John L. Sorenson
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BYU final years

part 5 of 8 While working for the General Research Corporation, John had maintained many connections with Brigham Young University. Some faculty members had worked on research projects, including Martin Hickman, dean of the College of Social Sciences, who had served on Bonneville's board of directors. When the company dissolved, Hickman invited John to take an open faculty position at the rank of full professor. John taught classes in political science and sociology but not in his old department, which had been renamed the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. "I have never taught anything but Sorenson," John maintains, "whatever the department label." His primary responsibility was to work with the dean's office in facilitating research proposals made by the college's faculty. For the next academic year (1972-73), Hickman assigned John to serve on the staff of a university-wide committee attempting to reform the general education curriculum and simultaneously appointed him chair of the university studies department. The general education staff—chiefly John Sorenson, Arthur Henry King, and Marion Bentley, all under the advisement of Dean Terry Warner—strove for two years to arrive at a new curriculum that was both innovative and acceptable to the faculty. However, disciplinary vested interests forced painful political compromises. The result was so far below the visionary hopes of the staff and the reform committee that even now John is not pleased to recall the effort. Working with the university studies program, on the other hand, was a pleasure for him. The program helped students design a personalized curriculum aimed at meeting a specific graduation need they felt strongly about and could defend. John counseled hundreds of students. Part of his role was to screen out any efforts by individual students looking to complete their programs via an easy set of courses. The unwillingness of some departments to cooperate with the program was a more difficult problem, one caused by the notion that everyone must fit into an already established major or not receive a degree. "I learned a lot I didn't want to learn," John recalls. Eventually the university studies program was restricted and then discontinued. In 1978 Hickman appointed John chair of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. John was to deal with particularly hard questions involving faculty retention and a general stasis in the program, but because he had not been on the inside of the department for fourteen years, he faced a difficult task. He worked prodigiously to resolve these issues for the next eight years. John's first step was to move his people from obscure basement quarters into the new Kimball Tower, where they could be integrated into the university environment. Eventually he succeeded in having the department name shortened to the anthropology department. Also, a number of changes were made in faculty positions, including hiring the first non-Mormons in the department. Conceiving the little departmental museum collection more broadly as a semiautonomous entity, John renamed it the Museum of Peoples and Cultures and found it new quarters in the old Allen Hall, where it became the center for BYU's archaeological research. For some years the department's archaeologists had contracted to do a limited amount of archaeology for government agencies and utility companies. Now John sought to promote and regularize that kind of service. The Office of Public Archaeology was established within the museum, a shoestring operation that grew under the leadership of Ma Nielson, a master's graduate of the department. Within a few years a steady flow of projects was under way, resulting in the hiring of additional full-time staff. BYU archaeology students received hands-on experience at archaeological sites in Utah and the surrounding states and then went on to take professional positions in a network of government agencies. A newsletter subtitled "Anthropology at BYU" was produced at and circulated from the museum. Students in sociocultural and archaeological anthropology learned to attend and give presentations at professional meetings. Africanists Tom and Pam Blakel~s lobbying for one such trip saw success when, in 1983, a contingent of two dozen BYU students and faculty traveled to the national meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology, an organization in which John was a fellow for a quarter century. "Well, I'll be damned," said an older lapsed-Mormon anthropologist from Colorado, surprised that BYU had brought its anthropology program to such a scale. Field schools of archaeology were developed in several venues in the intermountain West, and Professor John Hawkins held a BYU ethnographic field school in southern Mexico. In the midst of his administrative work, John taught five or six classes per year. Sensitive to his colleagues, he never tried to teach "their" courses, even though he was qualified to do so in many cases. He instead filled in around the edges of the curriculum and developed new specialties of his own, including modern American culture. He particularly enjoyed teaching a course in psychological anthropology, a class he came to consider crucial to the synthesis of the field that anthropologists always claimed to be seeking. Because he was experienced in the wider world of applied anthropology, John was not one to remain confined within rigid departmental boundaries. He branched out to serve as consultant to the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, the BYU Language Research Center, the Thrasher Research Fund, the LDS Motion Picture Studio, and a committee studying the LDS missionary program. For more than twenty-five years, he labored consistently to build the anthropology collection within the BYU library system to the point where it is now one of the best collections in the western U.S., and on the subject of Mesoamerica it has few equals anywhere. During his twenty-five years on the faculty, John took only one leave, a semester he spent in St. George in 1985 doing research on the local school system for the BYU College of Education. In 1985 John suffered a heart attack Angioplasty treatment limited the organic damage, but the psychic shock proved greater than the physical trauma. He suddenly realized that stress caused by his overambitious agenda was the prime contributor to his condition. Moreover, he realized that nobody really cared about his plans and that most of his concerns at BYU were actually of small moment. Lying in the intensive care unit, he thought about his life. A sympathetic visit from a friend, an apostle in the LDS Church, urged him to believe that he still had a long, productive life ahead. He just needed to correct the course his ship had been sailing. It was a time for major reassessment of what really mattered.
A Short Biography by Davis Bitton