University of Utah Rejects Quinn

February 9, 2004 | 13 comments
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According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the University of Utah history department decided last week not to extend an offer to D. Michael Quinn. The reasoning behind the decision is interesting.

For those who have not been afflicted by an awareness of the Mormon studies sub-culture for the last ten years or so, D. Michael Quinn is famous as one of the Mormon intellectuals excommunicated in the early 1990s. He has written some controversial books dealing with Mormonism and the occult, the church hierarchy, and same-sex relations among 19th century Mormons.

One out-raged history professor argues that the department’s decision not to hire Quinn flows from two illegitimate positions. The first is that Mormonism is devoid of culture, intellectual, or historical substance and therefore does not merit academic study. The second is that by giving the back of the hand to Quinn, the U. of U. history department was endorsing the church’s sanctioning of Quinn.

The history department, of course, denies both allegations. Sort of. Some of the faculty say that they want someone who does Mormonism, but they want someone who is neither a critic nor an apologist. Quinn is apparently a critic (or perhaps an apologist?). The other argument put forward by the faculty is that they simply can’t teach Mormonism without either offending their students (and — reading between the lines — the state legislature) of presenting some sanitized, LDS version of events. According to Jim Clayton, the University should simply ignore Mormonism and “Mormons who want the church’s perspective can take a class at the LDS Institute across the street.”

They are looking for someone to replace Dean May, who was the token Mormon on the University of Utah history faculty for many years. The problem, however, has been around for a long time. May was a well-respected history of Mormonism, but he had troubles when he came up for tenure review. Essentially, the tenure review committee decided that they couldn’t consider his Mormon-related publications when deciding on tenure because they didn’t count as “real” scholarship. To a certain extent they have a point. There is nominal peer-review at BYU Studies, Dialogue and the Journal of Mormon History, but the fact of the matter is that publishing in the realm of Mormon studies is not as rigorous as publishing in the mainline journals of any discipline. Also, for a department that wants to build its reputation within the profession, it is understandable that they would not want faculty whose publications appear entirely in an area that is not on the radar screen of the discipline as a whole. On the otherhand, the refusal to even look at the publications was a bit much, especially when one considers the profusion of journals and sub-disciplines within academe. Also, the U. hardly has a stellar record of making Mormon faculty feel welcome. In the end, I believe that there was an informal collection among MHA groupies for a Dean May Legal Defense Fund, and the department backed down.

I have heard elsewhere, however, that the some departments at the U. would actually like to get a token Mormon. The law school has a single nominally LDS faculty member who considers himself to be a Bhuddist-Episcopalean. I have heard rumors that the dean of the law school would very much like to hire a real-live active Mormon, so that the school could point to him with the state legislature and say “Look! We have one too!”

Heaven help the University of Utah if it ever actually does find itself in front of a jury of disgruntled Mormon tax-payers…

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13 Responses to University of Utah Rejects Quinn

  1. clark goble on February 9, 2004 at 7:22 pm

    What is most interesting is that it is impossible to consider Utah history without considering Mormon history. Yet by avoiding the issue of Mormon history you have the most prominent public university more or less abrogating the state’s own history. Its rather amazing.

    While it has a long way to go, I halfway wonder in UVSC isn’t trying to being the state college that actually engages issues pertinent to the state from a position more objective than BYU can do. But UVSC is somewhat limited due to the lack of solid graduate programs as well as (frankly) being fairly new as a real college.

    I’d love to see the UofU step up. I think it ought to be embarassing to them that the University of Illinois does a better job than they do.

  2. clark goble on February 9, 2004 at 7:31 pm

    Actually I’ve done the Utah State University history department a disservice. They’ve done a good job, including publishing quite a few good LDS books. At few I’ve enjoyed.

    Cultures in Conflict is one good book.

  3. Susan on February 9, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    I begin my comments with an admission which probably negates them, since my experience at the University of Utah is 10 years old at this point. And I was in the English department, not the history department. But I found that it was really quite possible to talk about Mormon topics in the graduate program there if you knew certain kinds of rules about academic discourse that you followed. In fact I was often included as part of the dinner party/cocktail party crowd for visiting scholars precisely because I could answer questions about Mormon history, Mormon culture, polygamy, etc. I knew how to translate Mormonism into literary theory talk. In fact I would often explicitly introduce Mormon studies into the discussion. I was facinated to see which scholars would be interested, when eyes would glass over.

    I also wrote a paper on a Mormon topic for a graduate seminar in order to test my theories on how to speak Mormon studies at the University of Utah. Certainly it was easier because I chose an American studies class–my paper was on Women of Mormondom by Tullidge. I found that you didn’t need to be hostile to Mormonism, but you couldn’t really position belief as integral to what you were saying–at least that wasn’t what I was doing. My hunch is that it would be easier to do what I was doing in the English department rather than the history department. I think that’s so because a “meta” approach (an approach with pretty explicit address of theoretical assumptions) was critical to gaining points in the U of U graduate English program in late 80s, early 90s. We weren’t so much interested in talking about facts as we were in talking about the underpinnings of a notion of facts. So there were a myriad non-threatening ways of engaging Mormonism. (But then in this department, and particularly in the American Studies class, I could have also gained points by writing about soap operas–another topic I loved to introduce with profressors and visitor to see what would happen.)

