The Maxwell Institute (MI) controversy is not–or at least shouldn’t be–a personal feud. It is, rather, a clash about the fundamental vision for the future of the MI. Those who try to turn it into a feud of “good people” verse “bad people”–as the apostates and anti-Mormons are gleefully doing–are doing a disservice to the important issues at stake here.
Let me be very clear. Gerald Bradford is not a bad person. I believe he is doing what he thinks is best for the future of both the Institute and for the University. Of course, I disagree radically with his vision, but that is another matter I will discuss below. Unfortunately, I find Bradford to be a less than competent administrator–a view shared, by the way, by many other people. (On the other hand, I, too, would be a poor administrator, though my flaws in that regard would probably be quite different from Bradford’s.) I feel that Bradford’s failure to contain months or years of ongoing leaks to apostate enemies of the church from within his organization shows disastrous negligence. And I feel the way Bradford has treated Dan Peterson and the other editors of the Review–dismissing them by email when out of the country, or letting them first learn of their dismissal when the announcement was made public–was absolutely shameful. I also believe that his decision to censor Greg Smith’s article critiquing John Dehlin–without having read the article–represents a fundamental abdication of his responsibility as Director of the MI. I have recently told him all these things, in much greater detail, in sometimes intemperate personal emails to him–though I doubt he has bothered to read them. All this makes him a flawed human being, but then, so am I, and so are we all. I sincerely believe he is doing what he thinks is best. And I sincerely believe he is dead wrong.
I also do not really object to Bradford’s vision for the MI. I think it is perfectly legitimate to digitize Syriac manuscripts or publish dual Arabic-English editions of Muslim philosophical texts. I actually have some personal professional interest in such things, and have read some of these publications. I also have no real objection to a Mormon Studies Review that approaches Mormon studies from a purely academic standpoint–though I think we already have such journals (like BYU Studies, the Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, etc.). I therefore don’t believe there is any real purpose served by creating another one. And, bizarre as it may sound, I also agree with Bradford that LDS apologetics should not be officially sponsored by the University or the Church.
So, why am I so vehemently opposed to Bradford’s dismissal of Dan and proposed change of direction for the Mormon Studies Review? Here we come to the crux of the problem. If the University does not want to sponsor apologetics, why in the world did it force FARMS to become part of the University?
I should explain that when the University first approached FARMS requesting that they join the University it was in the form of a hostile takeover. I was on the Board of FARMS at the time, and the Board initially voted unanimously to reject the proposal. Most of the Board members at the time were BYU faculty, and subsequently all sorts of pressure was exerted by the University to force the members of Board to accept the proposal. When, after months of negotiations the Board of FARMS finally agreed to the proposed takeover, I still voted against the merger and resigned from the Board in protest. I believed at the time–and it is clear that subsequent events have proved me correct–that such a merger would be bad for both FARMS and the University. I love BYU, and love teaching here. But if FARMS became part of the University it would begin to be perceived as part of the Church, and what it said would then be viewed as somehow “official.” This would of course lead to correlation. No one in the original FARMS group wanted to speak for the Church. We wanted to engage in standard academic discourse, writing books, articles and reviews. If we were right in our interpretations, great. If we were wrong in our interpretations, that would be our personal problem. It would have nothing to do with anything “official” for the Church.
The University at the time gave all sorts of assurances that they wanted FARMS to continue doing exactly what it was doing. And it was perfectly clear to the University what they were getting by absorbing FARMS: we were publishing scholarly books and articles on the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures, and we were publishing responses to anti-Mormon claims–that is, apologetics. Dan had been publishing the Review for years when the University absorbed FARMS. It was perfectly obvious what the Review was all about. So I ask again: If the University did not want to sponsor apologetics, why in the world did it force FARMS to become part of the University? (I believe I actually know why they did it, and their motives had absolutely nothing to do with FARMS or its scholarship; but that is another story.)
The Board of FARMS was, of course, dissolved, and the University started appointing directors for FARMS/MI. And their three choices for directors have consistently been people with no scholarly expertise in the field and/or no track record publishing with FARMS. In other words, they installed bureaucrats who were supposed to manage, rather than scholars to lead an academic institute. It would be like putting me in charge of the nursing school.
