Monday, January 15, 2018

Student Review: Three Memories

Student Review redeemed BYU for me.

I attended Brigham Young University from 1981 to 1987, with time off for a Mormon mission in Seoul, Korea. When I graduated with my English degree in 1986, I’d already finished most of the graduate coursework for a master’s in linguistics. So I rolled over my bounteous extra credits and essentially enjoyed a gap year in boring Provo, Utah.

Publicly I spent my time applying to law schools, avoiding my master’s thesis, enrolling in interesting classes, teaching freshman English, roadtripping across the West, and performing at the Hale Center Theatre.

Secretly I spent the year having a nervous breakdown as I gyrated between suicidal depression, sexual confusion, and religious anguish. At some point during my gap year I achieved peak Best Little Mormon Boy In The World.1 Only my recent experience dealing with a midlife PTSD diagnosis exceeded this emotional hurricane.

1In 1973, financier and Democratic activist Andrew Tobias pseudonymously published a memoir titled Best Little Boy In the World. BLBITW continues to be a gay bestseller because it maps one of the archetypical journeys out of the closet. Some days I envy gay friends who choose paths involving more fun and less angst. At least I came out alive, with straight A’s and an overstuffed resume. Along with the time bomb of repressed traumatic memories set to detonate into PTSD thirty years later.

Under the circumstances, it made perfect sense to also start a weekly newspaper. Obviously.

My roommate Bill Kelly was the publisher and I was the editor. We operated out of our living room, on the second floor of the historic Victorian home pictured on the masthead.2 Most importantly, we surrounded ourselves with an amazing cohort of Mormondom’s brightest young things. (For example, our art-major former roommate Henry Woodbury drew the house, and served as Art Director.)

2When people ask me if I’m a Canadian citizen, I often answer I should be. (Sadly, I was born in the States.) As I was editing this essay, I stumbled on another example of my confused identities: in American English, the “masthead” is the regular listing of a publication’s editorial staff. In Canadian and British English, the “masthead” is the design at the top of the front page. Without realizing it, I’ve always referred to both as the masthead.

Hopefully someone will eventually collect stories for a history of Student Review’s founding and subsequent regenerations. I’ll start with three of my own memories. [Ed. note: it could have been a lot more.]

Memory Number 1: Hell Hath No Fury….

It’s hard to explain BYU to normal people. Brigham Young University is the Mormon church’s flagship educational institution, and the largest private university in the United States. The Y attracts talented faculty and students with top credentials from around the world. BYU offers excellent programs in many areas, including a respected law school. It looks just like a real university, except with creepily immaculate landscaping. (I once saw a groundskeeper climb a tree to vacuum leaves before they could fall.)

No-so-secretly, the university’s actual mission is facilitating youthful heterosexual marriages within the faith. BYU helps God join together each generation of recently returned Mormon missionaries and their blushing virgin brides. Above all, life at the Y is cloistered and regulated to a repressive degree that Bob Jones Sr., Jr., and III each would envy.3 BYU is the Stepford campus.

3No, gay boys, it’s not fun to stay at the Y.

As with any totalitarian community, only official media is permitted at the Y. In my day, BYU prohibited distribution anywhere on campus of any periodical that published writing by BYU students – other than publications under the university’s own auspices and control, like BYU’s daily newspaper. Yes, you could buy real world newspapers at the BYU Bookstore. Just not local student ones. This edict came from the highest councils of the Mormon Church.

Under the no-student-speech policy, publication in BYU’s official organ, the Daily Universe, was limited to journalism students. The sole opportunity for publishing ordinary student speech was the Daily Universe’s heavily censored letters-to-the-editor page. Coincidentally, that year the Daily Universe’s editor was a high school classmate of mine who had been a member of the same amazing theater company in Brigham City.

In the summer of 1986, many different voices at BYU were frustrated by the same silence. It’s supposed to be a real university. Even at BYU, or at least at BYU in the 1980s, a critical mass of students thought our voices should be heard somewhere.

Another alum should tell the whole story of Student Review’s origin, but it involved flyers and a community forum. More ominously for the university administration, the community meeting was followed by a small group of practical-minded idealists brainstorming about next steps. The ringleaders were all respected members of the university community. For example, I had just delivered the well-received valedictory address at BYU’s commencement. (It’s printed on the front page of the Review’s first issue.)

We consulted with our mentors about various publication options. Everyone agreed we should look for sponsors within the university. The administration was soothing and friendly. They encouraged our effort to formulate a model for publishing responsible, faithful, thoughtful writing by non-journalists. Representatives from the Honors Program, College of Humanities, and English Department all were supportive. But no one was ready to greenlight the project. Instead, the university frittered away the summer fobbing us off on various associate deans and assistant directors.    

Finally, a couple of weeks before the start of the school year, we learned about the Church and university’s official no-student-speech policy. And we learned the policy wasn’t going to change. Worse, someone admitted the administration had known all along it was never going to change. They were hoping we’d get tired and give up.

I no longer remember exactly who, when, or how they ultimately told us we had been wasting our time. All I remember is our blazing righteous anger.

And that’s what it took to publish the first edition of BYU’s longest running independent off-campus student weekly. On September 11, 1986.3

3Yes, we all just noticed the 9/11 fifteen-year pre-anniversary coincidence. Eerie.

Memory Number 2: “What do we do now?”

In the 1974 film The Candidate, Robert Redford plays an idealistic young lawyer lured into a quixotic political campaign against an unbeatable Republican senator. Of course Redford wins. The last line of the movie is “What do we do now?”

