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Shame on you BYU

Shame on you BYU


Brigham Young University has continually shown itself to be intolerant and small-minded--not what you would expect from what is supposed to be an institution of higher learning.

The recent decision not to rehire part-time instructor of philosophy Jeffrey Nielsen as a result of his dissenting editorial on gay marriage in The Salt Lake Tribune reiterates issues of intellectual oppression at Brigham Young University and in higher education generally.

Four years ago, in the fall of my senior year of high school, BYU brought me to its Provo campus on a recruitment trip along with a number of other high-achieving applicants. Even before that trip, I had become familiar with "the Y" on my many family vacations to the university to see my cousins and brother off to college. In high school I ranked in the top 5% of my class at a competitive public preparatory high school, earned a near 5.0 GPA by BYU's weighted standards, played on the varsity tennis team, won league and state championships in speech, and served on the board of education of my local school district. I was a seminary graduate, an Eagle Scout and senior patrol leader of my troop, and a former president of the deacons and teachers quorums of my ward; my bishop's ecclesiastical endorsement, it is fair to say, was glowing and unabashed.

I received my offer of admission from BYU only two days after I submitted my application online: The letter was dated November 22, 2001, and I had submitted my application on November 20. Along with the offer came a Millennium Scholarship from the university, which was a very attractive package considering my family's financial situation at the time. Nevertheless, I passed on BYU. Over my last four years at Amherst College in Massachusetts, I have come to the conclusion that it was the best decision I could ever have made and the same decision that I would recommend to hundreds, if not thousands, of other students.

You see, even when I was visiting BYU, I already knew that one thing about me would never fit in (besides the fact that BYU's predominantly blond-haired, blue-eyed student body made me feel racially marginalized as an Asian-American): I am gay, and I am not ashamed of it. In the field of history and American studies that I have decided to pursue, nothing is more important than the ability to engage evidence critically and analytically. History and humanities in general require a healthy dose of skepticism and, implied in that skepticism, a degree of toleration for the viewpoints and lived experiences of other people.

This was a kind of progressivism that I knew I would never find at BYU, and thus BYU was the least academically attractive of all of the schools I applied to. To confirm this point I needed only to look at the school's "Honor" Code: "Advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle (whether implied or explicit) or any behaviors that indicate homosexual conduct, including those not sexual in nature, are inappropriate and violate the Honor Code." Aberrant behavior includes, among other things, cross-dressing. Would BYU then shy from working with William Shakespeare's The Twelfth Night because of its gender-bending themes?

Academics at "Christian" institutions like BYU will never be challenging or serious enough because it cannot be a real pursuit of knowledge until the administration is willing to relinquish its stodgy control over what is and is not a kosher interpretation of the world. Writ large, institutions such as BYU cannot truly advance until all of their students are allowed to live and learn in the full creative energies endowed them by God. True education requires at least a minimal degree of acceptance and liberalism; it requires room to make and learn from mistakes. These institutions allow no such room for intellectual curiosity and experimentation, and they suffer for this narrow-mindedness. These universities will continue to produce theoretically second-rate work. They will continue to lose out on the best secondary academic talent in this country. Their most brilliant and dedicated scholars young and old will never achieve their full potential. And the members of their community who recognize and oppose this system of heteronormative oppression will continue to regard the university as a miserable confining place. That is not the way the Lord imagined schools, and that is surely not the way the Lord envisioned education.

I know full well that I do not have the academic or professional credentials to make some grandiose claim about the philosophy of education. I write only as a recent college graduate who loves education and enlightenment, who has experienced firsthand the pain of a fascist and misguided "moral" policy, and who cringes at the thought of the two being combined in a university. The BYU administration's response to Professor Nielsen's editorial as well as the reception given the Soulforce Equality Riders in spring 2006 demonstrate just how unwilling supposedly "Christian" colleges and universities are to at least listen to, if not engage in, any real dialogue about the discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students face. Scholarship at "Christian" schools has hidden long enough under the intellectual squalor and hypocrisy of bad religion. It is time for the disguise of academic respectability to finally give way to real learning.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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