Religious Studies in Peril

The Christian Century, April 21, 1993 | Go to article overview

Religious Studies in Peril


AS ADMINISTRATORS at colleges and universities around the county cut wide swaths through budgets, some religious studies programs are falling under the ax. Even at schools where those programs have escaped cuts so far, faculties are keeping a wary watch. While statistics are unavailable on the extent of recent damage to religious studies programs, anecdotal evidence has sent a collective shudder through the ranks of academics in the field.

Some professors, worried that college administrators will see religious studies departments or programs as among the least painful cuts when cuts are needed, are sounding alarms. And they are being forced to rethink the meaning of the scholarly study of religion. In a recent newsletter of the American Academy of Religion, its executive director, Barbara DeConcini, called on members to come up with a strategy to "secure the future of the field" by showing that study about religion really is important.

DeConcini, a professor of religion and culture at Emory University in Atlanta, where the AAR is based, pointed to a threat made last year, as yet unfulfilled, to wipe out the religion department at San Diego State University; she characterized it "an ominous warning shot across our bow," a grim reminder that study of religion is often viewed "as an expendable luxury, rather than an essential component of a liberal arts education." Ronald Clarke, a specialist in religion and the environment at Oregon State University, remarked, "I think religious studies is looked on as . . . the most expendable" of university programs. Clarke, who came to Oregon State in 1963 and will retire at the end of this academic year without being replaced, speaks from experience.

Oregon State's religion department--one of the oldest public university religion programs in the nation, dating from 1928--was eliminated last June, along with the religion major and minor programs, and the pared-back teaching staff of four was merged into the philosophy department. Religion was not the only department dispensed with at Oregon State. But the dean's explanation for axing religion gave Clarke a chill. According to Clarke, the dean said that virtually all universities have a philosophy department, while many have no religion department; "ergo, eliminate religion."

Stunned by such reports and reports of retrenchment or threatened cuts at Michigan State University, Southern Illinois University, Pennsylvania State University and other schools, the AAR plans to make the survival question one of the focal points of a self-study scheduled to begin soon. DeConcini said in an interview that events of recent years, despite a few positive signs, have created "a new sense of vulnerability" for religion scholars--a feeling that their programs" are a lot more precarious than the others, except maybe the arts. …

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