is really no different than any other firing when an employee criticizes their boss in public. Again, Dr. Nielsen broke a responsibility that he had contracted to uphold. When he broke his end of the contract the university was legally and EVEN ethically correct to fire him. (They are even are letting him finish out his teaching terms in the fall, which may be going above and beyond their contractual obligations).

    The legal obligation to fire Dr. Nielsen are even more apparent when it is clear that BYU professors’ salaries are subsidized by funds from the LDS Church. Tuition at Brigham Young is about 30% of what it should be, largely because of these subsidies. How can any institution continue a relationship with an employee when that employee is threatening relations with a sponser, ESPECIALLY when the employee has contracted not to speak against the sponser?

    The other surrounding circumstances, — whether this was a department level decision or “came down from on high”, whether Grand (not Graham) Moff Tarkin or Chewbacca or even the CIA were involved — are completely irrelevant in my legal-ethical perspective.

    Of course, my legal-ethical perspective probably clashes with other posters ethical perspectives, but then we are choosing between which ethical system is best and we as a society still hasn’t figured that question out yet.


  • Legal Eagle

    – I just fact checked myself… Brigham Young is not letting Dr. Nielsen teach in the fall.

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