Thursday, August 20, 2015


Two weeks ago I was informed by the powers that be at BYU that I was not permitted to teach an aleady scheduled, two week, one credit course on the Israel/Palestine conflict to the 55 Middle East Studies/Arabic (MESA) intensive Arabic students at the BYU Jerusalem Center (JC) in December. The news came as a very discouraging blow and just at a point in time when it seemed that 15 years of various BYU travel bans on my areas of research (Middle East and Indonesia) were finally coming to an end. This most recent ban had nothing to do with travel security.

One of my main motivations in getting a PhD in Middle East Geography was in the hopes that one day I would be able to be to teach at the BYU Jerusalem Center. I had participated in the BYU Jerusalem Study Abroad program in the fall of 1982 where I conducted research (with the encouragement of BYU to show that the planned BYU Jerusalem Center could be a place of academic research and not just Biblical Studies) for my masters thesis about the changing attitudes of the students towards Arabs and Israelis. I loved that experience and thought that going back as a teacher would be a great opportunity. When I was offered a job at BYU in 1992 I inquired if I, as a Middle East geographer, would be able to teach at the center, I was bluntly told no by Jim Kearl, an economics professor who was just a few years into his long tenure as Assistant to the University President for the Jerusalem Center. I thought I'd give it a try anyhow. It took a lot of patience, preparation (I regularly taught Old and New Testament classes at BYU for 5 years) and good luck (kind faculty in the department of religion who went to bat for me and a window year where older religion faculty could not or would not go and younger faculty did not have tenure yet) to finally have it happen.

My experience of teaching Old and New Testament to three semesters of students during the 2009-2010 academic year was delightful. At the beginning of that year a seasoned JC colleague told two of us newbies that the best thing to do if we had suggestions for change was to just mind our own business and not say anything. On occasion that was a hard thing for me to do. I loved the center and wanted to help in making its programs the very best. That November when we arrived at the Sea of Galilee we were told that we could not go swimming! We could wade in up to our ankles! It was the off season and no life guards were on duty. I had promised my children that we would get to swim. I inquired of the resort staff and they said we could swim at our own risk, but that would be breaking one of the many BYU rules. I asked if we could arrange for a life guard and that was turned down. Later in a rare moment where we were asked for input, I brought up the crazy no swim rule. They listened! Next semester the students were able to swim for a few hours with student life guards and faculty supervision. The next year BYU even arranged to have life guards hired for the fall and winter programs when life guards were not normally on duty. Another suggestion by Marie about not counting driving mileage for to-and-from travel to the kids' school was also implemented.

I worked extra hard at keeping all of the rules and not rocking the boat. As a family we obtained multiple levels of approval to go to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. I refrained from not going in to the old city at restricted times and in restricted areas. I even turned down an opportunity for a first time visit to Mar Saba Monastery in the restricted West Bank. We also made sure none of us walked barefoot on the marble floors of the center.

One challenge to the rules I made was when, after being asked by several students, I did write explanatory letters to the Honor Code Office. These students had already been punished for infractions (sneaking into a hotel and going swimming and going into the Christian quarter after sunset) while in Jerusalem and were now being punished a second time by being put on probation (which then impacted two students applications for medical school) once they returned to school in Provo.

When an opportunity for another sabbatical came up I inquired about the possibility of returning to the JC to teach again. I was told that it could possibly happen (which I interpret as meaning I was not that troublesome during my teaching year) but given my unique situation as a non-religion faulty member and a non-ancient Middle East historian, it was not going to be easy. Plus now there were many more young tenured religion faculty in line to go. I gave up hope on Jerusalem and applied for Semester at Sea instead.

Last year I was approached to see if I would be interested in joining a rotation with two other MESA faculty in teaching the intensive Arabic students in Jerusalem (after a semester of study in Amman). I happily agreed. This meant that every three years beginning in 2015 I would get to spend two weeks in December traveling around the Holy Land (including a one week stay at the JC) lecturing and arranging lectures for the students. This first time around the two other faculty would come each for a week to show me the ropes.

During our year in Jerusalem, BYU faculty were allowed on certain occasions to meet with the few Arab members of the Church living in the West Bank (because of the Wall they could not attend services in Jerusalem). Our family loved attending Sunday gatherings in Bethlehem. Friendships established during that year have remained. As these friendships have continued over the years I have become acutely aware through phone calls and blog posts of how difficult it is to be a Latter-day Saint in the West Bank and how policies (for example faculty can no longer attend the Sunday meetings in Bethlehem--just one service couple can go) put in place by the JC in the last few years have added to that difficulty. Efforts by these local members to bring attention to these challenges were for naught. Finally last August I decided to write a couple of respectful letters, first to Jim Kearl and then when he didn't respond to Elder Holland (who Jim Kearl reports to) suggesting how JC policies might be altered in order to better serve the needs of some of these members. Finally in response to my letter to Elder Holland (I don't know if he actually read the letter, maybe his secretary just sent it back down the ladder), I got a letter from Jim Kearl who was asked to respond, explaining why certain rules were now in place. I felt compelled to reply. The harshest, most condemning thing I wrote was a quote from Elder Neal A. Maxwell which said:

“Rules are useful, but these must merely mark where the borders of conscience end. Rules have a way of pushing conscience back, and yet further back. Besides, each human and each human situation are sufficiently different that rules thus multiplied become like the unpruned tree. A lively conscience can cut through to the justice of any situation” (Of One Heart p. 24).

