Foreword for Wild Rides, Wildflowers

The title promises wild rides and wildflowers; the subtitle announces philosophy and botany with bikes. I’ll let the authors introduce those topics themselves. My task is to provide a little context, especially from the year preceding the events of this book. I’ll begin with a letter Scott received from Brigham Young University administrators at the end of the 1998 academic year.

 

May 7, 1998

Dear Professor Abbott:

We regret to inform you that the University has decided not to grant you an advancement in rank to full professor. . . . Below is a summary of the University Faculty Council’s response to your file:

. . . With respect to citizenship, we believe that your zeal to change policy at BYU has driven you to actions and statements that have taken you beyond the bounds of propriety for a citizen of this University. . . . We believe that the evidence argues that more affirmative contributions could have been made. . . .

            You have engaged in a pattern of contentious criticism of the University, Church leaders, and  faculty colleagues in another college in the University. . . . The emphasis of these activities has been to pressure the University to change policies of the Board of Trustees.

Sincerely,

James D. Gordon III, Associate Academic Vice President

Van C. Gessel, Dean of Humanities

 

With this letter, dated almost exactly a year before he and Sam began to write their column “Wild Rides, Wildflowers” for The Salt Lake Observer, Scott was denied promotion to the rank of Professor of German at Brigham Young University. For the second time.

To prove the allegations of “contentious criticism” and to demonstrate Scott’s untoward effort to change policies set by inspired Mormon leaders, university officials cited the following statements from his publications:

“There is a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism in the Church . . . and its purveyors are, among others, members of BYU’s Board of Trustees.”

“The Department of Religious Education has experienced the kind of inbreeding that weakens any academic department—they have hired teachers who fit the unctuous seminary teacher mold rather than teacher-scholars.”

“BYU is a sanctimonious edifice, a formalistic, over-pious community.’”

The Dean of Humanities wrote that Scott’s writings might influence “readers to question the inspiration of individuals who are even today sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators.” He said that because of Scott’s actions as co-president of the BYU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (whose investigators had recently concluded a fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of infringements on academic freedom at BYU), “the university and the Church have been held up to national ridicule.” And finally, he lamented Scott’s “selection of very visible, very public forums—several of them, like Sunstone and the AAUP—associated with dissent, with negativism toward religious universities, with advocacy of reason above any other consideration. . . . A more circumspect Scott would think twice, then thrice about taking his grievances to a national organization that regards academic freedom as the only true God.”

Holy shit! Scott thought. There was not, and he knew that for a fact, a “more circumspect Scott.”

The professor of chemistry appointed “University Representative” for the subsequent appeal wrote that

efforts that bring to the University public censure, humiliation in the national press, damage to its reputation, and encouragement of scholars to not affiliate with it are inconsistent with the highest principles of personal behavior. These actions abuse the moral climate of discourse on campus, and they are beyond the bounds of civility for a BYU faculty member. To attempt to pressure this University to change its policies through public censure by an outside group is neither productive nor constructive criticism. Instead, it is disruptive, manipulative, and contentious criticism.

The chemist pointed out that the University’s Academic Freedom Statement, which Scott had argued against as an “academic bondage policy,” had been “adopted by the Board of Trustees, which includes the First Presidency and several members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. These are people whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators. . . . BYU faculty ‘assume an obligation of dealing with sensitive issues sensitively and with a civility that becomes believers.’”

HOLY SHIT! Scott thought. I need help. And who better to help him than his partner in godless academic-freedom crime: Sam Rushforth. Sam was, after all, co-president of the BYU Chapter of the AAUP. And, he was not unctuous.

Sam was not very sympathetic either (he alleged that sympathy could be found between shit and syphilis in the dictionary). He agreed, however, to be Scott’s “faculty advocate.” As might be expected, the two men approached the appeal without much sensitivity (they had both, after all, been socialized as American males), and certainly without much “civility that becomes believers.” Some things are simply beyond belief.

