Exodus from religious studies challenges department

Tuesday, November 6, 2007 | 7:54 p.m. CST; updated 1:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Nate DesRosiers, a religious studies assistant professor, presents a lesson to his Introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament class Oct. 29.

COLUMBIA — In 2005, after 12 years with MU’s Department of Religious Studies, Steve Friesen received a job offer he couldn’t refuse.

The University of Texas-Austin had asked Friesen to become the first Louise Farmer Boyer Chair in Biblical Studies, a joint appointment in religious studies and classics. The endowed position came with a significant increase in salary — MU was paying Friesen about $66,000 at the time — and an annual research budget of $30,000.


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“It really didn’t make much sense to turn it down,” said Friesen, who has a doctorate from Harvard University. “As an economic being, what do you do? Things looked bleak for the future at Missouri.”

Indeed, most of Friesen’s colleagues had already concluded the same thing. None of the tenured or tenure-track faculty in religious studies when Friesen arrived in 1993 were still teaching at MU when he left. His departure was just the latest by a senior faculty member since 2001, when the department’s founding chair, Jill Raitt, retired.

That same year, Joel Brereton, who had been with the department for 20 years, also left for the University of Texas-Austin. In 2004, Paul Christopher Johnson, whose book, “Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomble,” received an award for excellence from the American Academy of Religion in 2003, took a position at the University of Michigan. Patricia Beckman, a tenure-track professor who taught classes in the history of Christianity, left for St. Olaf University in Minnesota in January. And, over the summer, Sharon Welch, who succeeded Friesen as department chair, took a two-year, unpaid leave to become provost at a Chicago seminary.

“I don’t know of many departments that had a complete turnover of regular faculty in 10 years,” Friesen said.

The exodus, and its causes, reflects how religious studies and other humanities are struggling at a time of deep cuts in state appropriations for higher education. The biggest consequence has been the failure to maintain competitive salaries, which has driven senior faculty to greener pastures even as the department attracts more students.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve salaries for incoming faculty have created inequity — a situation the campus hopes to resolve with a new financial plan called Compete Missouri. Philip Clart, who succeeded Welch as department chair, says religious studies does not attract endowments and grants from outside the university; therefore, it has been especially hard hit by the steady reductions in state appropriations.

“It’s the same story for all humanities departments,” Clart said.

The Department of Religious Studies was established in 1981 from the remnants of the Missouri School of Religion, which educated pastors and lay leaders of the Disciples of Christ at MU in Lowry Hall. The department awarded its first undergraduate degree in 1986; a decade later, it gained approval to start a master’s program.

Friesen said he was excited to join the faculty and credited Raitt with fostering an “innovative intellectual structure and good collegial relations” within the department.

Michael O’Brien, current dean of the College of Arts and Science, noted that Raitt was able to attract scholars from some of the best doctoral programs in the nation. Brereton, one of the original faculty members brought in by Raitt, was educated at Yale. Johnson received his doctorate from the University of Chicago. Welch, who has written four books, taught at the Harvard Divinity School before joining MU’s Women’s Studies program in the mid-1990s.

Robert Baum, an associate professor of religious studies, said the department was fairly stable until 2000, when Raitt announced her retirement. That coincided with the first of a string of cuts in state spending that forced campuses across the state to raise tuition.

Meanwhile, said Debra Mason, director of the Center on Religion and the Professions at MU, enrollments in religious studies programs rose nationwide after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At MU, caps on lecture classes were lifted to accommodate the number of students. Today, more than 1,800 students take classes in the department. Clart said that nine out of 10 classes offered by the department are filled to capacity.

Baum, who is in his third year with the department, said the faculty has had to stretch considerably to meet student demand. Baum, a specialist in African religions, is also teaching classes in Native American and South Pacific religions and Islam. One person teaches the Bible, another the religious traditions of India. Religion in China and Japan share a professor. Baum said at other research universities, his responsibilities would require at least three professors.

“The diversity of courses we’d like to offer can’t be done because we don’t have enough staff,” Baum said. “We could double in size and still be understaffed.”

Baum said the department has been asking for an Islamic scholar for the past 10 years. Clart said the position has been approved, but no search has been launched because of a “hold” placed on all new hires by Compete Missouri, a three-year financial plan aimed at raising faculty salaries through cuts in the operating budget.

Today, the religious studies department is dominated by a “preponderantly junior faculty,” Baum said. Five of the eight full-time faculty are assistant professors who earn less than $50,000 a year. Clart, who earns $66,318, and Baum, who is paid $57,849, are tenured. So is Welch, who is still considered a member of the faculty. Her salary is being used to pay two visiting professors.