That was it. I wrote some letters suggesting ways to better serve the members in Bethlehem. Then I was done.

Last month I submitted my Jerusalem travel application for approval.  I thought it was just a formality given the fact that the MESA program had already scheduled me for the course. It came as a complete shock when I was informed by International VP Sandra Rogers that I could not go (the other two MESA faculty got approval). No reason was given. A follow up letter today told me it was because I was "seen as someone who would be disruptive at the center because of [my] previous disagreements with center leadership/personnel." I petitioned the action to VP Rogers and President Worthen, but they stood by Kearl's ban. Sadly I am not the only casualty; several other BYU faculty who have also taught at the JC have been blacklisted for questioning rules or seeking to make improvements and changes for the better at the Jerusalem Center.

And there you have it. The take-away for me: Don't speak up, don't suggest, don't stand up for the little guy, and obey the rules at all costs. As one BYU colleague recently said about his chosen survival tactic: "Just keep your head down."

If what I have said (in letters to administrators who have stewardship over the Center) has ruffled some feathers then OK don't invite me back to be a faculty member at the Jerusalem Center, but why forbid me from teaching a MESA course in a BYU building for one week in December? I'll happily sleep and eat elsewhere.

I am very sad about this ban, but I am not sad that I tried to be an agent for positive change.

On the Sea of Galilee with the Fall 2009 students.


  1. Don't give up! We need more Professors like you! If there was one thing I learned at BYU, it was that the Middle Eastern professors I met were there for a reason being a positive influence on the student body. You were by FAR one of my most influential teachers at BYU especially in this regard. I hope that you are doing well, and even if it won't help, I would be more than willing to write a letter on your behalf! I may be but one former student, but there's a lot of us who are in your camp! We especially need BYU professors and members who are actually connected to the members who live in this area and not just a passing tourist stop.

  2. For what it is worth... As one of your former students, I can speak to the integrity, professionalism, and principles that you taught and lived in your classrooms. Even when students, like myself at times, may have disagreed with something said in class, you always handled differences of opinion with true collegiate rigor, respect, and calm to create an atmosphere of learning and growing as one should expect from a respectable university such as Brigham Young University. You fostered some of the most difficult classes at BYU that I took, but I was grateful for each one. The fact that you did speak up to your students to the verified successes and problems of the region(s) that you have devoted your life to studying has given your students a foundation of knowledge that has changed their lives and the lives of many around them -- even many in the Middle East. There are many, like myself, who look back and still talk about your classes with the greatest of respect, because you made the region *real* to us and brought humanity to an otherwise seemingly analytical discipline of distant lands found only in textbooks. BYU certainly can certainly benefit from like-minded men and women like you. All the best in moving forward -- you certainly have my support.

  3. One of my favorite professors at BYU (besides you of course!) didn't get tenured because he was supposedly teaching questionable content. He taught modern Chinese history and told us at the outset that it wouldn't be all sunshine and rainbows because modern Chinese history is gruesome. He said he would ask us to watch and read some things that might not be G rated, but that we could always opt out. I read and watched everything he suggested and never thought he crossed the line (and I myself am pretty darn conservative). I learned SO MUCH in that class. But I guess some people were uncomfortable going outside their protected little bubble to see what life is really like in some places. Heaven forbid. You think watching a movie about the cultural revolution is bad... Try living it!! It was so discouraging to hear that BYU lost this talented professor because people couldn't open their eyes and expand their worldview. And it looks like not much has changed. So disheartening!

  4. Of all the professors I had at the Jerusalem Center, I felt that you were the best teacher, the most inspirational, and the most loving of the Holy Land, students, and BYU. I'm so sorry for you! Too bad misunderstanding men run the "Lord's University."

  5. Wowsers, Dr Emmett. I never thought of you as a controversial figure. It would be nice if you get get an audience with the leadership of the JC to hash out differences. I am sure you have a great contribution to make there so don't give up.

  6. Stay true to your principles for which we admire you, Chad.

  7. Such is life, you win some and you lose some... Some would say.

    however I must say, bro emmett you win many many many more times than you lose, you create pathways and open doors. That is so impressive. Maju Terus!

  8. I'm sad to hear about this as well, but I'm glad to know that you're not a "keep your head down" kind of person. Hang in there. Keep doing what is right, and you'll make it.

  9. You did the right thing! There will somehow be a positive that comes from this, I know it! Thanks for all you do - the little guys appreciate it - there should be more people like you and your family.

  10. I'm disappointed they didn't meet with you face-to-face to discuss their (erroneous) concerns rather than just deny your application without explanation. I know BYU has to walk a tightrope in order to keep their center in Jerusalem but to treat one of their own in the way they did was unprofessional and a sign of poor leadership. Keep the faith and fight the good fight.

  11. It would be a big loss for BYU to lose your services, I personalty know a dozen of people here in DC who are doing great things for this great nation and many of them credit you with their interest in the region. Your kindness is only matched by my gratitude. I hope this gets revolved in a way that sees you back to shaping young minds and bringing about change.