While he and Scott put together a document for the appeal, Sam exchanged letters with Jim Gordon the Third about the appeal committee:

“Dear Jim: I am writing to protest the method by which this committee was established. . . . It is inappropriate for the BYU administrator who denied Professor Abbott’s promotion in the first place to be the sole voice in determining the makeup of the panel that will hear his appeal. To seat such a blatantly biased panel makes a travesty of the appeal process.”

“Dear Dr. Rushforth: “University policy currently provides that the Adademic Vice President appoints the panel.”

“Dear Jim, thanks for your letter of 26 October. We understand that this is current policy. But it isn’t fair policy. Are we not all agreed that an appeal should be heard fairly? It should be public as well, we think. Because this case has ramifications beyond a particular denial of promotion, we plan to post our arguments on the website of the BYU Chapter of the AAUP.

“Dear Dr. Rushforth: Thank you for your December 18 letter informing me of your plan to publish on your web page some of the testimony and arguments in Scott Abbott’s promotion appeal. That plan would violate the University Policy on Faculty Rank and Status. According to university policy, the appeal involves a private and confidential personnel matter. Turning the appeal into a public debate would destroy confidentiality and politicize the process.”

“Dear Jim: It is interesting that you would suggest that ‘turning the appeal into a public debate would politicize the process.’ As we have pointed out repeatedly, the process is intensely politicized already—with the administration in the position of power. Furthermore, the equation of private/public with non-political/political makes no logical sense.”

The outcome was obvious from the beginning.

Together, Scott and Sam wrote the arguments they then presented to the five appointed members of the appeal committee. As joint authors, they had also begun writing their columns about biking and botanizing the Great Western Trail, the first of which appeared in print this same month. Academic infighting, as you can see, is excellent training for joint authorship in disciplines as diverse as athletics and psychology and botany and philosophy and bullshitting? Sam maintains to this day that the last two disciplines are identical. Scott figures Sam isn’t smart enough to understand the difference. More of that dispute in the pages that make up the body of this book.

Here, however, a brief glance at what became a rather lengthy appeal document (there was no sympathy for the appointed flunkies, they had to sit and listen; readers of this book deserve and will get a shortened version).

Sam spoke first: “Scott is accused of being a bad citizen. Citizenship at BYU is defined as not causing ripples—no writing or speaking on controversial topics, no offering any sort of eccentric point of view, no broaching of any issue that has the slightest potential for making a member of the administration or Board of Trustees nervous. Citizenship at BYU has come to mean sitting on university committees, being a boy-scout leader, and performing weekly church duties. That is a death knell for any true university.”

Sam then explained the evolutionary need to pass on a few changes in genetic information without damaging the extant gene pool. Similarly, he said, “the role of the university is to be a ‘disorder generator.’ A university is responsible for questioning everything we do in society and how we do it. Disorder and questioning the known are uncomfortable propositions. But without provocation, society stagnates, stultifies and risks extinction.” He concluded a speech that quoted Bertolt Brecht, Galileo, Margaret Mead, and Albert Schweitzer with his usual understatement: “Now finally, I must say that the University Representative’s characterization of Professor Abbott in this appeal process is reductive, simplistic, mean-spirited and wholly off the mark.”

Scott then took the floor: “We are meeting here today in the Humanities Dean’s Conference Room where two years ago Sam and I introduced three of you to representatives from the AAUP who came to investigate allegations of violation of academic freedom. Jim Gordon gave us your names and said to include you on the interview list. He said you would defend BYU as a place where we have more academic freedom than is available at other universities. Imagine what it feels like to address an appeal to a committee the majority of which is on record as disagreeing with the arguments we have made about academic freedom at BYU— the arguments for which promotion was denied.

“I write and teach mostly about German literature, about texts by Goethe, Schiller, Rilke, Peter Handke, and others. As a citizen of this university, it is also my responsibility to think about ways to improve the atmosphere for learning and teaching. I felt that responsibility at Vanderbilt University, where I taught for seven years. I felt that responsibility at Princeton University, where I was a faculty member for two years. I still remember my first faculty meeting at Princeton, held in Nassau Hall in a room that had been exposed to the elements by a British cannonball during the Revolutionary War. The meeting was opened by an invocation given by the University Chaplain. When he asked God to ‘Bless us who labor here at Thy University,’ it made immediate sense to me. Any institution engaged in serious research and education is engaged in holy work. At that moment I committed myself to the moral responsibility of good thinking and good teaching, and of being an active citizen in the academy.

