Expelled scholar of Mormon history can't find work

The Wall Street Journal/April 10, 2006
By Daniel Golden

Rancho Cucamonga, California. -- In 1993, the Mormon church excommunicated D. Michael Quinn, one of the world's foremost authorities on the faith, whose writings had frequently contradicted the church's traditional history.

Now, he has become a pariah in some higher-education circles as well.

Although Mormon studies is a fast-growing academic discipline, Mr. Quinn -- a former professor at Mormon-run Brigham Young University and the author of six books on Mormon history -- can't find a job. In 2004, he was the leading candidate for openings at two state universities. Both rejected him.

At least three other secular schools plan new professorships in Mormon studies, but he appears to be a long shot for these posts, too -- not because he lacks qualifications, but because almost all the funding for the jobs is coming from Mormon donors.

"At this point, I'm unhireable," says the 62-year-old scholar, who lives with his mother to save money in this town east of Los Angeles.

Mr. Quinn's struggles reflect the rising influence of religious groups over the teaching of their faiths at secular colleges, despite concerns about academic freedom. U.S. universities have usually hired religious-studies professors regardless of whether they practiced or admired the faiths they researched. But some universities are bending to the views of private donors and state legislators by hiring the faithful.

"If you want to succeed in Mormon studies you have to make compromises and you have to tread gently," says Colleen McDannell, a professor of American religions at the University of Utah. "Michael would not do that."

W. Rolfe Kerr, commissioner of education for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith's formal name, said Mr. Quinn is "highly regarded in his discipline" and the church would not "campaign against him" for any academic post. However, Mr. Kerr said, "there may be a perception" of Mr. Quinn in the Mormon community "that would cause him, in the eyes of some, to be less acceptable."

Some professors at both state universities that rejected Mr. Quinn say fear of offending Mormons played a role. Deans at the universities deny that.

In the 1970s, some universities pioneered the idea of privately funded professorships in specific religions by establishing Judaic-studies chairs. Now many universities have chairs for faiths ranging from Islam to Sikhism. They are usually underwritten by donors of the same religion, who generally expect that the scholar filling the chair will be sympathetic to the faith.

Former Princeton University president William G. Bowen says there are similar issues in many other areas of academic study such as unionism, which is why university presidents and trustees prefer professorships to cover broader areas. "What the university shouldn't do is allow the donor control over the hire or the curriculum," says Mr. Bowen, who is now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

"Every single department of religion is negotiating with religious communities in new ways," says Laurie Patton, chairwoman of the religion department at Emory University, a private, secular school in Atlanta.

In 1999, the Aquinas Center, a Roman Catholic organization affiliated with Emory, agreed to endow a new chair in Catholic studies. Emory selected Mark Jordan of the University of Notre Dame for the post. But the board of the Aquinas Center objected, according to Emory faculty members and Victor Kramer, a former Aquinas board member and executive director. Prof. Jordan is homosexual and wrote a critical history of Catholicism's attitude toward sodomy.

Emory shifted Prof. Jordan to a university-funded position in religion that wasn't specific to Catholicism, according to Mr. Kramer and Barbara DeConcini, who headed the faculty search committee. Plans for the chair were shelved. An Emory spokeswoman says the center was concerned it might not be able to afford the gift.

The school of religion at Claremont Graduate University, a private institution in Claremont, Calif., has raised $2.5 million, pledged primarily by California Muslims, for a new endowed professorship in Islamic studies. It hired a Muslim last year to fill it. Claremont has plans to raise funds for at least seven more religious chairs -- in Mormonism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Coptic Orthodoxy.

For each position, Claremont has established an advisory council composed mainly of believers. Councils are expected to raise funds and have a voice in hiring via a representative on the search committee. "We don't want any bomb-throwers" in the chairs, says Karen Torjesen, dean of Claremont's religion school.

Emory's Prof. DeConcini, who is also executive director of the American Academy of Religion, the main association of professors in the field, says Claremont's approach "is potentially fraught with difficulties for academic freedom." Claremont officials say they are preserving academic freedom because the university, not the search committee, makes the final hiring decision.

Harvard University's divinity school is close to filling a professorship in evangelical theological studies funded by Alonzo L. McDonald, an evangelical Christian and former White House staff director who runs a Michigan investment group. Mr. McDonald says the scholar should be "understanding and empathetic" toward evangelical traditions. Harvard's general counsel advised the school that it cannot legally ask job applicants about their religious beliefs. The 1964 Civil Rights Act bans religious discrimination in hiring at secular schools.

