Southern Virginia University: Mormonism and the liberal arts experience

Matt Bowman appears to be the new guest blogger at BCC. He has a masters’ in history from the University of Utah and is currently preparing to take PhD exams in American history at Georgetown. He occasionally presents papers on things like Bigfoot at MHA. Thanks to Ronan for the invitation to appear in this space.

This school is bound into the web of my family. My sister attended and two cousins graduated. I have relatives both on the board and active in the alumni association. Additionally, a couple of friends from graduate school have held positions on the faculty.

The reports I have received are mixed. Practically, SVU seems to suffer from financial and organizational problems that can be found in any fledging institution, exacerbated by bad luck in management. The tenure of Rodney Smith, however, seems to have begun righting the ship. Despite what strikes me as a rather quixotic and resource-draining attempt to field a football team, I think the school might now be at a point where it can address President Smith’s confidence that there is “something special” which the Mormon tradition can offer the liberal arts.

My problem is that, at this point, I am not entirely sure what this means. I was mildly surprised to hear that very little in the way of formal Mormon studies exists at SVU currently, though President Smith tells us that this is something that will be addressed in the future. But what, exactly, might it be that Mormoniana brings to the liberal arts; or vice versa, what might the liberal arts tradition bring to Mormon studies?

I have a couple of ideas. Lack of formal affiliation with the Church may allow faculty there to push whatever boundaries, perceived or otherwise (note; I am not the ‘Matt’ of that thread), might exist for those at BYU who wish to research Mormonism. Specifically, I think SVU could provide a home for real investigation into Mormon theology, the sort of systematic speculation which BYU’s quasi-official status and reliance upon CES may make difficult.

Additionally, I think the size and integration of a liberal arts college might allow for the sort of interdisciplinary work in Mormon studies that is difficult at larger schools. The ability to populate upper division classes with a variety of majors, self-conscious focus on the humanities and strong interdepartmental faculty dialogues are all advantages that a school of SVU’s size can lean upon. Currently, “Mormon studies” often seems a euphemism for “Mormon history,” and occasionally, “Mormon literature.” In addition to the traditional liberal arts emphasis upon these subjects, SVU is already pursuing strong philosophy, theatre, and art departments. There is the possibility here, I think, for a holistic investigation into the Mormon experience.

At this point, SVU farms out religious studies to CES. I think they can do better, and hopefully their goal of a Mormon-informed liberal arts education becomes a reality sooner than later.

Comments

  1. I think that farming out religious instruction to CES makes sense, and that a strong institute program could be good for the school- but I agree that there should certainly be an integration of Mormon thought into studies of many different areas within the liberal arts. Why else have an LDS liberal arts school? If anything religious is done by CES, then how is this different than any small school in an area with a predominantly LDS population.

  2. Nate Oman says:

    Matt: Thanks for the post. For what it is worth, in addition to Rodney Smith, SVU now has one of my favorite people — Paul Edwards — as provost.

    Needless to say, as a now more or less permanent resident of the Old Dominion, I would very much like to see SVU emerge as a hub for Mormon intellectual discussions. It actually wouldn’t take all that much to get started. For example, a couple of well designed and popular seminars.

    Another possiblity — although it is a more resource intensive one — would be to create a fund to sponsor some sort of lecture series that could be turned into an annual publication, much like the Tanner Lectures in Human Values.

    They might also think about playing host to either MHA or SMPT…

  3. Nate,

    Ooh, you know Paul Edwards? Formerly of BYU poli sci? He’s a great guy, one of RT’s undergraduate mentors. And he makes a mean fritatta.

  4. I like Nate’s suggestion about seminars. They could also cooperate with BYU’s center in DC.

    I thought that Southern Virginia College was an exciting enterprise. Renaming it into University was a bad choice. They might have become a solid if not excellent college but they cannot be a decent university.

    The same logic applies to the football team. They can have an excellent equestrian team but they will never have a good football team. (Not to speak of the federal requirements for women’s sports that will be triggered by the investment into a football team).

    That kind of decision making raises serious questions about the judgement of the leadership.

    Before Southern Virginia University can amount to anything, their leaders need to determine who they are and how they fit into academia.

    Just be yourself and be good at it.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I follow SVU with interest. I have a cousin on the faculty, and I certainly hope that the enterprise is a success. (I didn’t know they were doing a football team; I agree that’s probably a bad idea; they should stick with the equestrian team.)

    Question: when they first started, they had a substantial “great books” curriculum (like Shimer College affiliated with the University of Chicago). Does anyone know whether that has survived, or is it a casualty of the university designation?

