An endowed professorship in Mormon studies bolsters one of the College’s academic strengths
Last October the University became the first major public university to establish a Mormon studies chair. The Board of Visitors approved the endowed professorship in February.
Last week, the University’s religious studies department got more good news when University officials revealed who would pioneer the Mormon studies professorship. Kathleen Flake, currently an associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt, secured the position.
Scholars of religion grapple with unresolvable questions — and that’s without getting into the matter of whether God exists. Many major world religions have histories that span millennia. An attempt to figure out what people believed and why invites conflicting interpretations. A faded mark on an ancient document or a lack of concrete proof that a particular person existed can send scholars off in opposing lines of speculation.
Compared to many other leading world religions, Mormonism has a brief and richly documented history. It came into being in Western history’s latter days. Founded in New York in the 1820s, the Mormon religion did not survive long on the East Coast. Members fled to Utah after skirmishes with non-Mormons had the church’s disciples expelled from state after state.
Mormonism’s short history, and its continued vibrancy worldwide, makes it an exciting laboratory for scholars interested in exploring how religious movements develop, mature and gain adherents. But Mormonism, like many other minority subcultures, has only recently become an object of serious academic inquiry. The University, here, is ahead of its competitors.
Flake, who served her mission for the Mormon church in Japan, is a top scholar in Mormon studies. Her work stands to bolster the University’s religious studies department, which already ranks as one of the country’s top undergraduate programs. For the College, such a move is wise. By building upon well-defined areas of strength, universities can distinguish themselves from competitors and entice top students and faculty. The College prides itself on offering a high-quality general education. For most undergraduates, that is enough. But a stellar departmental reputation can draw strong students savvy enough to know what they want to major in. This trend is more pronounced for graduate students and faculty, for obvious reasons. Cultivating the strengths of individual departments can boost the reputation of the University as a whole.
A $3 million endowment from anonymous donors led to the creation of the University’s Mormon studies chair. For institutions increasingly reliant on philanthropy yet eager to maintain academic autonomy, the relationship between donors and academic direction is often fraught. No school wants donors to decide what faculty should research and teach. But in this case, the interests of donors and the interests of the College seem well-aligned. The endowed chair extends the religious studies department’s curricula and intellectual reach considerably.
The religious studies department has displayed a willingness to explore new avenues of inquiry. Apart from hiring Flake, it has also made a recent appointment in religion, ethics and environment, and religious studies faculty continue to collaborate with programs such as bioethics and gender studies. This academic vigor shows the department’s promise as a site of increasing scholarly productivity. If donors and College officials maintain their commitment to the department, and if religious studies faculty members continue exploring innovative and stimulating scholarly paths, this humanities department is in no danger of seeing its end of days.