Youthful enthusiasm got us through a summer of organizing. Righteous indignation (and Bill’s mom’s credit card) got the first issue published. That night we had a huge celebration at the house. As the party wound down, I was the one who asked the question: what do we do now? Or rather, I was the one who told everyone what we had to do now: get started on a second issue of the Review.

In addition to the convergence of a talented team and the recognized need for a student voice, we were fortunate to embark on this adventure at just the right time technologically. Remember this was long before the Internet. Personal computers had arrived a few years earlier. For the first time, anyone could purchase a robust desktop publishing application. We had access to the university’s brand new computer labs. Production costs at a local printer were reasonable. We attracted readers by being the only one in town to publish The Far Side and Doonesbury. Advertisements for local businesses generated sufficient revenue to support an all-volunteer enterprise.

During the summer of 1986, in between meetings with mendacious university bureaucrats and road trips to national parks, we did our homework. We visited the library archives to read copies of prior student publications at the Y. Most of them published one or maybe two issues before disappearing. The only paper to last longer was the Seventh East Press, our immediate predecessor. But 7EP came along too soon to benefit from the desktop publishing revolution, and published issues sporadically for a couple of years before collapsing after it was banished off campus.

Unlike most of my colleagues at Student Review, I was around to voraciously read the Seventh East Press, admire its brilliant contributors, and observe 7EP’s entire rise and fall. In addition to the practical limitations that challenge any publication or other small business, 7EP had a rocky relationship with both the administration and the student community. 7EP had too little focus on entertainment, and too much zeal to publish articles on taboo topics such as homosexuality. 7EP was one of the reasons the Mormon Church and its university adopted a strict no-student-speech-on-campus policy.

Even several years before he went to Harvard Business School, my roommate Bill already had the instincts to create and execute a viable business plan. I had an apparently limitless supply of sublimated Best-Little-Mormon-Boy-In-The-World energy, and a facility with words. I’d even edited an underground newspaper in high school. (All this was before the fog of writer’s block descended upon me.) We came up with a balanced approach that invited broad participation, insisted on quality, kept a sense of humor, respected our audience, and avoided unnecessary distractions as we carved out a niche within the campus community.

Somehow we published on time every week throughout our inaugural year: twelve times in each semester, then once a month over the summer. We kept threading every needle – not too rambunctious, not too boring, not at all gay, not too amateur, not too lean on advertising….

In one of my regular guided meditation recordings, mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn says the Buddha wants my meditation to resemble a stringed instrument: “Not too tight, not too loose.” According to Jon’s soothing voice, my focus needs to be “just like Goldilocks.” Whenever I hear this, I inevitably have an un-Zen moment of mentally pinching myself to think of a better middlebrow metaphor for this very powerful principle. (What’s wrong with the Buddha’s stringed instrument?)

Still, “Goldilocks” gets a lot of the credit for putting a successful independent BYU student newspaper within our reach in 1986.

Memory Number 3:  Triumph of the Will

This was my Leni Riefenstahl / Nuremberg rally moment.

Although Student Review spent its first year getting established and avoiding controversy, we still tweaked official noses from time to time. However, the only time we took up a serious cause was when the administration announced a new “Off-campus Resident Assistant” policy.

All students enrolled at the Y must live in BYU-approved housing. BYU had strict requirements for off-campus apartments. For example, males and females couldn’t live under the same physical roof. Pragmatic landlords would occasionally flirt with immorality. My last apartment complex had a “chastity wall” – a plexiglas barrier blocking the pool balcony so you couldn’t just walk over to the girls’ side of the complex. Fortunately, we were only one floor up. Our intrepid heterosexual neighbors bravely climbed around Thisbe’s plastic wall.

That was the year someone in the administration building got the great idea to require Resident Assistants in every off-campus housing complex, just like in the on-campus dormitories. The RAs would monitor for any violations of BYU’s strict code of conduct (no alcohol, coffee, tobacco, beards, immodest clothing, homosexuality, pre-marital sex….), and report perpetrators to the University Standards Office for the usual torture. Off-campus residents would pay for the privilege of being spied upon.

Everyone thought this was a terrible idea, particularly the landlords and tenants. Nevertheless, in typical bureaucratic fashion, the administration insisted on the wisdom of their proposal. In fact, they doubled down. As with the LDS Church’s anti-gay policies, these apparatchiks hinted the new RA policy came directly from the Prophet and hence from our Heavenly Father. (Our Heavenly Mother had too much sense to get involved.)

Student Review ran articles analyzing and mocking the off-campus RA proposal. We fomented rebellion. I editorialized against it. Eventually we joined on-campus groups in organizing a student meeting in the ballroom at the Wilkinson Center, the Y’s non-student equivalent to a Student Union building.

During the rally, I introduced myself by saying “My name is Roger Leishman, and I’m the Editor of Student Review.” The crowd went wild. Then I went through each of my snarky but unarguable talking points, in a rhythmic crescendo. As I lathered up the throng with each emphatic gesture, the roaring got louder.

I’ve performed countless times in theater and chorus. I’ve argued to justices and judges. I’ve lectured, taught, and MC-ed, given sermons and speeches, won a trophy in a Korean-language speech contest, and done stand-up comedy. I’ve spoken to a lot of audiences.

This was the only time in my life when I knew I could incite a riot if I wanted to.

Soon afterwards, BYU ignominiously abandoned the ill-conceived off-campus RA proposal. The power of the press is amazing.

The back of the T shirts we printed as an initial promotion. In Summer 1986.

The masthead above was printed on the front of the T shirts.
(The masthead with the house picture, not the list of staff names….)


  1. I've never read Waterman and Kagel's book, but I assume they at least touched on SR. But it would great to have a book and/or documentary about the full history of the project.