  6. One other thing SVU has going for it: an achingly beautiful setting. I found myself on the Blue Ridge Parkway a while back and loved it. It will be a good thing one day, I think, if East Coast and European Mormons look at SVU for a college education before BYU.

  7. Nate Oman says:

    SV: I know Paul quite well. I was one of his research assistants at BYU, and we kept in touch when he was at IHS and then the Mercatus Center. He’s the guy who got me interested in the law.

    He is one of the best thinkers about what for lack of a better term I call “the industrial organization of intellectual life” that I know.

  8. I think it is a major mistake to equate institute with Mormon Studies. I think they are both important, but the latter is a strictly accedemic endevour. Most members that have a full battery of institute have the same experieances with Mormon Studies as do those who don’t.

    It would be easy enough to establish itself as the Mormon Studies mecca.

    As far as what the liberal arts education can offer Mormonism or vice versa, I don’t know – I was educated as a chemist. :)

  9. Nate Oman says:

    J.: You are right of course about CES. The reality, of course, is that CES is a paid youth ministry. The problem is that we don’t really have a place in our ecclesiology for a paid ministry, so we repackage it as a sort of faux-academic program.

    At the end of the day, however, CES is pastoral rather than academic. Nothing wrong with this in my book, but I don’t see that we ought to expect much academically out of it.

  10. Another possiblity — although it is a more resource intensive one — would be to create a fund to sponsor some sort of lecture series that could be turned into an annual publication, much like the Tanner Lectures in Human Values.

    Nate:

    You’d be the perfect person to start such a fund, and start the fundraising.

    The same logic applies to the football team. They can have an excellent equestrian team but they will never have a good football team.

    Ok, I think poorly of football as a sport in many ways. More on-campus rapes come from football than any other sport. Etc.

    But … it is amazing the impact that an unfunded losing football team can have on recruiting. I watched Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls decide to have a football team. The president, an economist, had no love at all for the sport. They spent no school money on it and the team lost all the time.

    But he could chart the impact on admissions. His reasoning did not satisfy those who wanted a winning football program (nothing in the math showed that having a winning team would generate any useful admissions or revenue at MSU), nor those who disliked football because they dislike football (I have to admit that as a sport to watch I love it. Nothing quite catches the set piece, pacing and dynamics). But it made excellent sense from an administrative viewpoint.

    I keep waiting for a post on the WSJ article on Mitt Romney to show up in the bloggernacle, but it has gotten me out reading and commenting.

    I’ve hopes for SVC/SVU, they just need a faux alumni program like the BYU law school created with the JRCL Society.

    And, some donors/fund raisers/interested parties willing to donate time and money — which is how they got started after all.

  11. Katie P. says:

    Does SVU require students to take religion classes the way BYU does?

    Utah State had their integrated studies classes fulfill the general education requirements, so even students that are not majoring in liberal arts were exposed to them. I wonder if creating an integrated Mormon studies class that counted as general education could be a good exploration into the idea.

  12. Nate The reality, of course, is that CES is a paid youth ministry.

    That is an excellent and succint description. I’ll definately be keeping that for later.

  13. Thanks for the comments, all. I think J makes an important point – right now there is really no Mormon studies mecca. The U has unwisely chosen not to make a play for the title, and BYU is what it is. Utah State is taking a run at it, but it may be a while til we see those fruits.

    SVU _does_ currently run an annual “education conference” that seems intended to discuss Mormon issues; unfortunately, currently its design appears closer to EFY than anything else. I would love to see them make a bid for SMPT – it’s a fledgling group and could use some institutional support, plus I think that they represent exactly the sort of fields that SVU should be building strength in.

    Kevin and Kate – nope to both. Which is a shame, really; I have a friend who attended St John’s, which also uses a great books curriculum, and it sounds like a fascinating experience.

    Stephen – I only hope that the team has a positive impact on applications, because it’s sure not winning right now, and based on what I’ve been told, it’s draining money away from things like travel grants for faculty. Which is not a good thing.

  14. Stephen – I only hope that the team has a positive impact on applications, because it’s sure not winning right now, and based on what I’ve been told, it’s draining money away from things like travel grants for faculty. Which is not a good thing.

    Draining funds is not a good thing. Losing is quite harmless.

    I wish them the best.

  15. I like the idea of FARMSing out Mormon Studies.

  16. Nate Oman says:

    Yikes! Janice Kapp Perry and Ron Carter. No, this is definitely not going to be the forum for transforming Mormon thought.

    Matt: I am curious about one thing. Do we really need a Mormon studies mecca? What exactly are we talking about when you say this? A pot of money that funds conferences and research? A graduate program? In a sense, I think that the best Mormon studies gets done by scholars who are not necessarily surrouned by Mormons or students of Mormonism per se. It is nice to have collegues who are experts to bounce ideas around with, but being surrounded by Mormon studies can have a sort of ghettoizing effect.

