New Progress for Mormon Studies

The University of Virginia today announced today a $3 million anonymous donation to establish the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies in the University’s Department of Religious Studies. The chair is still subject to approval by the University’s Board of Visitors, after which a search committee will look for candidates for the inaugural appointment, due to begin serving in the 2013-14 school year.

This announcement will lead to creating a third research institution in Mormon Studies outside of LDS Church-owned institutions. Mormon Studies programs currently exist at the Claremont Graduate University in California, and at Utah State University.

While I assume that everyone is generally pleased about this (I certainly am), I have to ask a question, perhaps due to my own ignorance of the way university campuses work. The quesiton is: Is this the best way to further develop Mormon Studies?

It seems likely that the $3 million endowment was made by a Mormon donor (and I assume someone with a UVA connection). I believe that I’ve heard that similar donations were behind the establishment of the programs at Claremont and USU. I suppose it is even possible that all three were established by the same donor.

Establishing programs and endowed chairs certainly has advantages. They guarantee that Mormon Studies will produce research and be taught to students, perhaps for the long term. In addition, they will probably also produce the kind of one-time conferences that encourage further research.

I don’t know what alternatives there might be. So, my academic friends, is this the best place for donors to put their money? Will this have the most long-term impact?

Regardless, I think this is a great day for Mormon Studies.

17 comments for “New Progress for Mormon Studies

  1. A couple corrections:

    1. This is not the work of one donor. There was a fund-raising council that has been working for several years to gather donations from many sources. It is a broad and very generous base of donors who have made all these programs possible.

    2. While this is the third institution to establish a chair, there are several more that have Mormon studies programs. UVU and UofU have strong, blossoming programs, and Wyoming and Berkley are developing theirs (which will, if funding comes through, include chairs). There is a difference between just a chair and a program.

    For instance, UofU shows what a different model can do, as opposed to a chair: rather than spending money on a tenured professor, they focus their money on grad students (including the only full-year Mormon studies fellowship) and events. UVU spends most of their money on events, but also offer many courses.

    As for whether this is the best way to use funds, it depends on what one is going for. Do you want to just promote lots of research in the field? Then the best bet is to direct money at fellowships and events. Do you wish to establish a lasting and tangible presence in the academy? Then a chair, which will place an individual in the center of academic activities and promote networking with many fields, is the best way to go. A chair also enables the institution to bring in many grad students to work with them, creating a hub of scholarship within the field. In an ideal world, you would have both, which is what Claremont is striving to do. I imagine UVA will follow that model.

    Claremont’s problem has been finding funding for their Mormon studies students, The scenario will be different at UVA, as all admittees receive healthy financial support from the university.

  2. Thanks for the corrections, Ben.

    I misread the UVA press release, which is why I thought there was just one donor. And, yes, I knew the difference between a program and a chair, but I forgot about the UofU and UVU programs.

    Well, I did say that I was relatively ignorant of the details of how universities operate.

    I like your thoughts about the differences in how to spend the money. It seems like, then, that these chairs bode well for the long-term strength of Mormon studies — a very good thing.

  3. Ben P: Just to clarify, as far as I know Berkeley (as in UC Berkeley) doesn’t have any developing Mormon Studies program. You may be thinking of Graduate Theological Union (which is located adjacent to the UC campus), where Bob Rees is currently teaching Mormon Studies and spearheading efforts toward a MS program.

  4. Greg: it is my understanding that Berkeley and GTU are working together on the chair, and that the work Bob is doing is one aspect of the development. But I could be wrong, and it could just be GTU.

  5. Who is Richard Lyman Bushman? Why is the chair named after him? Is he LDS? a big donor?

    Is there anyway for donors to know if the MS course is teaching that Mormons are cultist polygamists? Are these type programs teaching what we are like today?

    These are my questions

  6. I read that bio and thought, “and why would I know a historian at Columbia?” until I got to the part where he edited the Joseph Smith Papers. I guess that means I should at least know his name? Guess so.

