BYU should be congratulated

By By Matt Homer

By Matt Homer

Thus far, the debate surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney’s selection as BYU commencement speaker has focused on whether or not he should have been invited. However, few have discussed something that is perhaps more interesting-BYU’s response to those opposing the decision. So far, it has been acting like an authentic university by allowing student protests and dissenting opinion.

This hasn’t always been the case at the school down south.

BYU is notorious for firing professors who voice divergent opinions and punishing students who challenge the status quo. That’s why the American Association of University Professors placed BYU on a list of censored university administrations for “not observing the generally recognized principles of academic freedom.” According to the report, BYU suffers from “a widespread pattern of infringement on academic freedom in a climate of oppression and fear of reprisal.” Furthermore, “infringements on academic freedom are distressingly common (at BYU) and?the climate for academic freedom distressingly poor.” BYU was placed on this list in 1998 and has remained there ever since.

BYU’s response to dissenting opinion cuts to the heart of higher education’s raison d’tre. If the purpose of a university is to teach students to preserve a particular heritage and prepare them for careers, then BYU is a fine institution. If, on the other hand, higher education’s purpose is also to enable students to challenge and think critically about the world in which we live, then BYU is hardly impressive. The difference between the two is the degree to which freedom of expression is valued.

In response to the Cheney controversy, BYU has allowed student protests, and several professors have joined the effort, as well. Are these individuals signing their own death warrants?

Although the outcome remains to be seen, so far BYU appears surprisingly open to opposition-in moderation. At the most recent protest, students were required to sit in a box outlined with tape and university officials removed offensive signs. They weren’t allowed to march, give speeches or shout. Photos from this event show protestors who look like caged puppies about to wet themselves whenever an authoritarian figure approaches their cage. I spoke with a friend at BYU who said she was afraid to protest because she “might get in trouble.” Despite limited allowances from BYU administration, “a climate of oppression and fear of reprisal” still exists.

More than 10 BYU Facebook groups dedicated to this issue have formed and one even boasts more than 700 members. On one of these message boards, a BYU student recently posted a comment claiming to have spoken with BYU President Cecil Samuelson. Apparently, he assured this student that protests were a “great thing for campus” and “that is what college is all about.” If these comments are genuine, then perhaps the former dean of the U’s medical school deserves kudos for allowing this kind of heated debate.

As commencement approaches, it remains to be seen how BYU will respond to heightened criticism, but so far it appears to be acting more like a traditional university than a glorified vocational school. It’s still a long way from unfettered freedom of expression, but perhaps baby steps are a start. If no professors are fired and no students are punished for expressing their opinions, then BYU may be on its way to understanding the true purpose of higher education.

Matt Homer