    I really like the phrase “Mormon studies mecca” and whatever it is it has a great deal of gut-level appeal to me. On the other hand, I am not sure that we really need it, or even want it.

    That said, it would be nice if SVU sponsored a real academic conference on some Mormon subject. I’d certainly make the drive over to attend. Besides which, it would provide a great excuse to visit the Valley.

  17. Nate – conferences and big research grants are nice, and the phrase “mecca” (Stapley’s, not mine :)) certainly conjurs up this sort of thing. I definitely agree with the problem of ghettoization, but my original thoughts were more about students than faculty.

    The thing that prompted the post was a desire to see the development of curriculum related to Mormon studies, and it’s this that I think a liberal arts school could really excel at. The topic may be too esoteric for a major, but I think attempts to develop classes exploring the ramifications of Mormonism in various disciplines – philosophy, art, what have you – could be quite valuable. I actually expect, based on what I’ve heard, for this sort of thing to appear in the future. The school _is_ still getting off its feet.

    John – nice catch.

  18. Steve H says:

    Is it possible–I don’t know the school well–that SVU doesn’t particularly want to be known as the “mecca” of Mormon Studies? I guess it would be a nice thought for those who see Mormon studies outside of the BYUs as a necessary and engrossing endeavor to wish for a place to do such work. I am personally of the camp that doesn’t see the Y as restrictive, but I know that isn’t the point here.
    My point is that perhaps SVU has bogger fish to fry if it is to establish itself and get the enrollment it needs, like providing a quality liberal arts education. In trying to make sure their education is taken seriously outside their walls, and especially outside the church, too much emphasis on Mormon studies as such might become a politcal game they don’t especially want to play. It becomes easy to end up being the place that does edgy work that speaks to an audience outside the church (something, for instance, I felt Rough Stone Rolling did–it did some great things, but it can’t take the prophet’s word any more seriously than other documentary sources, since it’s caliming to do documentary history after a secular model, but, again, that’s another matter). Such a reputation could make it harder to recruit within the church. Perhaps their choice is to ask, rather than what liberal arts can do for Mormon studies, what can it do for church memmbers, and what can the gospel do for the study of the liberal arts. I know that the liberal arts makes for more perceptive readers of the scriptures. It encourages habits of thought that makes true understanding more accomplishable. J–some people are just born that way (like the cream in a Twinky). And I know that the gospel makes a differnce in how we teach the liberal arts. I think that the habits of thought that the world encourages in the area are restricted because they often either assume that religion is a non-entity that doesn’t apply or is to be criticised or they pruposely leave out the divine as a category of knowledge because so many other will look askance at work that takes the divine seriously. It may sound cliche, but when I can, with my students, put God back into the equation in serious ways, what I teach has more coherence, as we aren’t dancing around the hole any entirely secular study must, per force, leave.

  19. I have found the comments made by many individuals to be both interesting and helpful. As President, I will respond briefly to a couple of major areas of discussion: a special place to study “Mormonism” and the starting of a football team. I will also mention a little about what is distinctive about a liberal arts college in the LDS tradition.
    In terms of creating a “mecca for the study of Mormonism,” I think the idea of having some meaningful academic conferences is a good one. In fact, we are putting some thought into how we can best do that. Frankly, however, our priority remains the classroom and our faculty. We are trying to raise some dollars to support bringing highly regarded — academically and otherwise — LDS and other scholars to campus to enliven the experience for our students. I have been surprised at the interest on the part of leading LDS academics in what we are trying to achieve at SVU and their interest in helping us. I have stood outside Orson Scott Card’s class and can report that he challenges our students to write clearly and with impact. What is all the more amazing is that Scott does this, as do a number of others, as a volunteer.
    Our mission as an liberal arts university in the LDS tradition is to prepare leader-servants (a term coined by Elder Neal A. Maxwell). Small classes, taught by superb and highly credentialed faculty members (Paul Edwards, our Provost, tells me that 90% of our classes are taught by faculty with terminal degrees), engage students in ways that help to prepare them for leadership. They learn through experience analytical and other related skills. Their ideas are challenged regularly, they write often (we have no testing centers on campus, although we do have a computer class that does some online testing), and gain confidence in their capacity to apply what they are learning (we are also working on service experiences that will enable students to apply their learning in a service context). We also emphasize extracurricular opportunities for growth — we are about participation and not mere observation. A high percentage of our students are involved in intercollegiate athletics, the fine and performing arts, our academic bowl team (which was ranked 25th in the country among undergraduate participants ahead of UCLA, Dartmouth and Wisconsin among others), and other opportunities to participate in ways that facilitate growth.
    That gets me to our football program. I was not president when it was added. The decision to start the program may have been premature, but it has proven to be a positive in many ways. Our first year was perfect — we did not win a game, but a very high percentage of our football players left on missions. Our second year, we won one game against George Mason, a club team. Last year, we won 4 games and were within one game of going to a small college bowl (for schools with fewer than 1500 students). We have done some analysis of the costs and benefits of many of our programs, including football. Given that we do not really offer athletic scholarships (we have a few small talent grants that can be used in a variety of areas, including athletics and fine and performing arts, the expense of the program in not that significant and we take care to ensure that no programs dilute our commitment to academics.
    I could go on. I have been in higher education for 24 years (I am entering year 25), I have never been at an institution that is any more effective than we are in providing excellence in undergraduate education.
    We are growing (we will grow to 1,200 to 1,500 students and then will offer support to other efforts to provide quality education in the LDS tradition) and welcome your wise counsel.
    Rod Smith,
    President SVU*
    *Given our emphasis on undergraduate education, I think it would have probably been better to remain a college, but I am told that we were fighting against the western LDS view that colleges are junior colleges. In fact, one of the great challenges we have faced is helping the LDS community better understand liberal arts education.