Which brings us to Bradford. He was brought into FARMS as a manager to run the day-to-day operations of FARMS when it became too big to be administered on a part-time basis by the full-time BYU faculty on the Board. He was not brought in as a scholar to single handedly determine the future academic direction of the institute. That was the responsibility of the Board, not of any single individual. Of course, when the Board was dissolved by the University, it was the full-time employees of FARMS who were left standing, and suddenly it was the employees of FARMS–who had originally been hired to execute the academic vision of the Board–but who were put in charge of determining the academic direction that FARMS should take in the future.
We need to understand that Bradford, even as an employee and administrative executive for the Board, was never in favor of apologetics. He consistently opposed these activities, and tried to persuade the Board to move in different directions. Academically, Bradford is a scholar of 19th century American Religion and William James. He is academically at home with 19th century Mormonism, but is by no means conversant with biblical studies, ancient languages, Mesoamerica, archaeology, etc., which were the bread and butter of FARMS scholarship. When he was the executive administrator for the Board this didn’t matter, since the Board determined academic policy; but now he is the sole director, with sole discretion to determine the future of the Institute. Likewise Morgan Davis, was originally hired as an editor in the Mideast Translation Series, not as a director to determine scholarly policy. He was hired to execute the academic policies of the Board, not to establish those policies. Davis also never liked apologetics. Precisely the same is the case with Kristian Heal, who was hired to supervise a Syriac digitization project; he also always disliked apologetics. So note what has happened. We have three employees, none of whom were actively researching or publishing FARMS scholars, and all of whom disliked apologetics. Each of these three were hired to execute the policies of the Board, not to create those policies. These three have now all become “directors” of the Maxwell Institute (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/about/administration.php), and are now responsible to create the scholarly policy and determine the future direction for the Institute, because the Board was dissolved by the University, and power was transferred to the employees. It’s really breathtaking how the entire nature of the Institute was turned upside down and twisted in a different direction by this phenomena. Dan Peterson was the only scholar of the original FARMS Board who was left as a “director” of the Institute; with his dismissal classic-FARMS is gone. There is not a single voice left in the leadership of the Institute to represent the original goals of classic-FARMS. This is why Dan’s dismissal and marginalization is seen as such a massive betrayal. It is the removal of the last vestige of classic-FARMS. The pretense of the MI as the heir of FARMS can no longer be maintained. Bradford believes this is a good and necessary thing. And we need to understand: he always has. This does not represent a shift of policy for Bradford. This represents a shift of power from a Board of scholars with a particular vision, to employees who never shared that vision, but who were hired to perform strictly limited and specific tasks. By allowing BYU to absorb FARMS the Board effectively abdicated its power to guide the future direction of FARMS. Such mission creep and power shifts were therefore inevitable.
However, by changing the direction of the Review, Bradford is fundamentally betraying the tacit agreement the University originally made when it absorbed FARMS: that the University wanted to sponsor apologetics. For years hundreds of people donated time, money, scholarship etc. to FARMS because they believed in the classic-FARMS goals of serious, faithful scholarship on LDS scripture and apologetics. The core of the problem is that if Bradford was not-supportive of classic-FARMS goals he should not have accepted the position as director of the Institute.
So, as I said, I have nothing inherently against Bradford’s vision. I believe it would have been much better for all concerned if FARMS had remained independent, and could not be seen as a voice of the Church. My objection to Bradford’s policy is that he systematically destroyed classic-FARMS to achieve his vision. The result is that he has taken substantial resources and donations of time, money, land and personnel that were originally given in good faith by donors to support classic-FARMS scholarship, and is diverting them to fund his new vision. This, I believe, is fundamentally immoral, just as it would be wrong to take money donated to the engineering school and give it to the football team. It is likewise wrong to take all the resources donated by hundreds of people over a quarter of a century and to support classic-FARMS research, and divert it to the pet-project of the new Director. It is fundamentally wrong. If the current directors of MI want to pursue their vision they should approach new donors as ask them if they want to donate money to digitize Syriac texts or publish stogy secular-oriented academic reviews. (Good luck with that.) So my objection is not that Bradford wants to create a journal to fulfill his vision of what scholarship should be done by the MI. It is that Bradford is destroying classic-FARMS to do it. The vast majority of donors have made their donations to FARMS not to support Bradford’s new vision, but to support the original vision of classic-FARMS. If I were a donor, I would feel fundamentally betrayed by this. And, indeed, I’ve talked to some donors who do feel precisely that.