Religious Studies department challenged by staff departures

By Zac Farber

The Religious Studies department saw the departure of three tenure-track professors in the 2006-07 year, bringing the department to two full-time professors, the minimum number required for status as a core academic department. While the department is now on the road to recovery-two of the positions will be filled by the beginning of the fall semester and the hiring process will begin for the third-the paucity of full-time professors forced the department to juggle personnel to find creative staffing solutions and inconvenienced religious studies majors who found themselves with new advisors who could not replace the old ones.

Provost Diane Michelfelder noted that it is “unusual but not unique” for so many professors to leave in such a short time period and pointed to English, History and French and Francophone Studies as departments currently in a “re-building phase.”

Religious Studies department chair Jim Laine said that trying to prevent faculty departures can be a difficult balancing act. “One of the things about turnover that you see is that if you try to hire the best people they will always have other options.”

While one of the professors who left was denied tenure, the other two chose to leave Macalester. Rosamond Rodman went to Los Angeles for personal reasons and Ahmad A. Ahmad decided to continue teaching at Santa Clara University, where he was a visiting professor.

To continue offering the same number of courses, Laine relied on visiting and part-time faculty like Rabbi Barry Cytron and hired a temporary full-time faculty member, Erik Davis, who will be a tenure-track faculty member in the fall. Next fall Susanna Drake will replace Rodman’s position as the tenure-track faculty for scripture and bible studies.

The negative consequences of the faculty departures were more in terms of advising for majors than in general course offerings.

“The drawback for students,” Laine said, “is finding a professor you really want to work with and work with over four years and develop a kind of relationship with advising only to have them leave.”

When Michael Juhasz ’08 wanted to register for classes in Spring 2007, he e-mailed his adviser, Sarah Horton, from Romania, where he was studying abroad. When he did not hear back from her, he e-mailed Jim Laine and learned that she had left Macalester.

Laine became Juhasz’s advisor, a role that he has filled, Juhasz said, with “something less than profound gusto.”

“I like Jim,” Juhasz said, “and I understand that he’s really struggling to put together an almost entirely new faculty, but I do feel somewhat irritated that he’s shown so little interest in my studies or my future.”

Juhasz was referring to the difficulty he had in finding a faculty adviser for his honors project about American Judaism. Juhasz said Laine told him that he felt unqualified for the project and recommended History professor David Itzkowitz, who, Juhasz claims, ignored his e-mails.

Frustrated, Juhasz switched to what he called “a project about modern American religious intolerance, specifically against Mormons and Scientologists [that] would have involved a lot of South Park.” Juhasz said he was told that Paula Cooey, a Christian theology professor with an endowed chair, did not have time for his project. Cytron, whose time was divided between teaching duties and his position as Jewish Chaplain, told Juhasz he did not feel capable of advising the project.

Juhasz’s attempt at working on the project without advising ultimately failed.

“After doing some pretty undirected research on my own throughout fall semester,” he said, “I let the project fall by the wayside.”

While Juhasz said he felt that his senior year suffered from the chaos of limited faculty, he feels more frustrated than angry. “I don’t know where, or even if, I can place any blame.”

Administration members acknowledge the pernicious effect of high faculty turnover. “The average department number of full-time faculty is 4.9,” Michelfelder said. “So when two or more faculty leave a department it can have a negative impact on students and on that department’s intellectual community.”

Laine said that in replacing the professors, they are focusing on hiring people who are more likely to stay with the college longer, in the “20-year range.”

“One of the people that we hired for the fall, Erik [Davis], is a Mac grad,” he said. “So I think he understands the culture and I think he has commitment to the college so he’ll be here for a long time, which will be a big help.”

Laine said his wish list for expanding the department would be positions in Jewish studies and American religions, although he said those needs could also be met by positions outside of the Religious Studies Department.

For a brief period in the 1990s, Laine said, the department had a professor who taught American religions and was also interested in Judaism.

Religious Studies major Dustin Chavez-Davis ’08 also noticed the turnover in the department but said it has not negatively influenced his academic career.

“All in all,” he said, “the changes have not affected me too seriously and I have really enjoyed most of my classes whether taught by tenured, part-time or visiting professors.