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The Case Against Brigham Young University

Giddy over their best football season in years, students at BYU are brimming with school pride. The Cougars handily defeated the Aggies, my school’s team, and narrowly squeaked out a win over the Utes. But though BYU’s students have earned some bragging rights, I am not yet envious of their school choice.

They are missing out on the marketplace of ideas other universities enjoy. I’m not talking about the porn filters or lacking cable selection, but the onerous censorship of vital information about the government and the church.

In 1998, the American Association of University Professors voted to censure BYU for infringements on academic freedom that were “distressingly common” and a climate for academic freedom that was “distressingly poor.” Despite this condemnation, BYU has persisted in a systematic purge of any freethinking faculty. The two most recent victims: BYU professors Steven E. Jones and Jeffrey Nielson.

Just a few months ago, tenured physics professor Jones was placed on paid leave because of an alternative 9/11 theory he advocated outside of his classroom. The theory was too “speculative” and “accusatory” for BYU’s liking. Jones has colleagues across the country who share his views and have not been subject to discipline. Exhausted from having to endure the controversy, Jones has since retired from BYU altogether.

Nielson was a philosophy instructor and is a faithful Mormon. Following the church’s statement in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Nielson exercised his free agency and respectfully disagreed with the church in a Salt Lake Tribune editorial. Due solely to Nielson’s editorial, he was fired, or, as BYU put it, his contract “failed to be renewed.”

These releases have the blessing of LDS doctrine. In “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” Apostle Boyd K. Packer cautioned LDS educators to avoid any teachings which are not “faith promoting.” “Some things that are true are not very useful,” he said.

BYU’s deficit in academic freedom is an obvious deterrent to my ever attending there, but of more concern to me is the institutional discrimination against its gay students.

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. – BYU policy

Consider how dehumanizing this policy is. Consider what it means for the hundreds of gay students at BYU. They have no community in which to confide; instead, they are told to suppress their identities. Moreover, the policy’s vague language gives BYU more latitude to discriminate.

The school has unforgivingly enforced a harsh interpretation of this policy. The enforcement has a long, infamous, and well-documented history. BYU’s security forces would, for decades, spy on gay students on campus and pursue them off campus on their weekend exoduses to clubs in downtown Salt Lake City. License plates were recorded and put through the university’s database for matches. And somewhat humorously, security personnel would often go undercover, infiltrate the clubs, and try to draw favors from students. If caught, these students faced potential expulsion. This represents just one example of BYU’s grossly unequal application of the Honor Code against its gay students. Similar enforcement continues today. Within the past few years, BYU has even gone so far as to discipline students who regularly associate with gay students.

As a private university, BYU can claim the right to maintain these “high standards” in both policy and practice. It cannot, however, claim impunity from criticism. Having the right and being right are different matters entirely.

In BYU’s defense, it did try to help many gay students with their “mental illness” (as LDS Social Services referred to homosexuality). That help: reparative therapy. In their efforts to cure homosexuality, BYU, as directed by LDS Social Services, has routinely subjected gays, some as young as fifteen–and without parental consent–to aversive practices.

Affirmation, an LDS gay-rights group, has documented the school’s use of shock therapy, where the counselor would produce a mild electric shock in conjunction with slides of males in various stages of dress; no shocks were administered with the images of females. The group has also exposed the use of Ipecac, a vomit inducing drug, in place of an electric shock. As early as 1969, bowing to scientific pressures and seeking to avoid lawsuits, BYU publicly distanced itself from these techniques. Privately, however, it did employ them throughout the 70’s and ’80s, and may have continued their use well into the ’90s.

Jayce Cox was referred to BYU by his bishop to undergo shock therapy in 1995. Electrodes were attached to his hands, arms, torso and genitals. His emotional and physical scars serve as a testament to the horrific experience. And the fact the Jayce, along with countless others, not only consented to and paid thousands for this therapy is a stark indictment of a culture which breeds such self-loathing submission. Not surprisingly, and as the Deseret News reported earlier this year, Utah leads the nation in suicides among young men–many of whom are homosexual.

“You’re taught that the leaders of the church will never lie to you, never deceive you and you’re taught to believe them blindly,” Jayce lamented in a 2000 interview to the Las Vegas Bugle. “I believed that through [reparative therapy], faith, temple attendance, prayer and fasting I would be healed. I believed that through God anything’s possible.”

BYU still largely contends that homosexuality can be corrected. And beyond simply being offensive, this deluded notion is vehemently rejected by all mainstream professional medical and psychological bodies. But, apparently, faith is a sufficient substitute for sound science at BYU.

I honestly can’t say I expect more of a school boasting the name of the church’s most despotic leader. Nor am I stunned by its student body’s acquiescence. It is, after all, the country’s third-most-conservative student body within the country’s most conservative city and state.

Nevertheless, I am optimistic. Comparatively, BYU today is more hospitable to homosexuals than it had once been. In a 1966 commencement speech, then BYU President Ernest Wilkinson asked all gays to leave campus “immediately.” He did not want others to be “contaminated” by their presence. And the church itself, being a social institution, has already had to divorce itself from its more draconian traditions: polygamy, hostility toward the federal government, and overt racism. Societal pressures will demand yet another convenient “revelation” of the First Presidency to rescind the current homophobia, because tomorrow does not belong to yesterday’s bigots.

Update: In April 2007, BYU amended its Honor Code policy toward its gay students. The revised policy can be found at

The exact consequence of these changes has yet to be seen, but they at least constitute a hesitant step in the right direction.

Soulforce’s recent protest at BYU undoubtedly deserves most of the credit for this good news, but I hope, in some modest way, the circulation and publication of my blog helped too.

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