Monday, 25 May 2009


As Florida International University trustees prepare to vote on budget cuts next month, students and professors are campaigning to save an ancient tradition: the study of religion.
FIU's religion department is one of three slated to close as the school faces a $27 million cut from its state general revenue allotment. Closing the department, which has about 125 undergraduate and graduate students and 12 full-time faculty members, would save $600,000 a year. FIU has a $642 million total operating budget.
''This is a very strange time to say the study of religion is dispensable when virtually every conflict in the world revolves around religion,'' said Christine Gudorf, the department chair.
The other departments scheduled to close are Recreation and Sports Management, and Athletic Training. Another 16 degrees that are mostly in the College of Education and have single-digit enrollment will also be eliminated, saving another $400,000 a year. Millions more would be saved by cutting academic affairs expenses, such as library purchases.
The religion department would phase out over three years and most undergraduate and all graduate students would be able to complete their degrees, said Kenneth Furton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Some religion classes would be offered through other departments, where many faculty members would retain jobs, but teachers with less seniority could lose employment, he said.
There is a small chance the program can be saved, Furton said.
Since the plan was announced in early April, people such as Yanery Andreu, a recent graduate, have circulated petitions, campaigned through Facebook and made e-mail and in-person appeals to FIU leadership.
''Hate and misunderstandings come when we don't understand the differences in our beliefs. Learning about the comparative studies of world religions creates an atmosphere of respect throughout the world,'' Andreu, 24, wrote in a letter presented to FIU President Modesto A. Maidique during a town hall meeting Monday.
Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy, many who have put their support behind the department for its interfaith work -- such as hosting the Dalai Lama five years ago -- also attended the meeting among more than 200 people.
FIU is not the only university cutting back. The University of Florida also plans steep reductions in its religion department. UF President Bernie Machen has said that more than 150 faculty and staff positions will likely be eliminated among $42 million in cuts that are pending approval.
In January at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, leaders proposed merging the religion and philosophy departments.
The merger is being reconsidered
''There is a remarkable amount of ignorance and illiteracy about world religions in the U.S. and all over. . .religious studies are vital to making global citizens,'' said Jack Fitzmier, executive director of the Atlanta-based American Academy of Religion, which has sent a letter to FIU's Maidique asking him to reconsider.
Dean Furton said the religion cut is ''not based on quality of the program,'' but based upon comparison to similar-sized schools that don't have religion departments.
FIU is not the only South Florida university to offer a religion program.
The University of Miami and St. Thomas University have undergraduate degrees, and Florida Atlantic University offers a certificate in religion.