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Religious studies at FIU: Salvation, for now

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The Department of Religious Studies at Florida International University is safe — at least, for now.

FIU’s board of trustees on Friday denied the administration’s request to dismember the department as part of a cost-cutting effort. The trustees told the university to find other ways to save money.

Nathan Katz, FIU’s first chair of religious studies, was still reeling from the plot twist on Monday.

“It was such an astonishing turnaround, one could imagine it as Etzbah Elokim,” Katz said, using the Hebrew term for “The Finger of God.”

“We were expecting a delay and afraid of a shutdown,” Katz said. “This is more than we’d hoped for.”

The decision climaxed a drama that began in April, when the university sought ways to overcome a multimillion-dollar shortfall caused by cuts in state aid. Among suggested cuts, the FIU administration proposed ending the bachelor’s degree in religious studies and laying off half the faculty. Master’s studies would continue in a “truncated” form, Katz said.

The news caused alarm over the future of a department, founded in 1995, that had assembled experts in Zen, Vodou, the Quran, Catholic sexual ethics, Sephardic Jewry, religion and culture, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other specialties.

Four presidents of the American Academy of Religion wrote a protest letter to FIU. Hindu, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders in South Florida joined the chorus.

Even the Dalai Lama — who has visited the campus in 1999 and 2004 — offered $100,000 to keep the FIU program running. He also volunteered to return and help in fundraising efforts; Katz expects that to happen sometime next year.

Perhaps in response to the outcries, the university trustees told the administration to leave religious studies alone and look beyond academics for places to cut costs. But Katz, currently director of FIU’s Program in the Study of Spirituality, isn’t celebrating just yet. He predicted that state support for state universities will continue to fall — and the schools will have to look elsewhere for support.

For the Religious Studies Department, of course, a likely place will be the religious leaders who lobbied for it. Katz said the department will start an endowment fund drive.

“We recognize that the budget crisis is real,” Katz said. “And for any institution of the university to thrive, it will need tangible support from the community.”

He offered one more quote, this one from Lao-tzu: “Conduct your victory as a funeral.”

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Written by Jim Davis

June 16, 2009 at 5:58 am

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