Sparks fly as U. rejects an LDS studies scholar

The Salt Lake Tribune/February 6, 2004
By Peggy Fletcher Stack and Linda Fantin

History teachers at the University of Utah see no "intellectual or cultural merit in Mormonism," says U. religious historian Colleen McDannell. As proof, she points to the recent rejection of a controversial Mormon studies scholar for a Utah history position.

In a Feb. 3 letter to U. administrators, McDannell said her colleagues' refusal to hire D. Michael Quinn, a Yale-educated author and excommunicated Mormon, is "blatant discrimination" and might be "actionable."

McDannell added: "The absence on this campus of scholarly attention to Mormon history, theology and practice is profound."

Others on the search committee with McDannell deny allegations of bias. History Department Chairman Eric Hinderaker said he was incensed by her characterization of the committee's motives and by McDannell's "astonishingly egregious breach of confidentiality" of closed-door personnel discussions.

The dispute comes at a volatile time for the U. The school is battling the LDS-dominated Legislature over funds and guns. And a long-festering lawsuit alleging anti-Mormon discrimination in the U.'s theater department is headed back to court.

On a more philosophical level, the personnel debate highlights an ongoing dilemma for Utah's public colleges and universities: How to promote free inquiry and academic freedom without disparaging -- or advocating -- the LDS faith. The tightrope is especially perilous when the subject is Utah history, which can't be separated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The course is required of every graduate who plans to teach history.

The latest spat is complicated by Quinn's biography.

Quinn was one of six scholars recruited to fill the vacancy left by longtime history professor Dean May, who died last summer. Students and faculty members revered May, who was LDS, for his objectivity and soft touch.

Quinn believes in Mormonism's divine origins and has many fans. Scholars praise his groundbreaking research on early Mormons and their ties to the occult. Church officials were less impressed; Quinn's books got him fired from Brigham Young University and booted from the church.

Hiring Quinn might rankle the LDS faithful. But to McDannell, rejecting Quinn was tantamount to saying he's a bad historian. "The word would be out: The Mormon church was right," McDannell told The Salt Lake Tribune.

In a phone interview from his Southern California home, Quinn said there has been a "historical pattern of hostility toward Mormonism" at the U., but he did not detect any during his job visit.

Even so, McDannell, who holds a privately funded professorship of religious studies within the History Department, has requested that the position be moved to a different department.

McDannell's accusations stung U. historian Robert Goldberg, one of eight professors on the search committee.

In the 1990s, Goldberg, who is Jewish, spoke against anti-Mormonism on campus -- citing several examples from his own department. Today, he insists, the department is "clean" of any discrimination.

"Not one of the votes against Michael had anything to do with denigrating Mormon history or the Mormon church," he said. "In my mind, it was just the opposite."

Goldberg said he and the five others who voted against hiring Quinn are not looking for a Mormon apologist. But they don't want an avowed critic, either.

Jim Clayton, a senior historian in the department, said the school has no mandate to teach Mormon history.

"It presents all kinds of difficulties. Who could teach it without criticism from either side?" Clayton said. "Mormons who want the church's perspective can take a class at the LDS Institute across the street."

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