The school's faculty recently recommended hiring a specialist in evangelical history whose work is unlikely to ruffle the faithful, say faculty members.

Mormon studies are growing in popularity as the church expands. It now boasts 5.6 million members in the U.S. and 12.5 million world-wide. Mormons are becoming a larger presence at secular universities now that church-run BYU has capped its enrollment because of limited resources.

Like many minority religious groups, Mormons have faced a history of prejudice that shapes their identity today. A mob assassinated the faith's founder, Joseph Smith, in 1844 and the federal government hounded Mormons with troops and punitive legislation.

Mr. Quinn's battles with the church and BYU have shadowed his career. Born in Pasadena, Calif., he is a seventh-generation Mormon on his mother's side. She raised him in her faith after his Catholic father divorced her. Mr. Quinn became curious about Mormon history in high school, when a friend gave him a memoir about a Mormon leader who practiced polygamy after the church banned the practice in 1890. "I was jolted by the reality that there could be a public stance and private behavior that contradicted each other," he says.

After graduating from BYU, Mr. Quinn earned his doctorate at Yale, and then joined the BYU faculty in 1976. He buried himself in the church archives, typing thousands of pages of notes that would provide raw material for his articles and books.

Such research ran into head winds in the 1980s as the church restricted access to documents. Boyd Packer, one of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that helps rule the church, declared in a 1981 speech that writing and teaching about church history "may be a faith destroyer."

Mr. Quinn nonetheless published articles on sensitive subjects such as one in 1985 that suggested church leaders tolerated polygamy after officially prohibiting it. He says BYU restricted his research and denied him travel money. In 1988, he resigned from the university. BYU says it didn't force him to go.

Five years later, the president of his Salt Lake City stake -- a Mormon administrative unit composed of five to 10 congregations -- handed Mr. Quinn a letter citing examples of his alleged apostasy. They included his public criticism of the church for limiting dissent and an article maintaining that Joseph Smith treated Mormon women more equally than the church does today. He was soon excommunicated along with four other scholars.

Mr. Quinn's personal life contributed to his estrangement from the church. The father of four was divorced in 1985 and came out publicly as a homosexual in 1996 when he published a book about same-sex friendships and romances in 19th-century Mormonism. The church condemns homosexual behavior. Mr. Quinn says he still believes in the "fundamentals" of Mormonism but doesn't practice the faith.

Supporting himself on research grants and fellowships, Mr. Quinn cemented his scholarly reputation by publishing four books on Mormon history between 1994 and 1998, including a two-volume study of the church's interactions with politics and American society. In 1999, he began pursuing a full-time faculty job, to no avail. Few secular schools at the time sought a specialist in Mormonism.

In 2003, when he was a visiting professor at Yale University, BYU threatened to withdraw funding for a conference it was co-sponsoring with Yale on Mormonism if Mr. Quinn was allowed to speak there, according to the conference's organizer, Kenneth West. Noel Reynolds, a longtime BYU administrator and now a Mormon mission president in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says the university was concerned that "the conference not be used to promote personalities or personal complaints about the church." Yale officials insisted on the participation of Mr. Quinn, who ultimately resolved the dispute by agreeing to introduce the keynote speaker rather than give a scholarly paper.

The following year, Mr. Quinn was the only finalist for a tenured professorship in Utah and Mormon history at the University of Utah. At Mr. Quinn's request, Thomas Alexander, a BYU historian, wrote a recommendation for him. But while Prof. Alexander praised him as a scholar and teacher in his recommendation, he advised against hiring Mr. Quinn, warning that the Mormon-dominated state legislature might cut the public university's funding.

When Mr. Quinn came to the school's Salt Lake City campus for a job interview, history professor James Clayton hosted a reception for him. Prof. Clayton had been Mr. Quinn's friend for years, and joined him in criticizing church censorship. He describes Mr. Quinn as the second-best historian of Mormonism, behind retired Columbia University professor Richard Bushman.

Nevertheless, when Utah's faculty voted on whether to offer Mr. Quinn the job, Prof. Clayton opposed him. Now retired, he says: "There was a concern by several of us in the department that Mike was not the right person to head up any kind of Mormon history or Mormon studies program given the fact he's very publicly excommunicated. There would be quite a number of people in the Mormon community who would look unfavorably on that. That gave me pause."

