I’m sure almost everyone has heard the news by now. Today, the University of Virginia has announced the establishment of the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies, which will be housed in the Department of Religious Studies (see coverage here). This chair has been in the works for a while, and it is remarkable how quickly they were able to raise a $3 million dollar endowment, but that just points to the excitement out there for the topic. (It also helps that east coast donors have probably not been hit up for the other Mormon studies chairs out west.)
A few rapid-fire thoughts on this important development:
First, though UVA is only the third university to have a Mormon studies chair–following Utah State and Claremont, not to mention Wyoming and Berkeley having announced their intentions to found a chair once they establish the funding–their position heralds an important landmark. Not only is it the first school outside regions that have large Mormon populations, its prestige as one of the top universities in the nation–and, specifically, one of the top religious studies programs in existence–further confirms the growth and establishment of Mormon studies as a discipline. The importance of such an elite institution placing a stamp of approval on a still-developing subfield cannot be overstated. This position, more than nearly other, will shape not only how Mormon studies develops in the future, but how the academy will incorporate Mormon studies into broader fields.
Second, that donors have come together to fund yet another Mormon studies chair demonstrates the support the field has. Richard Bushman has oft repeated–as recently as this last summer’s gold plates seminar–that scholarship can only flourish when the surrounding group of networks and culture are willing and ready to give their trust and support. This is seen not only with the endowed chairs at USU, Claremont, and now UVA, but also the blossoming Mormon studies programs at UVU and UofU. It is nothing short of remarkable that all of these donation-driven opportunities have received enough support to not only exist, but thrive.
I am absolutely thrilled that the chair is named in honor of Richard Bushman. While Leonard Arrington is (rightly) identified as the “dean” of New Mormon History, Bushman can be looked at as a foundational force for everything that has come since. Not only has his landmark scholarly work been a model for all to follow, but he has consciously and zealously worked to establish a closely-network community of scholars who are as interested in one another as their individual work. His role in the summer seminars, the Mormon Scholars Foundation, the Faith and Knowledge Conference, and his pioneering effort with the Claremont Chair in Mormon studies, to name just a few examples, demonstrate his dedication to building an academic kinship that touches much moe than monographs and articles. (See here and here.) That most young scholars can turn to him as not only an academic mentor but also a personal friend is a testament to his genius and kindness. I can’t think of a better person to have the, as of now, most prestigious Mormon studies chair named after.
The release said they hope to have someone selected for the inaugural chair-holder by the 2013-2014 academic year. While numerous names spring to mind–Flake, Maffly-Kipp, Barringer-Gordon, Givens, Faulconer, Hardy, Underwood, Turner, Fluhman, Reeve, to name those that are at the top of my head–it will be fascinating to see what direction they go. Do they go with an established, senior scholar to cement the chair’s prestige and foundation (like Claremont did with Bushman)? Do they go with a younger, up-and coming scholar who will pave the discipline’s future (like Claremont then did with Patrick Mason)? Will they go with a historian, perpetuating the field of Mormon history as the most established among Mormon studies disciplines within the broader academy? Or will they go with someone from another methodological emphasis to broaden Mormon studies’s interdisciplinary appeal? Will the appointee be a Mormon, or one of the growing number of “outsiders” who are taking the field in new and important ways?
I’m sure there are many other things to consider, and I’m positive I’ll think of a few more after I hit “publish,” but this should be enough to get the discussion going. What are your thoughts on the development?
These are fantastic times for the field of Mormon studies, indeed.