  7. Ben P’s comments are very helpful. I will add some further thoughts.

    As I wrote at greater length recently on this site, Mormon Studies, like any academic field, needs a number of things in place to really flourish. One of those things is scholars who are receiving institutional support for research in Mormon Studies, and another is graduate programs preparing the next generation of scholars. If things go as they should, this will represent a major step forward in both of those respects. We have had one graduate program with a chair of Mormon Studies in it, and now we will have two. Also, UVA’s graduate program in religious studies is even stronger than Claremont’s, which makes the chair that much more valuable from the standpoint of training students. The greater availability of funding for students there is also a big help. Having two solid programs like this puts Mormon Studies in an immeasurably stronger position now than it was ten years ago.

    I would say, though, that for the next few years donors should think very seriously about putting funds into other aspects of the Mormon Studies ecosystem. Endowed chairs are very expensive, and I would say at this point that putting a lot more money in that direction will lead to diminishing returns unless other aspects of the ecosystem also grow in strength. We need to strengthen scholarly institutions such as journals and professional societies, and invest in supporting students, such as with scholarships and mentoring programs. Another major strength would be fellowships for other scholars with sound credentials, and with interest and ability to do good work in Mormon Studies, but whose professional responsibilities are more focused on other fields, or who are at institutions that do not provide as much leisure for research as a chair like this will. A semester or a year’s fellowship for someone like this to work on a promising research project can lead to really important contributions from a wider range of scholars than the small number who have chairs. A thriving scholarly field needs leading figures like Bushman, but it also needs numbers.

    Also, to be sure that there will continue to be strong candidates to fill endowed chairs like these as people retire or move, there needs to be a pool of younger scholars working in Mormon Studies, building up the kind of scholarly record that makes them look like scholars of the stature that an endowed chair calls for. Fellowships, conferences, workshops, and journals are important to cultivating this pool of up-and-coming scholars.

    It will be interesting to see what happens with students as this chair gets set up. Investing in scholarships for students at a place like Claremont might actually help increase the value of the program at UVA, because there is a lot to be said for having students who have worked with more than one strong scholar in Mormon Studies in the context of a graduate program, which in this case might be best achieved by passing through both programs. I hope that some students will, say, get an M.A. at Claremont and a Ph.D. at UVA.

  8. Ben H, this Ben S seconds Ben P on your comments.

    And JAX, really? You’ve been around the blogs, and can’t identify Bushman at all?

  9. One of the biggest problems for the progress of Mormon Studies is that graduate students in Mormon Studies need to get a job.

    There are very few schools with Mormon Studies programs, and that means that there are very few job openings for someone doing Mormon Studies.

    Perhaps best route for a graduate student is to do something like Bushman has done, which is to specialize in a field CLOSELY RELATED to some aspect of Mormon Studies. A student who writes a dissertation on the expansion of the American West, for example, would have a much broader appeal to more schools than someone who wrote a dissertation on Brigham Young. (As just one among many examples.)

    Perhaps Mormon Studies themed graduate conferences could both allow students to do some research in the specialized field of Mormon Studies, but I would recommend to any youngsters who read this blog and want to go into Mormon Studies (which I am sure there are very few) to do something RELATED but NOT SPECIFICALLY on Mormon Studies.

    With respect to graduate students in Mormon Studies needing jobs, one nice thing about an endowed chair is that it opens up one more academic job for the specific field of Mormon Studies, which is what is needed (though expensive).

  10. Nate R. (#16), you’re absolutely right that regular jobs doing Mormon Studies are a serious concern. The UVA job adds another position at the top of the totem pole, and opens up an important avenue at the bottom (graduate school), but there is more or less nothing in the middle right now. This is a difficulty even from the standpoint of reliably having good candidates for the positions at the top (endowed chairs) in future years.

    On the other hand, it is a little weird to try to set up a regular position in Mormon Studies without strong graduate programs in it, either. In a way it makes more sense to set up an endowed chair like this because if anyone is really strong in Mormon Studies, it’s going to be someone who has gotten that way in the years since graduate school, and probably someone who is something of a trailblazer. The bootstrapping is tricky all around for a new field like this. Hopefully as each piece of the puzzle gets put in place, it makes it easier to place the others.

    As you say, though, students would be wise to prepare themselves primarily in a related but different field. Then they can pursue Mormon Studies as a secondary interest, and will be in a position to do more as circumstances permit.

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