June 13 2024

New Academic Relations Committee Webinar Series on Challenges to Departments and Programs

By Russell T. McCutcheon, University of Alabama

Desktop computer screen showing the webpage for AAR's Academic Relations Committee, blue text on a white screen

In October 2023, I hosted a webinar for the American Academy of Religion’s Academic Relations Committee (ARC), which I currently chair, devoted to the topic of department mergers (a topic well known to many in our field). My guest was Steve Berkwitz of Missouri State, former chair of their Department of Religious Studies and now head of the newly formed (and considerably larger) unit, the Department of Languages, Cultures, and Religions. It combines what many campuses would call their Department of Modern Languages with Religious Studies. This merger, he told the twenty-five or so who signed on to the webinar, was part of a campus-wide exercise that had been developing for a couple years (which included a fair bit of consultation with faculty), resulting in many departments moving and/or merging, something that affected even entire colleges on his campus. Understanding this reorganization as not specifically directed at the humanities, Berkwitz made plain that he thought, at least at Missouri State, it could be viewed as a real opportunity for the department. After all, there’s power in numbers, as they say, what with the ever present possibility on many campuses of attrition among faculty lines. I have in mind here when retirements go unfilled due to any number of administrative reasons. Case in point, consider the budgetary  implications of the long predicted “demographic cliff,” when the anticipated decline in the number of U.S. high school graduates may lead to any number of ramifications for university campuses. Some in the Q&A that day were not as optimistic about such mergers, however, seeing them instead as the advance guard for eventual downsizing (sometimes known as retrenchments by the rhetorically minded on a campus), deserves to be noted.

Below is an excerpt from that webinar. (The full video can be accessed by AAR members here.)

As the planning for that webinar was underway earlier this past Fall, it was impossible to ignore the national news concerning the ongoing cuts and protests (among faculty, staff, and students) taking place at West Virginia University—that state’s so-called flagship public land-grant university. Due to a reported $45 million deficit, the administration had already announced what many saw as a radical restructuring of campus, or what the administration calls a transformation, entailing the loss of many majors, departments (e.g., World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics as well as Public Administration were all under threat of closure), and faculty lines. The latter usually results in faculty resigning and departing, retiring early, or receiving so-called RIF notices (reduction in force—a convenient euphemism for being fired). As of early October 2023, it was announced there that, due to the many early retirements, only 70 or so faculty would be fired, instead of the original announcement of up to 143. Aaron Gale, the former head of WVU’s prior Department of Religious Studies, shared that their major had already been lost in 2021, that in 2022 they had been re-merged with Philosophy (after having been an autonomous unit since 2004), and that today the program is made up of only a few full-time faculty and a variety of part-time lecturers (who all received their RIF notices). Also happening as that mergers webinar was being planned was the announcement that, due to low student numbers, Miami University of Ohio would likely be cutting up to eighteen majors. As the local news reported it: “Students at Miami University may no longer be able to major in some humanities programs, such as American studies, religion or health communication….” Contacting a colleague there, it was clear that the members of their Department of Comparative Religion were already strategizing on how to weather such cuts as best they could, to ensure both subject areas for students and jobs for faculty and staff were retained as much as possible. In early December these email exchanges led to Aaron at WVU and Nathan French, an Associate Professor at Miami of Ohio, joining me as guests on the second webinar in ARC’s new series, providing them with an opportunity to update the 100 people who signed on concerning what was happening on their campuses. That their experiences resonated with many in attendance would be a bit of an understatement.

Below is an excerpt from that webinar. (The full video can be accessed by AAR members here.)

And here at the University of Alabama, despite a variety of very real successes in our department over the past two decades—after being poised to lose the major back in 2000—a long process across campus of developing of a “reimagined” undergraduate Core Curriculum (something happening at colleges all across the U.S. over the past decade or so) resulted in a new set of General Education requirements. Predictably, they cut the overall numbers of credit hours required of an undergraduate student—a cut largely coming at the expense of the sorts of Core classes that a typical Humanities program such as our own would routinely offer. After all, we’re a unit that, despite having a strong undergraduate major and what I like to think of as a rather innovative, skills-based M.A. program, still offers the vast majority of our annual credit hour production as so-called service courses to students enrolled in other majors across campus, all of whom are aiming to satisfy their Core requirements. A new Gen Ed curriculum that results in more units competing for access to students who are satisfying fewer credit hours understandably sends a shiver up the backs of those faculty members who are paying attention to how a campus works—even in seemingly successful or secure departments. That our unit has been devising a plan, for a couple semesters, to address these changes and, hopefully, come out on top, goes without saying.

