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…