A prominent member of the LDS Church recently related an uncomfortable anecdote. An Ivy League professor sent him a letter endorsing a student for a job in his office. The recommendation highlighted the applicant’s many virtues but cautioned that the candidate was a Mormon, and, in the professor's opinion, Mormon students tend to exhibit strong work ethic but lack “intellectual imagination.” Several years later, this professor sent a recommendation for a different LDS student with the same caution.
Another successful Latter-day Saint told me a similar story about striking up a conversation with a renowned scholar. After this distinguished academic discovered that his interlocutor was LDS, he was shocked. His impression of Mormons, he explained, was that they didn’t take ideas seriously.
“There have been a couple of institutions in my lifetime that have actually expressed reservations about hiring me because I was a Mormon," said Veldon Lane Rawlins, the former president of Washington State University and the University of North Texas. "I'm pretty sure there was an offer I didn't get because of that."
Of course, persecution complexes serve no one, and such stories stand out because they are anomalous. By most measures, Latter-day Saints are well-integrated into contemporary American life. And yet, as Harvard’s Noah Feldman observed during the run-up to the 2012 presidential race, lingering prejudices sometimes persist.
"You'd be surprised,” Feldman said, “by how many people pride themselves on having no prejudices at all but preserve a little place in their heart for this kind of soft anti-Mormon prejudice." Despite the aforementioned anecdotes, there are significant signs that these soft-biases within higher education have dramatically diminished.
Just this spring, Yale Law School granted full tenure to LDS law professor John Morley. Stanford Law appointed its first LDS associate dean, Robert Daines. Three years back, Harvard Divinity School hired its first LDS faculty member, David Holland. In recent years, at least one Latter-day Saint was said to be in the mix for president of Harvard, and at Yale, BYU alum and renowned biochemist Scott Strobel is deputy provost and the vice president in charge of the school's growing research campus.
Two former Mormon missionaries now preside over formidable research institutions in the SEC and the Big 12. And, at the end of this month, BYU alumna Allison Davis-Blake will return to teaching after serving as University of Michigan’s first female dean of the prestigious Ross School of Business.
Meanwhile, as an academic field, Mormon studies has expanded exponentially. Outside of Utah, chairs in Mormon studies are endowed at the University of Virginia and Claremont Graduate University with a third in the works at the University of Southern California. As recently as 2013, scholarly books on Mormon topics were in the “top three in terms of average sales” among Oxford University Press’ religious studies publications.
What accounts for the recent surge in LDS participation and acceptance in academics? There is no simple answer, but at least some of the progress can be attributed to the church’s own education system.
According to the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, from 2005-09 Brigham Young University graduated more students who went on to earn Ph.D.s than all but four U.S. universities.
Moreover, judged by research dollars received, BYU perennially ranks above its peers in terms of patent filings, patent revenue generation and business startups. In 2015, Pitchbook ranked BYU 7th for germinating companies with billion-dollar valuations prior to going public.
Renowned LDS scholar Terryl Givens rightly cautions against viewing the number of Ph.D.s, or related metrics, as a perfect measure for judging cognitive creativity; rather, Givens suggests, those hoping to understand innovation and the Latter-day Saint tradition might spend time investigating the “brute daring and iconoclasm” of America’s first Mormon, Joseph Smith.
Like other diminishing forms of bigotry, whether based on race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, misperceptions about Latter-day Saints in academics have dissipated on campuses across America. This will continue as Mormons themselves increasingly become respected colleagues and productive participants within academic life. In light of this shift, maintaining misguided stereotypes about the mental acuity of Mormons will take, as one professor might put it, a fair amount of “intellectual imagination.”
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: Halrboyd