 

“My thinking about BYU, my public statements, my published arguments, the work that has now twice been judged bad citizenship, has been about what I see as debilitating policies and practices. As an appeal committee appointed by the BYU administrators who turned down my promotion, as an appeal committee whose task is severely limited by BYU regulations, you are authorized to decide whether there was a “reasonable basis” for denial of promotion.

“I can perform that task for you right now: given our current policies, there was indeed a ‘reasonable basis’ for denial of promotion. But those policies are flawed. They are policies that over the past six years have cut away at the fundamental principles upon which any university must be built. These new policies have slowed the momentum that you and I and our colleagues have worked hard to establish.

“And finally, even if you were to be moved by my arguments, even if you were to agree that some of our policies hinder us as we try to think well and teach well, even if you were to decide that I am not the misguided and dangerous zealot the Academic Vice President claims I am, it would make no difference. BYU regulations give you only an advisory say in the matter. President Bateman will make the final decision and he will do it without having heard the arguments we are making here today, without having spoken with me. This is an exercise in pretending that there is faculty governance at BYU.

“I told the Chair of this Committee that I am not naive enough to think I will win this appeal. There’s no way in hell I could win this appeal. But as long as I am at BYU, as long as I am an educator, I’ll continue to carry out the moral commitment I made in 1979 in Nassau Hall. Fairness matters. Academic freedom matters. Universities matter. Truth matters.”

Sam spoke again: “Scott was first denied promotion in 1993, ostensibly on the basis of deficient scholarship but obviously related to his article on “Tensions between ‘Religion’ and ‘Thought’ at BYU,” published in Sunstone and cited again now. That same summer, English professors Cecilia Konchar Farr and Gail Houston and professor of anthropology David Knowlton were denied advancement on the basis of deficient scholarship. Scott and I and others, including George Schoemaker, whose one-year position in the English Department was not renewed after his work on behalf of his colleagues, compared their publication records with those of professors who were promoted at that time. We published the results in The Salt Lake Tribune; the scholarly work of all three fired professors was as good as that of any of the professors who had been approved. There had to be other reasons, which we pointed out. David Knowlton had published articles arguing that Mormon missionaries were being targeted in South American because they dressed like American operatives. He had also written that the new Church office building looked suspiciously like a phallus, a subconscious revelation, perhaps, of patriarchal tendencies. Cecelia Konchar Farr had spoken at a pro-choice rally, stating that she was anti-abortion and that she was pro-choice. Gail Houston had mentioned in a newspaper article that she prayed sometimes to her Mother in Heaven as well as to her Father in Heaven.

After our published report, the University partially reversed itself on the question of scholarship, admitting that the deciding issues had been related to citizenship. That led eventually to the AAUP investigation, with Gail Houston’s case at the center. In their report, published last year, the investigators concluded the following:

 Much more than an isolated violation of academic freedom, the investigating committee’s inquiries into complaints at BYU have revealed a widespread pattern of infringements on academic freedom in a climate of oppression and fear of reprisals. . . . Numerous additional cases and complaints at Brigham Young University indicate that infringements on academic freedom are distressingly common and that the climate for academic freedom is distressingly poor.


“Scott’s work as a critic of some University policies makes him a productive and affirmative University citizen. The College Committee on Advancement in Rank, which unanimously voted for Scott’s promotion, wrote

that both the possibility and the actuality of thoughtful dissent are, themselves, essential to the flourishing of any truth-seeking community, and especially to a university community, requires no defense. . . . At his trial, Socrates described his gadfly function as a form of divine service and humorously asserted that no greater good had ever befallen his beloved fellow Athenians than this service to his god. We are similarly disposed to value Scott’s gadfly function at BYU. Whatever the merits finally of any of his particular challenges to BYU policy or practice, we find the challenges, themselves, stimulating and provoking of self-examination, and hence, salutary. BYU, like Athens, very much needs some citizens like Scott Abbott.