If you add to all of this the Zoom session that I joined earlier last Fall with the faculty in a small private liberal arts school in the Carolinas who are all rather concerned for their own unit’s future well-being and wanting to bounce ideas off of someone from another campus, let alone the University of Vermont’s need to restructure their Department of Religion back in 2021 in order to save it (which they successfully did, I should add) after it was named in the Fall of 2020 as one of the twenty-seven Arts & Sciences programs that might close, and you arrive at sufficient anecdotal reporting that should make even a well ensconced faculty member rather concerned for the future of the Humanities in general and undergraduate programs in Religious Studies in particular. I won’t even add here the colleagues at two different small liberal arts colleges  where, in one case, seven or eight tenured faculty lines in the study of religion decades ago has now been reduced to zero.  And, in the other, the loss of several majors on their campus is resulting in possible plans for a combined cross-disciplinary Humanities major (more than likely pitched at students in its professional schools).  

I feel that I’d be piling on if I were to add to this list the Chair at yet another SLAC who messaged me a few weeks ago to chat about troubling signals that they’re now receiving from the administration concerning their unit’s future, let alone the colleague at another midwestern SLAC who just presented a paper at a national conference on the very real challenges to her small unit, or the recently posted news on social media that Bradley University is making some cuts. Nor will I mention in any real detail the colleague at Wheaton College who alerted me not long ago a process of department mergers now happening there, followed by potential “sunsetting” of a variety of majors—despite a better-than-expected number of incoming first year students this academic year. Last year’s budget cuts at Wheaton resulted in their administration rolling out a plan to decrease the number of full-time faculty by 13% by the year 2025. And neither will I add any detail about the various college-level mergers that are happening at Virginia Commonwealth University nor what I recently learned from another private midwestern university where all of these same issues are suddenly of grave concern across campus.

Topping this all off with the realization that none of this is coming from out of the blue but, instead, in addition to the very recent impact of COVID budget cuts on campuses (despite a huge infusion of federal dollars), trends in higher education, especially impacting the Humanities, have steadily been going in this obvious direction for decades. It makes one wonder where the doctoral programs in our field think that their graduates—almost all of whom are still being trained in narrow specialties as if they will one day become tenure-track faculty members—are going to find employment. For even if units are not closed outright, the strategy of shrinking the Humanities faculty in general, and in our field in particular, through outright cuts or slow and steady attrition surely needs to catch the eye of graduate programs in our field—and in a serious and quick manner. (Looking for ideas on how to retool? Check out The New PhD.)

What I’m hoping is apparent in all of this is the interconnected nature of the many challenges now facing our field—from our undergraduate service role and contingent labor issues to graduate education. While the new ARC webinars will certainly not singlehandedly solve any of this, they will ensure that no one who is paying attention thinks that they’re going through any of this on their own. We faculty are generally a siloed bunch, yet we all face common structural obstacles, and so hearing from those who have already gone through something might help us out—forewarned is forearmed, after all. And so, at most, they’re aiming to be a resource for those who opt to attend, not just to make connections and send an email or two after the session is over—but yes, that too—but also to draw attention to something that might have worked, or had consequence, for others on another campus, and thus something worth trying out on your own.

So, I hope you can join us. In lieu of the ARC sponsoring sessions at the annual meeting (at a time when there’s likely already too many programming options for a long weekend conference), these Zoom webinars, which happen with the help of Amy Defibaugh, Director of Programs and Publications for the AAR and editor of RSN, will be offered about once each month throughout the year. Our next session, Recruiting Majors: Strategies and Experiences, will be on January 31 at 3pm ET. Lauren Horn Griffin at Louisiana State University and Biko Mandela Gray at Syracuse University will be our guests, discussing ways that their Departments are each working to recruit and retain undergraduate majors. Future sessions will be on such topics as the challenges currently facing our field on private, liberal arts campuses, efforts to diversify careers for graduate students in the study of religion, and the impact of AI on our classes. We record the interview portion of the meeting, posting it and sending it to all those who register, and half of the hour is reserved for an open Q&A. You can register here and I hope to see you there.

Portions of this post are adapted from McCutcheon's preface to Religious Studies Beyond the Discipline: On the Future of a Humanities Ph.D., an edited volume to appear from Equinox Publishing in late 2024.