  20. Rod, thanks for your enlightening comment. In reading it I thought of Laurie DiPadova-Stocks, a former contributor here and Dean at Park College in MO. She has done a tremendous amount of research and publishing in Service Learning. It seems to me that SVU is uniquely situated to implement some of these learning strategies.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you Rod for taking the time to fill us in on what’s happening at SVU. I think many of us are fascinated by the place and wish nothing but the best for it. It has made great strides in just a few years of renewed existence. I’ve been very impressed. In fact, I feel a certain pride that so much of the reason for the success of the place is good old fashioned Mormon know how and a willingness to roll up the sleeves and go to work. Best wishes for continued success!

  22. Matt Bowman says:

    Rod – I’m honored and gratified that you took the time to make an appearance on BCC, and want to state again that I am impressed with the direction that you’ve taken SVU over the past few years. I’m particularly relieved to hear that the football team is not the drain that I feared it might be.

    I forgot to mention Card’s appearance on the faculty in the initial post, and am excited to hear that SVU is pursuing similar appointments. Good teaching is the hallmark of the liberal arts tradition, and despite my own limited (but not nonexistent) experience as his student, Card is first rank. I dug up something that struck me from the press release announcing his arrival –

    “We are part of a distinct culture with a significant history that has compelling stories to tell, and Card will help our LDS writers learn to tell those stories in ways that audiences both within and without LDS culture will find convincing, rewarding, and even inspiring.”

    This statement strikes me as exactly what SVU should offer – a strong liberal arts education that offers students the opportunity to engage the Mormon tradition seriously in the classroom. I want to echo Kevin’s sentiments – best of luck for continued success.

  23. Rod – I’m honored and gratified that you took the time to make an appearance on BCC, and want to state again that I am impressed with the direction that you’ve taken SVU over the past few years. I’m particularly relieved to hear that the football team is not the drain that I feared it might be.

    I forgot to mention Card’s appearance on the faculty in the initial post, and am excited to hear that SVU is pursuing similar appointments. Good teaching is the hallmark of the liberal arts tradition, and despite my own limited (but not nonexistent) experience as his student, Card is first rank. I dug up something that struck me from the press release announcing his arrival:

    “We are part of a distinct culture with a significant history that has compelling stories to tell, and Card will help our LDS writers learn to tell those stories in ways that audiences both within and without LDS culture will find convincing, rewarding, and even inspiring.”

    This statement strikes me as exactly what SVU should offer – a strong liberal arts education that offers students the opportunity to engage the Mormon tradition seriously in the classroom. I want to echo Kevin’s sentiments – best of luck for continued success.

  24. It’s funny. I read the tag on the New Comments line, and it lists this thread as “Mormonism: SVU” and I thought: “oh, that’s interesting. A Special Victims Unit for Mormons”.

  25. Thank you for your kind comments regarding my post. I failed to extend an invitation to all to visit our campus and learn more about SVU. We also have a new DVD that explains (and, I confess, markets) SVU. It is very good, and I would be happy to send a copy to anyone who would like to have one. You can e-mail me at SVU if you would like to have a copy. I can also see to it that you are placed on our mailing list, so that you receive periodic updates regarding developments at SVU. We are earnest in our efforts to develop a fiscally responsible and academically sound model that can be replicated.
    Some of you indicate that you know Paul Edwards. He combines a strong sense of fiscal responsibility with a vision of and commitment to academic excellence that is quite heartening.

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