It is not hard to see why scholars at the University of Utah would tread carefully when writing and teaching about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But universities, particularly state schools, have a special duty to examine ideas and institutions with a critical eye, and they must not blink.
Their job is to promote careful scholarly inquiry, not faith. Promoting faith is the job of a church.
The decision last month by the U. of U. history faculty not to hire D. Michael Quinn, a respected but controversial scholar of Mormonism, has caused one critic within that faculty to charge that her colleagues see no “intellectual or cultural merit in Mormonism.” Other observers have chimed in that the U. generally neglects Mormon studies when it should be a center for this scholarship.
We do not wish to draw conclusions about the decision not to hire Quinn, an excommunicated Mormon, as we are not privy to the discussions that took place. Those deliberations are secret, for good reason. If they were not, people would not speak candidly.
We simply wish to observe that the U. should be a leading center for the study of Utah and Mormonism. To neglect that role would be to ignore what makes Utah unique, that is, the dominant role the LDS Church has played here since 1847 and continues to play today.
We understand that this can create problems for the university because of the sensitivity people bring to questions of religious faith. A majority of students at the U., and at other state institutions, are Latter-day Saints, some of whom might take offense at perspectives of their church or its history that differ from the church’s official line.
But so long as class discussions show respect for all views and scrupulously avoid personal attacks, faculty and students should be free to express themselves. That is why people go to school — to learn new ideas and critically examine old ones.
At the same time, religious affiliation should not be a litmus test for membership on a public university faculty. Though some people argue that because Utah students are overwhelmingly LDS, the faculty also should be weighted toward Mormons, we believe a professor’s credentials as a scholar and teacher should be the only ones that matter. The federal law which forbids public universities from even asking job candidates about their religious affiliation is a good one, because it ensures strict religious neutrality.
Unfortunately, some Utah legislators, who in recent years have threatened the salaries of the U.’s top administrators because of disagreements over university policy, have not been so circumspect.
Ultimately, Utah’s state colleges and universities should not be pro-LDS or anti-LDS. They simply should be pro-learning.