The various threads about the position at CGU has gotten me thinking about what Mormon scholarship needs, and I think that it is probably not a chaired position in Mormon studies, welcome as such a thing might be (especially if it allows a prolific scholar to churn out a lot of high quality work on Mormon studies). Rather, I think that Mormons ought to look to the libertarian wing of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy for models.
In particular, I mean the Institute for Humane Studies. IHS was set up many years ago by a frustrated libertarian in Palo Alto who thought that classical liberal ideas were being lost in the academy. IHS, which is now housed at George Mason University Law School, evolved into something that is neither and academic program nor a think tank. Rather, it is an institute that tries to promote a particular kind of conversation within the academy. It does this in a number of ways. First, it puts on conferences for students in which IHS brings in various academics to talk classical liberal ideas. The goal is not indoctrination, but rather to expose students to a particular set of ideas and thinkers. IHS also fosters the careers of scholars friendly to classical liberal ideas in a number of ways. First, it provides scholarships. Second, it provides summer research stipends. Third, it sponsers conferences for graduate students in which they bring in senior scholars to respond to and critique student work. (For example, as a law student I presented a paper at an IHS event in which my respondent was Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago.) Fourth, it provides a way for libertarian academic wanna-bes to network with established scholars and get formal and informal advice.
An Institute for Mormon Studies along the same lines could be a very useful organization. The idea is not to create an academic program in Mormon studies or even foster Mormon studies as some sort of an independent field or discipline. Rather, the point would be to mentor and help scholars who will make the study of Mormonism part of their long term research agendas. You could do this in a number of ways. Following the IHS model, you could put together seminars for academically inclined undergrads in which you expose them to scholarship on Mormonism, hopefully inspiring some of them to get more seriously involved. More importantly, you could provide support for Mormons who are already in graduate school or who are junior academics, by putting on conferences in which they can discuss issues related to Mormonism with senior scholars, get career advice, and network with other thinkers interested in Mormonism.
One of the advantages of such an approach is that it doesnâ€™t tie the study of Mormonism to a particular discipline or particular school. We donâ€™t really want the best and the brightest Mormon academics to be to go and get degrees in â€œMormon Studies.â€ Also, with all due respect, we donâ€™t want them getting their graduate degrees at Utah State or the University of Wyoming. We want them at Harvard, Chicago, Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame, Princeton, etc. What we do want, however, is to get them thinking about how Mormonism relates to their scholarship and how one might use the tools of their discipline to study Mormonism more effectively.
To a certain extent Richard Bushman is already running what amounts to a one man Institute for Mormon Studies along these lines. He has procured independent funding for both summer research fellowships for young Mormon scholars who study with him and Terryl Givens at BYU over the summer. In a couple of weeks there will be a conference at Yale for Mormon graduate students in religious studies in which they will discuss the intersection of Mormonism and their studies. It would be nice to institutionalize these sorts of projects if for no other reason than there is ultimately a limit to even the energy (and alas the longevity) of Richard Bushman. Another institution that may evolve along these lines is the Maxwell Institute at BYU, although to be successful it has to aggressively involve scholars outside of BYU in fostering younger Mormon scholars. Networking and advice from scholars at BYU is valuable, to be sure, but ultimately BYU cannot and should not be the destination for bulk of LDS academics. (Something that the BYU profs I have spoken with realize.)
Just a thought.