The high concentration of assistant professors, Friesen said, has hurt the department’s development and its standing on campus. Tenure decisions, for example, must be made with faculty outside the department because there aren’t enough senior faculty to staff a promotion and tenure committee.

“You need senior faculty to be on campus-wide committees where they can defend your interests, be on committees where money is handed out, where priorities are set,” he said. “When you don’t have people on those committees, it’s hard to develop and become a part of the university.”

The budget crunch has caused the department to cut back on nearly everything, including travel. Each faculty member receives $600 a year to attend conferences and seminars, meaning they have to cover much of the cost out of pocket.

And while Compete Missouri might eventually result in more money for the department, a $600,000 deficit projected for MU Libraries could have consequences for research. Baum said MU’s standing could suffer as a result, making it harder to attract good faculty. In the humanities, he said, a university’s library system is often the first place candidates look.

“For people in humanities, that’s our lab,” Baum said.

The situation in the department has also affected students. J.R. Madill, who graduated with a master's in religious studies, was recruited by former Professor Paul Christopher Johnson, who departed before Madill started classes. His advisor was Friesen, who left before Madill finished his studies. During his final year, he had to rely on an advisor who was 800 miles away at the University of Texas.

“My last year in the program was his first at Texas,” said Madill.

One of the goals of Compete Missouri is to address the gaps in salaries between existing faculty and new hires, who must be offered more money to keep them from taking positions elsewhere. Right now, the religious studies department has a small “raise pool” to bridge the inequities, Baum said. Still, salaries in religious studies are among the lowest in the College of Arts and Science.

“My raise this year was one-third the rate of inflation,” Baum said.

Debra Mason, an executive for the Center on Religions and the Professions, suspects low salaries may be linked to the history of the department. The current disparity could be a continuation of the historically low salaries at the Missouri School of Religion, Mason said. “Ever since religious studies was created at MU, it was sort of an odd step-child because in the process, the university absorbed a theology school to create the department,” Mason said.

After six years, Paul Christopher Johnson had reached tenure but was making only $42,000, less than his friends teaching high school in Minnesota, he said. Johnson nearly doubled his salary when he left for a job at the University of Michigan.

“It’s not even comparable in terms of salary,” he said. “Missouri doesn’t pay anything. They get good people, but nobody wants to stay there.”

For all the change and turmoil, O’Brien says he is optimistic that Compete Missouri will improve faculty retention and make it easier to attract the best professors. Until then, he said, the failure to keep senior faculty from leaving could be viewed in a more positive light.

“It’s not like people are leaving some sinking ship,” O’Brien said. “We train really great people here, and they leave for wonderful jobs.”

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Ellis Smith November 7, 2007 | 5:48 a.m.

Given that this is a state university, one might question whether this department is either relevant or necessary. There are many ways to obtain religious instruction, other than at a public university.

(Report Comment)
Helen Finley November 7, 2007 | 6:53 a.m.

This is very usual at a state university if a person wants to go on to a seminary.

My daughter received a very very good BA in philosophy/religion at a state university in Missouri---not MU---so that she would have the qualifications to get into a seminary of her demonination

Her classes at the state university were just basic classes--not in the teachings of one religion over the other.

One has to have a background in all of this before can be accepted into a seminary.

We have many great programs in the state colleges in Missouri to do this and we should be proud of this.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Brink November 7, 2007 | 10:15 a.m.

The State does not offer religious instruction through the Department of Religious Studies.

Yes, a hand-full of the undergrads (and a few of the grad students) go-on to seek seminary training and ordination, and some of the students are in the classes to further their own devotional interests, but the courses are not structured to devotional ends.

All of the classes that I took--and all of them in which I participated as a Graduate Teaching Assistant--attempted to use sociology, anthropology, philology, history, and cultural theory & criticism to explore the ways people have done and continue to do religion. The program doesn't teach people how to do religion, either their own or anybody else's; it shows them what and suggests why others do what they do (and sometimes even questions if the "other" is really all that different).

I don't know that Religious Studies programs have ever been more relevant and necessary. As cultures continue to bump against each other, both internationally and domestically, any program that encourages students to be reflective--about themselves, their assumptions, their cultures, and the structures of authority--to think critically, and to communicate clearly, does incomparable work fostering a pluralistic, respectful community of equals. The State surely has a responsibility to encourage and support such a program.

Christopher R. Brink
MA, Religious Studies (MU), 2004
JD Class of 2008, Seton Hall University School of Law

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