Robert Newman, dean of humanities at Utah, says the history department decided against hiring Mr. Quinn because his research presentation wasn't strong enough and most of his books weren't published by university presses. Utah eventually downgraded the opening to an assistant professorship and filled it with an active Mormon church member.

Soon another school beckoned. Arizona State University's department of religious studies recommended to the university administration that Mr. Quinn be offered a one-year appointment for 2004-05. It was starting a doctoral-degree program with a focus on religion in the Americas. Aware that Mr. Quinn was controversial, the faculty took pains to stress to administrators that his scholarship was first-rate, says Tracy Fessenden, a professor of American religions.

A public university with 61,500 students, Arizona State has been cultivating Mormon students and donors -- for example, by letting students resume receiving scholarships after returning from Mormon missionary work, says ASU president Michael Crow. Many of Arizona's Mormons, about 6 percent of the state's population, are concentrated in the Phoenix area near the university.

Ira Fulton, a Mormon home builder in Prescott, Ariz., has given the school at least $155 million since 2003. Mr. Fulton says the school has 3,700 Mormon students, and "I'd like to have 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 or 10,000. They'll make ASU a better university."

ASU's administration vetoed Mr. Quinn's hiring. Simon Peacock, then associate dean for personnel, says Mr. Quinn lacked expertise to teach Christianity and Judaism courses left uncovered by a professor's departure. Mr. Peacock says Mr. Quinn's excommunication was discussed but had no effect on the decision.

However, the chairman of the religious-studies department, Joel Gereboff, wrote in an email to faculty that Dean Peacock and another dean asked him to review the "risks and benefits" of the hire and "thought that it is probably not wise to undertake such risks" for a one-year appointment. Prof. Gereboff says the deans were referring to the risk of alienating the Mormon community.

Several professors criticized the decision. "What the administration is doing is as wrong as racial or sexual discrimination," James Foard, a religious-studies professor, emailed colleagues. The administrators stood their ground.

Prof. Gereboff says he could "live with" the deans' decision. "We exercise sensitivity. We don't exercise censorship," he says.

Mr. Fulton, the donor, says he doesn't get involved in faculty hiring. He calls Mr. Quinn a "nothing person."

At least three other schools are contemplating chairs in Mormon studies -- Claremont Graduate University, the University of Wyoming and Utah State. At Claremont, the school of religion has nearly completed raising $5 million for a Mormon studies chair to be named after Howard W. Hunter, a late president of the church. Nearly all the money has come from Mormon businessmen in the state, the school says. Prof. Torjesen, the religion-school dean, traveled to church headquarters in Salt Lake City to build rapport with church leaders. The school's Mormon-studies advisory council includes two BYU professors among its dozen members.

Claremont says it prefers that the holder of the chair have access to church archives in Salt Lake City, a privilege sometimes denied dissidents. Mr. Quinn's access, withdrawn on his excommunication, was restored in 1997 and the church has made more documents available in recent years. Asked whether Mr. Quinn might be hired, Claremont's associate dean of religion, Patrick Horn, replies: "Probably not."

At Wyoming, where Mormons comprise about 10 percent of students, a committee headed by a professor of Spanish, Kevin Larsen, is exploring a Mormon-studies professorship. Mr. Larsen, himself a Mormon bishop, says he wouldn't rule out critics of the faith for such a post. But he says he has explained to church leaders that "it's not going to be a chair of anti-Mormon studies."

Wyoming is also sponsoring a lecture series on Mormonism. Prof. Larsen says the local Mormon stake provided several hundred dollars for the lectures through a Mormon student group.

Utah State has attracted more than 50 donors, most of them Mormons, for a professorship in Mormon history. History chairman Norman Jones says it's premature to discuss job candidates. He says the university will look for "a person who can get along with everybody. We know what the minefields are, and we're trying to avoid them."

Mr. Quinn says his only significant income since leaving Yale was a $40,000 bequest from a Los Angeles doctor, contingent on his writing a biography of his late benefactor. So far, he has received $15,000, with the balance to come when the book is finished.

In the meantime, Mr. Quinn sleeps on a futon in his mother's condominium and says he can't afford health insurance, car repairs or Internet access. His library of books on Mormon and American social history lies boxed up in her garage and closets.

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