Today the University of Virginia is announcing the intent to establish the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies, an endowed faculty position.
This is a landmark event for a number of reasons. One is the prominence of the department choosing to establish this chair. As the UVA Religious Studies website points out, it has an excellent reputation:
The department’s undergraduate program has been rated by the Gorman Report as the best in the nation, and the department’s graduate program is ranked by the National Research Council as the sixth best in the nation, and the best in a public institution.
The addition of Mormon Studies in such a well-respected department speaks to the emergence of Mormon Studies as an academic discipline, indicating that Mormonism is worthy of study at the highest academic levels.
In addition to advancing the field of Mormon Studies, the establishment of a senior academic chair brings other benefits to the LDS community, including:
• Courses taught about Mormonism by a serious scholar expose non-Latter-day Saints to Mormonism under circumstances where it must be taken seriously. These students are at a unique time in their lives when they are forming opinions that often last a lifetime.
• Such courses can prepare young Latter-day Saints to cope with the questions about Mormonism that arise when it is discussed in the public sphere.
• A professorship in a major university gives Mormonism a place at the table when significant religious, social, and cultural issues are under discussion.
• Studying Mormonism in the context of other religions helps us to better understand what is distinctive and powerful about our religion.
As a very important element, the establishment also speaks positively about the state of Mormon philanthropy. The donors who have funded the endowment that established the chair clearly believe that an independent, academic appointment will benefit the Church’s broader mission. It also suggests that careers in Mormon Studies could become increasingly available.
Overall, a major step forward for Mormon Studies.