 

“Of course Socrates didn’t fare too well,” Sam continued. “And of course Scott is no Socrates. This contrasts rather starkly with Jim Gordon’s assessment and with the university representative’s summary: ‘his behavior of personal attacks, contentious criticism, making false statements, and using methods that were uncivil, disruptive, manipulative, and contentious.’

 

“Reasonable people can disagree. One of the highest compliments a person can make to the author of an argument is to take that argument to task. Perhaps the lowest blow in this same public arena is to ignore the argument and to blame the author for making the argument at all. When Nancy and I were advocating stricter clean-air standards for Utah, we engaged in a heated public debate. Someone thought we were being contentious and threw a brick through our window. The people who have denied Scott’s application for promotion have, in effect, thrown a brick through his academic career.”

 

Scott concluded the appeal: “As you know if you have read the publications in question here, my comments have been stripped of context by the Dean and Vice President. I’ll give one example. What I wrote about Elders Oaks, Packer, and Maxwell was not only civil, but couched in admiration:

In my view, the basic and most destructive mode of this anti-intellectualism is to distinguish between faith and reason, setting the one against the other and the one above the other. And its purveyors are, among others, members of BYU’s Board of Trustees. I don’t think they mean to be anti-intellectual, in fact there are many indications in their writings and talks that they not only support thought and education, but that they link them integrally to faith. These are, in fact, our spiritual leaders. As an academic especially vulnerable to the specific pride they often warn against, I am thankful for their reminders that in the end, I am not as smart as I think I am. What I am talking about, however, is the message heard and used by people at BYU and elsewhere who disdain the intellect and suppose they can live by what they think is faith. In what follows, I will give examples from several recent statements by current members of our Board of Trustees. These are men I admire immensely. Each of them has moved me spiritually sometime in my life. I would not now be at BYU or in the church if I had not felt the spirit of their words. What follows will be seen by some as ‘contradicting or opposing, rather than analyzing or discussing, fundamental Church doctrine or policy’ or ‘deliberately attacking or deriding the Church or its general leaders’—to quote the new document on academic freedom. I wish that the readers who see it that way would recognize the damage caused by assumptions of infallibility and by quashing attempts at discussion—damage to our leaders, damage to the church, and damage to our own souls.

Scott ended his speech by asking the committee to consider the current state of the university:

“Are faculty members here more or less willing to speak out on controversial issues than they were five years ago?  Will your decision to deny my appeal free up discussion or shut people up?

“Are faculty members here more or less trusting of the administration than they were five years ago? What effect will your decision have on that trust?

“The University Representative has argued that I am a bad citizen because I used the word ‘unctuous’ in reference to hires of non-scholars, because I called BYU ‘sanctimonious,’ but he doesn’t address the question of whether the words are correctly applied. The Dean has argued that I am a bad citizen because I held the university up to ridicule, but he doesn’t ask whether or not the university has become ridiculous. The Academic Vice President writes that I should have made more affirmative contributions to the university, but doesn’t address the affirmative contributions that even and perhaps especially stinging criticism can bring.

“Somehow, and I’m not sure how, we have arrived at a place where we are, in the words of Slobodan Milosević, “obligated to safeguard the state. We may not disseminate ideas directed against the interests of our country or spread fear, panic and defeatism or act contrary to the resolutions of Parliament. . . . Absolute unity is required on issues of vital . . . interests” (October 7, 1998).

“My arguments over the years have been that academic freedom is being progressively undermined at BYU. Because I made those arguments I have twice been denied promotion. Perhaps that proves my argument.”

 

That, then, is the story that immediately precedes the flight of our two mountain-biking adventurers into the wilderness. Before we turn to their conversations while aboard those bikes, let me provide a little more background.

