A Moving Target

Logo for the University of Vermont's Department of Religious StudiesLong ago, at the start of a Fall semester, I was speaking with someone newer to our Department about whether it was likely that we would have a tenure-track search that year; we had recently had a faculty member depart for another university, leaving our then small Department with no one covering Asia. We hoped to fill that gap, of course, but one can never be sure if requests for lines (whether replacements or new) will be granted by the University. “But surely Asia is important” I was told in reply, the person assuming that the University administration would agree.

I replied by asking whether they thought that the 22 other Departments in the College of Arts & Sciences also had unfilled lines and uncovered areas of importance to them — such as Modern Languages and Criminal Justice, or Chemistry, Biology, and Political Science. For while I may not think that another Elizabethan specialist is really needed in the English Department I can easily imagine how important such a line might be to someone over there (thus making its way into their rationale for requesting the position). So I suggested that if I were the Dean or the Provost I’d likely not be making these decisions — after all, resources are limited and not everyone will get what they want — based on the scale of value used by each Department in making their staffing requests but, instead, I’d probably come up with some other set of criteria, one that I could use across units that each employed their own local, different, and sometimes competing or even contradictory criteria for what was important or valuable.

The moral of the story: yes, offering classes that address Asia is very important. But is that an importance that will shared by those who make decisions on faculty lines…?

I raise this now because, once again, there are Departments of Religious Studies in the country that are at risk of losing their major or possibly even being closed, with the University of Vermont’s well-known Department being but one of them. Whether this is due to budget cuts directly related to the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. higher ed or prompted by other, possibly longstanding, issues at these school is unknown, of course; whatever the cause, the wagons have been circled and replies are being written, defending the study of religion. In fact, I myself have privately written UVM’s Chair, Dean and Provost, eliciting responses and conversations in some cases, but to what effect is always unclear. And so that opening anecdote comes to mind again for, having served as a chair for a rather long time, I have enough of a sense for how the modern university works to understand that the importance of a field of study is not necessarily how a university administrator decides these issues.

After all, many of those in our field will appreciate that claiming something is important or valuable merely begs other questions: important for whom and for what result….

By many measures the Department in which I have worked since the Fall of 2001 has been very successful; I’ve written on its history elsewhere, but the short version is that we were deemed “non-viable” back in 1999/2000, by our state credentialing board, and risked the loss of the major and the Department being closed, with faculty (all of whom were tenure-track, back then) either distributed elsewhere on campus or, perhaps, laid off. Today, it’s such a different Department that it’s tough to imagine us once being in that situation — luckily our Dean back then decided to invest in us instead of closing us. But even today there are ways of assessing our Department that make it look like it still faces some challenges. Sure, we teach courses on things not covered elsewhere on campus, but is that how our success should be measured? What about faculty publications and awards? The number of majors? (And if so, do double majors count? And what about minors…?) Or maybe total enrollment is the key criterion — or possibly just our contribution to general education, or what we call the Core Curriculum (that is, our service to providing a bit of breadth other majors on campus)? Might the tuition revenue that we generate be the way of judging us, thus comparing what we cost to run annually to what we bring in through our overall credit hour production? And what about our physical footprint, and thus it comes down to the best use of the limited facilities on campus? Oh, and how about those external grants — such a challenge in the Humanities — and the indirect costs that we bring to the University’s budget…?

What’s crucial to recognize in all this is that there’s not just many different ways of judging the health of an academic unit — criteria that are often of relevance to administrators and not something the members of any given Department often consider — but that the members of a unit are never quite sure which of those criteria will be operationalized at any given moment. Although we can sometimes see this in how individual faculty are judged within a unit, the effects there are moderated by tenure and promotion documents that are required to itemize, as clearly as possible, the expectations of the Department — though malleable categories like collegiality often get tossed in, possibly providing considerable wiggle room for those in power (something on which Aaron Hughes and I have written). But when it comes to measuring the well-being and progress of Departments there’s no such document or agreed upon criteria; and so their defenders often fall back on citing the importance of the subject matter, or…, maybe it’s the credit hour production, or wait, how about the rate at which their students get jobs after they graduate. And how do the faculty member’s individual productivity chalk up in Academic Analytics, when compared to others across the country…?

My point here is not to criticize those defending the field but, instead, to outline the often invisible hill its defenders have to climb. For who knows which criteria actually motivate these decisions and thus which arguments and what evidence could best be marshaled for an effective rebuttal — leaving us to throw every argument in the book back toward the administration, hoping that something sticks.

So, yes, I hope that you sign the petitions now circulating and that you send your messages of support to colleagues and that you also write their superiors concerning the importance of our field, but do so knowing that these decisions are moveable targets. Hopefully, people on the ground there can give us all a better sense of which scale of value is being used, and how best to help them, though we also need to keep in mind that this could all change in the blink of an eye. And don’t overlook that sometimes the reason is undisclosed and the public evidence is selected to suit a decision whose logic is known only to a handful. But despite this, I’ll still write Deans and Provosts to make sure that they know that, as I’ve most recently phrased it, “our degree’s value is realized in all sorts of possibly unexpected places — it’s about so much more than a world religions course or a class on myths.”

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