Pitt's graduate religious studies may end up on chopping block

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, June 13, 2013, 11:41 p.m.

University of Pittsburgh officials are weighing a proposal to close the school's graduate religious studies program and keep admissions to it and graduate programs in German and the classics suspended.

Pitt, which suspended admissions to the three programs last fall citing declining state subsidies, forwarded new proposals on the programs to Provost Patricia Beeson this month, a university spokesman said.

Similar moves are occurring at universities across the country where administrators are struggling to balance calls to reduce spending and focus on career-oriented programs.

Religious studies in particular have come under greater scrutiny in recent years.

Douglas Jacobsen, a professor of church history and theology at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., said two trends are affecting the field.

“The one is that lots of humanities programs including philosophy and religion are being re-examined because they don't seem to be drawing the numbers of students the more applied programs draw. But the other trend is that colleges across the country are starting to pay more attention to religion as America becomes more diverse,” Jacobsen said.

Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a past president of the American Academy of Religion, said the trend surfaced several years ago when public universities began to see budget cuts.

“It is disconcerting that in a time of budgetary stress, administrators with limited historical understanding have targeted the courageous scholars who uphold this intellectual tradition to satisfy their financial needs. Their short-sighted actions diminish higher education as a whole and warrant resistance by scholars throughout the liberal arts,” he said.

Nancy Klancher, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Bridgewater College in Virginia, completed her doctorate in religious studies at Pitt last year.

“I don't think it is a flawed program that deserves to be closed. I wouldn't say it is a reflection of the merit of this particular program. I just look at it philosophically: Funding for humanities everywhere has been cut,” Klancher said.

Jacobsen said religious studies program leaders “need to think about what their role is and publicize it better.”

Pitt officials declined to give details on the latest proposals.

About three dozen students are enrolled in the three graduate programs, and the university will permit them to complete their studies, campus officials said.

“The proposals are being reviewed internally. The proposals will then be brought to the University Council on Graduate Studies for review, most likely at their September meeting,” Pitt spokesman John Fedele said.

A final decision on the programs will follow, Fedele said.

Department chairs in the classic Greek, Roman and Latin studies and religious studies departments did not return calls for comment.

John Lyon, who chairs Pitt's German department, which has a dozen graduate students, said he has yet to receive formal notification of the proposals.

“If it is true that the suspension will continue, it concerns me because it means our program has no future in its current form,” Lyon said. He said the faculty is working on a proposal that will likely be submitted this fall to approve an alternative doctoral program in European culture that would allow students to study in German.

Lyon said undergraduate enrollment in German remains strong and Pitt officials have assured him there are no problems at that level. But he said humanities programs across the country have come under fire as colleges try to balance shrinking public subsidies against a growing outcry for career-oriented education.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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