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The Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia

By: Ben P - October 10, 2012

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.

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15 Comments

  1. I am super excited about the news but can I be a teensy craven and ask, do you think this makes it more or less likely that Wyoming will establish their (our!) chair sooner? Just reassure me that there is no Mormon Studies Dept “bubble,” please.

    Comment by crazywomancreek — October 10, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

  2. A very important and legitimate question, CWC. I honestly have no info on the Wyoming position, though it is somewhat troubling that there hasn’t been any updates since the original funding announcement several years ago.

    Comment by Ben P — October 10, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  3. It is awesome news! I’m putting my money on a standoff between historians (and interdisciplinary historians) Givens and Flake (well, if either of them applies.) I’m excited to see what happens!

    Comment by Chris B. — October 10, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  4. This caught me by surprise–I remember hearing about this a couple of years ago, but assumed it’d take a little longer to secure the funding. It will be very interesting to see who applies and which direction UVa. decides to go.

    Comment by Christopher — October 10, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

  5. Does anyone know what kind of openings this creates for, well, all of yous guys? Is there a set number of professors they will hire to staff the program or will it be determined by enrollment?

    Comment by crazywomancreek — October 10, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

  6. It will be one chair and then grad students, presumably.

    Comment by Ben P — October 10, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  7. It’s difficult to think of a more perfect pairing of person and chair. Congratulations both to Dick and to the new chaired professor!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 10, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  8. You said it well. This is wonderful.

    Comment by Hunter — October 10, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

  9. Exciting news! Any other murmurings for endowed chairs in Mormon studies? Do you see Yale getting one anytime soon? A New England school with a strong religious studies department and strong background in Western history. Already looking forward to the next announcement.

    Comment by Alan — October 10, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

  10. I wonder if D. Michael Quinn is on any kind of short or long list, or has he been out of the game for too long?

    Comment by Kant66 — October 10, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

  11. Chris B. (3), while Givens certainly does publish a lot of history, I can’t resist pointing out that he is in the English department, a professor of “Literature and Religion” at the University of Richmond. His Ph.D. is in Comp. Lit.

    BUT, I would be very please if Givens took this position. The literary portion of Mormon Studies needs such a boost, IMO.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — October 10, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

  12. What a story — thanks for posting it. UVa’s my alma mater, and the religious studies department was my home, so this is an especially exciting development for me to see. But I have no more information than the rest of you, so I’ll just join you in eager anticipation of further news…. :)

    Comment by Tom S. — October 10, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

  13. Kant66: though Quinn has made some great contributions to the field, he has been out of academia for 25 years so I doubt he’ll be considered.

    Comment by Ben P — October 10, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

  14. This is pretty awesome.

    Comment by Saskia — October 11, 2012 @ 4:59 am

  15. I was quite excited by this announcement, especially as a UVa alumna. I also couldn’t help but recall, with a smile (or a smirk), Michael Holt warning me at my MA thesis defense in the rotunda some years ago (my thesis looked at turn-of-the-century Mormon women’s fiction) that I better not be considering writing on anything in the “dead-end field of Mormon history” for my dissertation.

    Comment by RD — October 15, 2012 @ 9:40 pm