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Letters to the Editor: On the Fate of Religious Studies

Posted January 27, 1999

To the Editor:

Readers of the Berkeleyan may recall an article that appeared last March entitled "Religious Studies Program Brings the Sacred to Class." Perhaps some may also be interested in what has happened to the program since that article appeared.

Toward the end of the Spring semester the program was subject to an academic review by an intramural ad-hoc committee. The committee's report came out in June, and was basically favorable, recommending the enhancement of the program with the hiring of permanent Berkeley faculty who would administer and teach in the program.

Six months later, on Dec. 2, the vice chancellor/provost communicated to Dean Carolyn Porter of UGIS [Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies] the decisions taken by the Administration in response to the review. In effect, contrary to the recommendations of the review committee, the Administration has gutted the program.

During the past two years, the program has had the benefit of a full-time lecturer, Jon Stone, who has 1) taught the core courses for the majors, Religious Studies 90A and 90B, "Introduction to Religion," 2) created and taught two new upper-division lecture courses in American religions, with a capped enrollment of 100 for each, courses which also satisfy the ethnic studies requirement for graduation, 3) taught two seminars per year designed for, and restricted to, religious studies majors.

As reported in last March's article, religious studies courses are over-subscribed, and student interest in them is very high. Currently, the program has around 50 majors. But now, as a result of decisions taken by the Berkeley administration, Jon Stone will be gone after this year, with no replacement.

The incoming director, Susanna Elm (history), is charged with creating a plan to have Berkeley faculty in various departments teach religious studies courses. If that plan does not pan out within a two-year trial period, the religious studies group major will be abolished.

What this means is that all that Jon and I have done over the past two years to build an academically respectable religious studies major, as very nicely reported by Julia Sommer in last March's article, has come to naught.

Unfortunately, as usual, it is the students who are the losers, and they have a right to be very angry. Once again, the Berkeley administration has exhibited its well deserved reputation for not caring about its undergraduate students. And finally, what does this say about the academic priorities of the University of California's "flagship" campus?

Birger A. Pearson
Interim Director, Religious Studies, UC Berkeley;
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara

Carol Christ Replies:

Unfortunately, Professor Birger Pearson misstates the conclusions of the recent faculty review of religious studies.

The faculty committee found that the program, "as it is now organized and supported, is seriously compromised, to the point where we question its ability to furnish undergraduate students with an education in religious studies that is consistent with the University's standards and aspirations."

While the committee urged that the campus invest in faculty in religious studies, it recommended that any such commitment take place only after a three-year period, during which time the faculty and administration must take certain steps in order to demonstrate the program's viability.

In responding to the review report, the Senate and the administration have taken this advice. We have appointed, as Director, Professor Susanna Elm of the history department, who is charged with reconstituting the program over the next two years, so that it has the full and active support of the faculty, and with revising the curriculum so that Religious Studies 90A/B is taught by ladder faculty and that students can count on courses for the major being offered.

If, at the end of two years, a minimum of 50 percent of religious studies courses are taught by ladder faculty and if there is a core group of faculty committed to teaching in the program at regular intervals, consideration can be given to ladder faculty appointments for the program.

The campus is grateful for the work that Professor Pearson and Lecturer Stone have contributed to religious studies. However, experience has shown that programs that do not enjoy the active participation of the faculty fail to thrive.

Carol Christ
Executive Vice Chancellor


January 27 - February 2, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 20)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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