The Faithful in Academic Limbo

Without a department and rejected from Gen Ed, religious studies faces an uncertain fate

The year began with the study of religion nearly becoming required of all Harvard undergraduates. It ends with that idea in the dustbin of general education and two top religion professors on their way out.

In its 30 years as a non-departmental concentration, comparative study of religion has made steady strides in attracting concentrators and garnering attention from students outside the field. Yet interest in the concentration may be growing faster than its resources can accommodate as the Committee on the Study of Religion responds to the challenges of a shrinking faculty and the limitations of not being a department.

“I’m sorry that I’m leaving because my leaving is an expression itself of the problem,” says Robert A. Orsi, the committee’s chair, who will head to Northwestern University this summer. Orsi has said he is leaving mainly because the Divinity School did not offer a faculty position to his wife, and he hopes that the University’s new leadership will bring a “new look, new assessment of the place of religion in the College.”

Others are also growing concerned about the lack of a focus on undergraduates within the committee—which currently is composed of 19 professors at the Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) who oversee the concentration.

“Comparing religious studies at Harvard to other places, there is a contrast in the level of understanding and appreciation of religion as an academic discipline,” says the committee’s outgoing director of undergraduate studies, Thomas A. Lewis. He is leaving for Brown, where the study of religion is administered by a full-fledged department.

“The integrative role of religion is not widely understood in the College,” Lewis says.

As it enters a rebuilding phase, the religion committee faces a balancing act in trying to accommodate growing student interest without depleting limited faculty resources. In doing so, religion professors are exploring a move toward departmental status within FAS while being wary of severing ties with the Divinity School.

The question of religion’s place in a liberal arts education is at the heart of the debate.

AN ‘EXODUS’

For Brigit M. Helgen ’08, concentrating in religion has meant dealing with what she calls “a huge exodus in professors.” Neither of her two most recent academic advisors will be here next year. Helgen called Orsi and Lewis the “best professors” she has ever had at Harvard, remarking that their departure will deal a “big blow to the committee.”

Lacking departmental status, the committee cannot make independent faculty appointments to fill spaces vacated by departing professors—making it difficult to patch up the holes. With Orsi gone, the committee will be left with only one professor specializing in American religion.

“Appointments have to always be made in conjunction with another department, so it’s difficult to appoint certain kinds of people specializing in an area,” says incoming committee chair Diana L. Eck.

That leads to arrangements that are not always dependable. “We’ve had to depend on the good will of faculty from other departments to borrow professors,” says Divinity School Dean William A. Graham.

KEEPING UNDERGRADS ‘IN MIND’

This year’s debate on the inclusion of a “Reason and Faith” requirement in the general education curriculum has led to an examination of the place of undergraduates in the study of religion at Harvard. The category came under heavy criticism from some professors such as Johnstone Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker after it was proposed in October, and the general education task force scrapped the category two months later, arguing that religion courses could be “readily accommodated in other categories.”

But catering to the needs of undergraduates has not proven easy for professors in the religion committee, who also have primary commitments to graduate students.

“College students lack some of the background that graduate students have,” says Francis Fiorenza, the Stillman professor of Roman Catholic theological studies at the Divinity School. “It is difficult to keep undergraduates in mind.”

According to Graham, most undergraduate courses remain cross-listed with the Divinity School, which naturally results in a greater focus on its more than 400 graduate students.

“HDS is an enormous resource, with most of the faculty having considerable experience teaching undergraduates,” Eck says of the Divinity School. “Having courses specifically aimed at and designed for undergraduates is the trick.”

Students also have qualms about the overlap between the Divinity School and the undergraduate program.

“It’s a great intersection, but the divide is crucial,” religion concentrator Rachel E. Flynn ’09 says. “It’s the difference between taking a constitutional law class in the College than at the Law School...the graduate experience is definitely more intimidating, and the undergrads don’t get full attention.”

DIVIDED ABOUT DIVISIONS

While religion professors recognize the limitations of the committee structure and agree that changes have to be made, they are divided on where to go from here.

For the departing Orsi, separating the undergraduate program from HDS and making it a real department seems to be the answer.

“We need to make the program real,” Orsi says. “My main hope is that the fabulous students will have a great religion program at their disposal, but as long as it’s under the hands of the Divinity School, it’s not going to happen.”

Some concentrators also think that having a special undergraduate religion studies program is crucial.

“There are so few concentrators that there is a danger that people will think, since the classes are all cross-registered anyway, that everything should be moved to HDS,” Helgen says. “That would be a huge mistake, because we have our own program, our own plan of study.”

Other faculty, however, maintain that the undergraduate program can be strengthened without a break from the Divinity School.

“One of the advantages of HDS is that undergraduate concentrators who want to do a specific topic can work with doctoral students and other faculty members,” Fiorenza says, “It’s a richness that a small religious department would not have.”

Moreover, the Committee could gain departmental status without having to separate completely from the Divinity School, according to Cox. Still, increasing the committee’s presence in FAS through more professors and greater course offerings are goals many Arts and Sciences and divinity professors share.

“In the last 10, 15 years, we frankly have not had the full faculty strength needed to sustain the program,” Graham says. “We need a stronger, larger faculty to handle the undergraduates well.”

With the support of Graham, who has “no problem” with making the committee a full department, Eck, the incoming chair, says she hopes to realize a goal that has been nurtured for over 20 years.

“It is already one of the strongest religious programs, but there are advantages to being a department that are real,” says Eck, who helped to launch the undergraduate concentration in the 1970s. “The time is really right.”

—Staff writer Marie C. Kodama can be reached at mckodama@fas.harvard.edu.