    So what’s my point. I suspect that a good deal of the problem with Michael Quinn at the U of U is rather specific to the politics of the history department (where not only Dean May but also Davis Bitton taught for years). At least when I was at the U, a certain kind of Mormon studies might well have been quite glamorous in a number of departments at the U of U that were interested in cultural studies. But it was definitely a certain kind of academic approach to Mormon studies. But that doesn’t seem like such a controversial point–the U of U is a university after all. Though admittedly a pretty interesting one when it comes to the issue of Mormonism. And one where you had to be careful–be looking ahead for the mines. . . . .

  4. Gordon Smith on February 9, 2004 at 11:03 pm

    Nate, The UofU law school has contacted me more than once, the last time several years back. The first time they called, I laughed and said, “You realize that I’m a Mormon, right?” The person on the other end of the phone said, “Yes, that is one reason we are interested. You’re a diversity candidate!” I actually can’t recall where I left either conversation; suffice it to say that neither side was very enthusiastic about the prospect of that marriage.

  5. Dave on February 10, 2004 at 12:56 am

    Well, he’s looked better. It makes sense that the U doesn’t want to overtly offend the looming Mormon institutional presence by hiring a guy like Quinn, who is now more of a symbol than a historian. I think he’s still a fine historian, but he would come with a lot of baggage the U history department probably doesn’t need to deal with.

    I have a hard time placing the religious history prof’s criticisms: Hiring Quinn could have been framed as a slap at the pro-LDS Mormon studies faction, but not hiring him is a slap at the whole field? And the U historians seem unable to give a clear statement of why they voted no. Maybe they just couldn’t bring themselves to hire an ex-BYU professor.

  6. Jeremiah J. on February 10, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    Nate: Your suggestion that Quinn is an odd combination of fierce critic and apologist seems right on to me. Of course this in itself makes him untouchable for almost any place.

    It seems very odd to me that the non-hiring would be designed to please Mormons, given everything else the U. does. It’s not as if the Mormon community must rise in outrage because an excommunicated Mormon is hired at a state school. I’d rather see them rise in outrage over the fact that their primier state school is very unpreresentative of the surrounding community.

  7. noman@post.harvard.edu on February 10, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    To follow up on what Susan said, I know that there is actually a woman in the gender studies department at the University of Utah who is interested in Mormon studies. Also, I believe that the political science department just hired Ben Judkins, who is LDS, has done some Mormon studies related stuff, but doesn’t do Mormon stuff in his main field.

  8. Melissa on February 10, 2004 at 3:14 pm

    I’m not sure how much this adds to the discussion, but David Knowlton teaches a course entitled “The Anthropology of Mormonism” at the U which discusses lots of these issues (Mormon history and culture, gender issues, etc) explicitly.

  9. Frank on February 10, 2004 at 7:05 pm

    Nate says: “There is nominal peer-review at BYU Studies, Dialogue and the Journal of Mormon History, but the fact of the matter is that publishing in the realm of Mormon studies is not as rigorous as publishing in the mainline journals of any discipline.”

    While it may be true that the peer-review standards at Dialogue and the Journal of Mormon history are not a rigorous as other “mainline” journals in other discipline, I don’t think this is an accurate statement with regards to BYU Studies. My personal experience and observation has been that BYU Studies is much MORE competitive and rigorous than other journals. Nate, your comments may have been right on 15 years ago, but ever since Jack Welch took over the editorship, BYU Studies ahs been increasingly more discerning and more difficult to break into. I know of individuals who have had pieces rejected by BYU Studies, ostensibly due to the quality of the scholarship, that have been readily published elsewhere, in more secular, and supposedly more “rigorous,” academic environments. In any event, I don’t think you can lump Dialouge and BYU Studies in the same group.

  10. Kristine on February 10, 2004 at 7:13 pm

    I’ve heard this “BYU Studies is so difficult to get published in” line from several people (mostly from the Religion Dept., it seems) recently. But I can still read the stuff in BYU Studies, and while they may have more submissions to reject now, I wouldn’t say that the quality of what they do publish is vastly improved.

  11. Kristine on February 10, 2004 at 7:15 pm

    I’ve heard this “BYU Studies is so difficult to get published in now” line from several people (mostly from the Religion Dept., it seems) recently. I have no way of knowing whether this is true, but I can still read the stuff in BYU Studies. While they may have more submissions to reject now, I wouldn’t say that the quality of what they do publish is vastly improved.

  12. Frank on February 10, 2004 at 10:08 pm

    Kristine: You “wouldn’t say the quality of what they do publish is vastly improved.” Compared to what? Have you read the stuff they published ten, twenty and thirty years ago? In my opinion, its hard not to observe a marked increase in the level of scholarship and academic expertise exhibit in journal articles. Even the editing, itself, has improved.

  13. Kristine on February 11, 2004 at 12:07 pm

    Frank, there’s no doubt it’s better than twenty years ago; I’m not so sure about ten years ago, and I don’t think it always stacks up favorably against Dialogue. Dialogue has always been uneven, and the really good stuff there over the years has often been better than the best in BYU Studies. That is changing–now they’re about evenly uneven.

    The bottom line is that it’s hard to have real peer review in Mormon studies. There aren’t enough outsiders who know Mormon stuff to get the kind of review that’s possible in other fields and insiders are just too close to the subject matter sometimes. It’s still too small a world.

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