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Religious Studies Department at Conn College facing 'dissolution'

New London — By the time he retired in 2006, Professor Emeritus Garrett Green had taught at Connecticut College for more than 35 years, the last 14 of them while chairing the Department of Religious Studies.

It was a robust department at the time, staffed by five full-time faculty.

Fourteen years later, the department is on the brink of "dissolution,” a victim of the pressures virtually every liberal arts college is facing these days — pressures the coronavirus pandemic is all but certain to exacerbate. By the end of the summer, a faculty vote is expected to sound the department’s death knell.

Green, who learned of the department’s impending demise a few months ago, laments what he believes are years of neglect on the part of the college’s administration.

“Throughout more than a decade of piecemeal staffing decisions, Connecticut College failed to replace retiring members of the Religious Studies Department, one by one, apparently oblivious to the fact that they were dismembering a vibrant and necessary component of the liberal arts — without noticing, and apparently not caring, about the damage they were doing to the college curriculum,” Green wrote in a statement he provided to The Day. “There are now no professors of religious studies — none — so the college, under severe budgetary pressure, is preparing to formalize this fait accompli and permanently dissolve the already nonexistent department.”

Green brought the situation to the attention of the American Academy of Religion, an 8,000-member organization devoted to the academic study of religion.

In a June 9 letter to Conn’s top administrators and key members of the faculty, the academy, an affiliate of Emory University in Atlanta, sought “to assert the critical importance of maintaining and promoting the Religious Studies Department at Connecticut College."

“Religion matters. It is the way people around the world have expressed what matters most to them, including their social identities and aspirations,” wrote academy officers, including José Cabezon, the president. “For this reason, the study of religion has become one of the main vehicles for informed reflection on human culture.”

Curriculum is evolving

Professor Jeffrey Cole, Conn's dean of the faculty, the second-highest ranking officer after President Katherine Bergeron, said the college administration wholeheartedly agrees that the study of religion is “critical.” But, he said, the way forward is an interdisciplinary approach that does not require a religious studies department.

“Curriculum is always evolving. We’re always seeking ways to best pursue our mission, to educate our students,” Cole said. “We’re looking at new perspectives, new disciplines all the time. Computer science programs, neuroscience programs can be found at every college today; 30 years ago, there were none.”

It’s worth stressing, Cole said, that religious studies is “inherently interdisciplinary.” Students want a holistic approach to the subject, he said, one that draws on anthropology, history and many more disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

On that score, Cole and the Conn administration sharply differ with the American Academy of Religion, which wrote, “The field of religious studies has always required its own domain separate from other departments and disciplines.”

“Although professors in other departments such as sociology and political science have increasingly and of necessity become concerned with religious issues — just as they have with economic issues — the field of religion is marginalized in those disciplines and not treated in a holistic way,” the academy wrote.

Lina Wilder, an English professor, chairs Conn’s Educational Policy Committee, which has recommended the Department of Religious Studies be dissolved. A mechanism to do so was put in place just last year and has been invoked for the first time in this case. It involves consultation with members of the department involved; with three committees whose membership includes faculty, administrators and staff; and with the dean of faculty. A vote of the entire faculty is the final step.

“A department can’t function with one person,” Wilder said, referring to the Department of Religious Studies' lone full-time faculty member, professor Sofia Uddin, the department’s chair. “The department is in a difficult position, with not many majors (students), like a lot of small colleges. We saw that they would have a really uphill battle, and the message we got from the one department member is that she would like to use her talents in more innovative ways. The chairmanship of the department was a drag on her.”

Uddin was unavailable to comment for this article.

Wilder’s committee and two others — the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee and the Priorities, Planning and Budget Committee — passed the recommendation along to the full faculty in the spring. The faculty did not vote, instead sending it back to the Educational Policy Committee, which has resubmitted it, emphasizing that the work of religious studies needs to be spread among other departments. While her term as chairwoman of the committee expires at the end of the month, Wilder is hopeful the full faculty will vote on the recommendation by the end of the summer.

"We’re not shuttering it, we’re distributing it,” she said of the Religious Studies Department. “Given the financial situation, any new faculty is unlikely. That’s just the state of things in higher education. It was the case before COVID-19.”

Liberal arts colleges have been grappling with economic headwinds and shifting demand since the Great Recession. As tuitions have soared, students have increasingly gravitated toward courses of study that promise the healthiest return on their investment and that of their parents.

"Over the past decade, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the liberal arts and related fields has significantly declined compared to other fields," the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank, reported in 2018.

While the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred by four-year colleges across the country increased by 31% from the 2007-08 to 2015-16 academic years, the number of graduates in the liberal arts and related fields fell, in some cases dramatically, according to the institute’s research. The number of history and English degrees conferred decreased by more than 20%, followed by those in philosophy and religious studies, which declined by 15%.

Cole said "very, very few" current Conn students have declared a major or minor in religious studies.

Tip of the iceberg

To Professor Emeritus Eugene Gallagher, who taught in the Department of Religious Studies for 37 years, retiring in 2015, the impending decision to dissolve the department “seems to have been made on the basis of expediency rather than principle.”

“A wave of retirements, resignations, and relocations made the department vulnerable to cuts,” he wrote in an email. “The administration took advantage of that vulnerability, apparently to effect some putative cost savings. The result deprived the students at CC of a dedicated academic unit that could help them refine their tools for understanding how religion plays important roles in the world in which they live and will live, from the roles of religious figures in the BLM movement, to the embrace of President Trump by conservative Christians, to statements that ‘God is my vaccine’ (for COVID-19), to conflicts throughout the world, including the Middle East, Kashmir, and many other places.”

Further cuts brought on by the pandemic “will likely threaten the academic integrity and even the existence of many liberal arts colleges,” Gallagher wrote. “The situation with the academic study of religion at CC is a tiny tip of a large iceberg.”

Former Conn students contacted for this article had learned of the Department of Religious Studies’ predicament through Green, the professor emeritus.

The Rev. Andy Ober, who majored in the classics and religious studies, graduated from Conn in 2006 and is now a pastor at Highrock Church Southwest Boston, whose denomination is evangelical covenant. He previously worked with college students in a religious capacity and was a Protestant chaplain at Quinnipiac University.

Ober recalled that during his freshman year he decided to transfer after becoming interested in the academic study of religion. A conversation with Green helped change his mind.

“The strength of the department was the reason I decided to stay,” he said.

After Conn, Ober went on to the Harvard Divinity School, where two other Conn graduates also were enrolled.

“My sense is that following the 2008 financial crisis, people looking at colleges want the most bang for their buck,” he said. “There seems to be a perception that liberal arts isn’t a good investment. Religious studies would suffer on that score. You’re not going to make a lot of money with a religious studies major.”

Loukia (Tsouratakis) Kumar, a 2000 graduate of Conn, works as a family advocate for a nonprofit in Queens, N.Y. A religious studies major, she said she had a passion for the subject matter and found her Conn experience “extremely positive.”

In her first job after college, she worked as a campus minister, advising students at a New York university on matters of faith. After raising a family, she entered the nonprofit sector.

“I was completely shocked,” she said of her reaction to word that her alma mater's Department of Religious Studies was about to be discontinued. "I never thought there would be a college that doesn’t have a religion department. My daughter’s high school has a world religion class. It seems so critical, so part of a core curriculum."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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