Pitt dropping religious studies graduate classes

Future of German, classics in doubt

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The University of Pittsburgh has rendered a decision on three graduate programs whose suspension in 2012 amid funding cuts sparked debate over the standing of humanities on campus and on Pitt's adherence to shared governance principles.

Pitt provost Patricia Beeson has decided to accept a recommendation that Pitt's graduate programs in religious studies be closed.

She also has decided to continue the suspension of admissions to Pitt's graduate programs in German and classics, giving those departments a chance to submit proposals to lift the suspensions or to close the programs by May, 1 2016 and May 1, 2018, respectively.

In a memo, Ms. Beeson said graduate studies and the humanities are "core to the mission of any great university," and she conceded that not all faculty backed suspension of the programs while they were weighed for possible closure.

But given scarce resources, Pitt gave priority to where it feels it is best able to have national or international impact. She cited financial pressures on the university, including state funding reductions to 1995 levels and declining federal support for research and graduate education.

"These are very difficult times for universities, and the real budgetary concerns that prompted these proposals are not likely to go away any time soon," Ms. Beeson wrote. "As good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, we are responsible for continuously evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs."

Through a spokesman, Ms. Beeson Thursday declined further comment.

Although her memo referenced lengthy deliberations involving various shared governance panels, the decision sparked renewed complaints. Among them was that the programs in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences were suspended by the dean before a program review was finished and that department chairs were not given adequate opportunity to respond early in the process.

John Baker, emeritus professor and immediate past president of Pitt's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said AAUP guidelines were not followed.

"Normally, you would appoint a faculty panel to study or evaluate the programs before you would decide to suspend admissions," he said. "I'm talking about an independent panel composed of only faculty. That didn't happen here."

Pitt has said proper guidelines were followed by officials, including N. John Cooper, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

The three programs, with relatively small enrollments, nevertheless provided instruction across campus.

Linda Penkower, who in May will return from sabbatical as religious studies department chair, expressed disappointment that her program did not get the same opportunity as classics and German to explore interdisciplinary programs.

"I disagree with the decision. I think it sends the wrong message about the value of humanities," said German department chair John Lyon.

John Fitzmier, executive director of the American Academy of Religion, a professional association of scholars in the field, said religious studies programs have faced cutbacks elsewhere. “In some cases we’ve had modest success with letters saying, ‘Please, try something else,’ ” he said.

Advocates for retaining religious studies positions, he said, have stressed the importance of understanding today’s diverse religious world in fields as diverse as medicine and diplomacy.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. Peter Smith contributed.

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