Shortly after settlers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, leader Brigham Young organized a board of regents to establish a university. On Feb. 28, 1850, the General Assembly of the provisional State of Deseret founded what is now the University of Utah. Not only was the school Utah’s first institution of higher learning, but it’s also the oldest state university west of the Missouri River.
“The very founding of the university is an indication of the value the Latter-day Saints placed on education in what was at the time a remote, western community,” said Paul Reeve, a professor of history and the Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies at the U.
Though the school’s founding is closely tied to the LDS Church, there are elements of tension that exist between the two institutions. In 1915, a third of the university’s faculty resigned to protest the firing of five faculty members due to critical remarks made about Utah’s governor during a commencement speech. While some felt the firings were part of a general pattern of repressing potentially offensive expression, others believed it was a result of the church’s influence over the school.
“There is a perception, whether right or wrong, among some people that the University of Utah is anti-Mormon or hostile in some sort of way to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Reeve said, “even though many members of the church’s leadership have graduated from the University of Utah and a significant portion of the university’s student body are members of the Latter-day Saint faith.”
Reeve noted there are many reasons why such sentiments exist, including that universities employ faculty members from around the world.
“This brings people who didn’t grow up in Utah to live in Utah,” Reeve said. “And when you have what is perceived as perhaps a monolithic kind of faith group that tends to be, especially since the 1970s, politically conservative, while in contrast, those who work at the University of Utah tend to be more politically liberal, you are obviously setting up a scenario for potential tension.”
It’s also pretty natural for people to kick against a dominant culture, whatever that is, Reeve said. Because politics and religion are deeply intertwined in Utah, he added, it can be hard to determine what members of the university community are pushing back against.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plays an outsized role in the state’s politics and in issues in the state. Sometimes that plays well amongst the university community,” he said. “The LDS Church’s stance on immigration and welcoming refugees tends to align with values espoused by many in the university community. But its stance on LGBTQ issues tends to run counter to those values.”
From Reeve’s perspective, one way the relationship between the LDS Church and the U is being reshaped is through the creation of the U’s religious studies major which includes a course that explores not only the LDS Church but all religious traditions that trace their roots to church founder Joseph Smith or accept the Book of Mormon as scripture.
“I think this has helped the University of Utah to see this as a religious tradition that can be studied in an academic way and treated with respect in the same kind of way as the other religious traditions,” Reeve said.
Reeve also noted the school has a Mormon Studies Initiative that fosters research, writing, funding, teaching, and the hosting of conferences and workshops related to the study of various Mormon traditions, in addition to the only Mormon Studies graduate fellowship in the world.
“We offer a welcoming community for the study of this religious tradition,” Reeve said.