Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2006
In This Issue:

Religion & the Academy: 60 years at UF

UF yearbooks illustrate the changing role of the religion department in student life.

UF yearbooks illustrate the changing role of the religion department in student life.

Since the beginning of human civilization, scholars have asked the eternal questions. Where do we come from, what is the meaning of life, who is God? But for UF Department of Religion Chair David Hackett, there is another question he is faced with almost as often: What is the place of religious studies in the modern public university?

“One of the first things people think about our department is that we are training people to become ministers—that we are functioning as a seminary involved in indoctrinating people in religious belief,” Hackett says. “Or another misconception is that we are doing the reverse, attempting to take religious belief away from people. We are actually not doing either of those things. We are involved in providing information and understanding of the role of religion and religious values in society.”

Founded in 1946 as only the second public university religion department in the U.S., the UF Department of Religion is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. But the program has faced many changes and challenges over the years, mirroring the shifting focus of religious studies in higher education on the national scale.

In the Beginning

When founding chair Delton Scudder was hired by the university to create the Department of Religion in 1945, he was tasked with two responsibilities: to develop a curriculum in religion and to organize student religious activities. UF, like most leading U.S. colleges of the time, understood itself as a Christian institution and University President J. Hillis Miller went as far as declaring in 1952 that “there were no walls between student religious centers and the university.” Throughout much of the 1950s, Miller and his successor, J. Wayne Reitz, sent students home for the winter break with a Christmas blessing during a special midnight service on campus.

When Richard Hiers joined the department in 1961, the permanent faculty rolls were entirely white, male, Protestant and Yale educated. “Times have definitely changed,” says Hiers, who retired from UF in 2003 after 42 years with the department. “Through the years, we have come to embrace a rather remarkable diversity of gender, religious and cultural backgrounds.”

One of the most popular events of the academic year between 1949 and 1967 was Religion in Life Week, organized by the religion department. During this week, university classes and activities were altered so students could participate in lectures, seminars and forums led by well-known visiting theologians and scholars who addressed many topics with religious or ethical dimensions. “For the times, Religion in Life Week was a challenging, progressive experience where hot button issues of the day were debated, led by the finest speakers,” says Hackett.

Faculty members also advised the University Religious Association, an inter-faith student organization that hosted religious events on campus, but by the end of the 1960s duties such as these were removed from the department as the thin line separating church and state at universities during the era became more defined.

The Mighty Winds of Change

Noted Indian dancer and scholar Suparna Banerjee presented a lecture and demonstration of Bhrata Natyam dance and Hindu iconography on campus this fall, hosted by the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions.
Noted Indian dancer and scholar Suparna
Banerjee presented a lecture and demonstration
of Bhrata Natyam dance and Hindu iconography
on campus this fall, hosted by the Center for the
Study of Hindu Traditions.
As first discussed by author George Marsden in The Soul of the American University, Protestant higher education leaders gradually gave in to the forces pushing for the secularization of the public university. At UF, religious activities were shifted from the care of the religion department to the Dean of Students Office and the departmental offices were removed from the student union and placed alongside other academic units on campus.

The social make-up of the department also gradually changed. Vasudha Narayanan humorously refers to herself as the first “other” (non-white, non-male) added to the permanent faculty, joining the department in 1982. Operating with just a handful of faculty for many decades, the department now boasts 17 faculty members—seven of them women, three African-American, two Asian-American and one Hispanic.

“Our faculty is known for its research and contributions to the field of religion,” says Narayanan, who served as president of the American Academy of Religion in 2002. “We have won very competitive fellowships and grants all over the world. We publish in the best places, we sit on the editorial boards of the best journals—and with all our energy and hard work—I think the best is yet to come!”

A Unique Approach to Growth

As new faculty broadened the areas of inquiry being pursued through research and teaching and the number of students increased, the department realized the need to establish a graduate program. In 1990, a Master of Arts degree was created, and by 2003 a Ph.D. was added allowing students to specialize in one of three unique fields—Religion and Nature, Religion and the Americas or Religions of Asia.
“In each of these doctoral programs we decided we would not be a second-rate version of something being done elsewhere, but something unique to us that plays to our strengths and places us on the cutting edge of development in the field of religious studies,” says Hackett.
The Religion and the Americas program draws on the university’s strong Latin American studies resources to focus on North and South American religious interactions. Religion and Nature is the first program of its kind in the world exploring the role of religious values and ideas in sustaining the environment. While other universities may have a Religions of Asia area of study, UF is the first to put an emphasis on the transmissions and interactions of Asian religious traditions and peoples as they move across and beyond Asia.

In addition to expanding its own curriculum, the department also has strong ties with the college’s Center for Jewish Studies, which has offered an undergraduate major focusing on Jewish culture, religion and civilization since 1987. The department also collaborates with the new Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions, established in 2005 by Narayanan to encourage the research, teaching and public understanding of Hindu culture and traditions.

What Can You Do With a Religion Major?

As with any humanities discipline, religion is the type of major parents discourage their children from pursuing out of concern their son or daughter will have trouble finding a paying job after graduation. The problem highlights a larger debate in academia—students viewing higher education primarily as a trade school preparing them for a specified workforce, instead of an opportunity for a well-rounded liberal arts education.

“The educational development of people ages 18–22 involves questions of identity—Who am I? What is the purpose of life?” says Hackett. “These questions are not answered by narrowly choosing a degree program that will allow you to make money. The humanities in general, and religion in particular, work with questions of belief and meaning which may not have a cash value, but are contributors in making people better human beings.”

If any marketable skills could be attributed to a religion major, they would be the ability to communicate effectively, think critically and understand diverse world cultures. Colleagues of marketing expert Will Setliff (B.A., Religion, 1993) are always surprised to learn the Target corporation’s Vice President of Innovation and Interactive Marketing has a degree in religion. “I have always appreciated the tool set this educational experience provided me,” he says. “Now that I am in the world of international corporate business I have come to truly value my years in the department.”

Eye on the Future

“The academic study of religion is critical, never more than today,” says Linda Wells (B.A., Political Science, 1961), who chairs the department’s Alumni Advisory Committee. “Understanding religious traditions is critical to understanding history and politics.”
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Hackett says students have shown an increased interest in religion courses, particularly classes on Islam, but also all world religions beyond Christianity and Judaism. During the upcoming spring semester, for example, students can enroll in Intro to Islam, Religion in Latin America, American Buddhism, Beginning Sanskrit and Women and Islam.

“As UF has become an increasingly diverse university, it has become our responsibility to inform the campus about these religious traditions,” says Hackett. “We have also come to reflect the pluralism of the larger society in the courses we teach and the faculty we hire.”
In late October, the department hosted a 60th anniversary celebration on campus. Alumni, faculty and administrators gathered to pay tribute to those who were instrumental in establishing the department a lifetime ago and struggled to find its new place in the academy during a period of much change in the public university setting. They also celebrated the department’s ability stay relevant, while exploring some of the oldest concerns of mankind.

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