A graduate of Princeton University, Scott had left a newly tenured position at Vanderbilt University in 1988, anxious, as he told his Vanderbilt Dean, to return to the relatively wild landscapes of the West. He also wanted, he said, to contribute to the education of his fellow Mormons.

Sam had been a BYU Professor of Botany since receiving his Ph.D. at the age of 23. Precocious and talented and rambunctious, he had always a bit out of place over nearly three decades. He had raised controversies, over those years, on topics that included evolution, birth control, population control, and homosexuality. Rumors included him on a supposed “hit list” someone on the Board of Trustees wanted gone from the university. When those rumors intensified, Sam’s Department Chair took him to meet with Rex Lee, former Solicitor General of the United States and now President of BYU. “Is Sam on some hit list?” Sam’s Chair asked. “No,” Rex said, “there is no such hit list. I don’t know where these rumors come from.” The next day Rex called Sam and asked him to come over for another talk. Since the first talk he had discovered, he told Sam, that his Provost, Bruce Hafen, had indeed been given a “hit list” by a member of the Board Trustees. It included Sam and anthropologist David Knowlton, along with four uppity women: Cecelia Konchar-Farr (English), Tomi-Ann Roberts (psychology), Marie Cornwall (sociology), and Martha Sonntag Bradley (history).

Scott and Sam are both dreamers. While they were preparing for AAUP investigators to arrive on campus, for instance, Scott dreamed that he was holding a lit stick of dynamite. While the fuse burned, he calculated in what felt like an infinite and increasingly tense loop how long he could hold on before throwing it. In Sam’s dream he and his wife Nancy were with a sick horse. Sam had a huge syringe full of medicine that would cure the horse. Before he stuck in the needle, Nancy cautioned him to move away from the horse’s rear end. “Your cure is sure to work,” she said, “but when it does the horse is going to blast manure everywhere.”

How is it, you may ask, that Sam and Scott, congenitally unable to submit to authority, became professors at an authoritarian university with a long authoritarian history. The President of BYU when Sam joined the faculty, Ernest Wilkinson, wrote his own congratulatory history of the university and gave it to all members of the faculty one Christmas instead of the customary turkey. Faculty renamed the book Mein Kampus. They figured that the sequel, should there be one, ought to be called Free Agency: And How to Enforce It.

One answer to the conundrum is that universities have cycles. When Scott was interviewed by two BYU Vice Presidents, both scientists by discipline, he was asked a surprising and encouraging question: What do you read outside your discipline? Not a word about his religious beliefs, which he was willing to discuss, but feared might disqualify him if the questioner demanded absolute orthodoxy. This could be an interesting place to work, he thought. He and his wife were raising their children as Mormons, he had been raised Mormon himself, and some of his best attributes had been formed in response to the teachings and practices of the Mormons. He attributed his basic impulse for justice, for instance, to what he had read in Mormon scriptures. Ditto his belief in a communitarian economy. Sam had his own fulfilling opportunities at BYU. His science, especially his study of diatoms, was well funded, and there were broader opportunities like team teaching an interdisciplinary honors course called “On Being Human.” Looking for answers to that great question, he was able to augment his science with insights from the fine novels he had always read avidly. In short, BYU has had, at various times in its history, enormous potential.

And, of course, there was the attraction of the mountains and deserts of the American West, those dry and wild landscapes for which Scott left the admittedly beautiful but unfamiliar green, wet Tennessee woods, those hot springs and lakes and precious rivers that had long been the focus of Sam’s research and his sustenance.

Finally, although the events recounted in this book may strike some readers as bizarre, they really happened, or at least Sam and Scott claim they really happened. Whether this is read as a cautionary tale or an account of liberation will depend, naturally, on the reader. It will depend, as well, on whether a reader reflects on the authors as tenuous fathers, as inadequate husbands, as sparring friends, as Jack Mormons, as flawed environmental activists, or as that odd species called Masculinus americanus. Scott and Sam themselves, looking back on the sometimes squalid events during their tenure at BYU and over the meandering courses of their lives, see the whole thing as having been great fun.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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