Thoughts on Considering New CU Religion Programs

Not since Gutenberg has a revolution in media impacted the world as greatly as e-media are today.  Although invented in the fifteenth century it took many decades for the impact of typography to be widely felt, yet it is clear looking back that the world changed in fundamental ways as a result of this change in media.  Today e-media are developing so rapidly that we experience a barrage of change approaching chaos.  Alvin Toffler’s publication of Future Shock just 40 years ago (a major book when I was in graduate school) described as “shock” the popular experience of rapid change, the future seemingly slamming into the present.  Yet, compared with today we surely think of the ‘70s as a rather lazy decade.  Here are some statistics that suggest something not only of the order of change in the present world, but also of the measure by which it is being accepted and incorporated in lifestyles the world over.  The number of songs available on iTunes in 2007 was 3.5 million; today there are 6 million plus 65,000 podcasts, 10,000 music videos, 20,000 audiobooks, and 500 movies.  In 2007 Wikipedia had 4 million entries; today there are over 16 million.  Facebook was not significant in 2007; today Facebook has half a billion (yes, 500 million) active users and includes 900 million objects.  YouTube had 6.1 million videos in 2007; today there are 120 million.  In a mere 3 years Wikipedia has grown 400%; YouTube 2000%; and Facebook at an incomprehensible rate.

Over a decade ago our religion colleague Mark Taylor wrote, “We are living in a moment of unprecedented complexity, when things are changing faster than our ability to comprehend them.”  And he brought this message directly to higher education:  “The same information and telematic technologies responsible for the shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy are bringing higher education to a tipping point where unprecedented change becomes unavoidable.”  His analysis is interesting, yet almost amusing or endearing when one reflects that at the time of his writing, Taylor had never heard of Facebook, or iTunes, or Wikipedia (launched in 2001), or YouTube, or texting, or social networking.  Taylor also noted the enormous resistance he experienced among academics to even consider the impact of the inevitable; a position I’m guessing has not changed at all.

Not only are e-media creating unprecedented change, so also are global economic forces.  It is becoming increasingly clear and widely accepted that rather than a “V” shaped recession (a decline followed by a rise) or even a double bounce “W” shaped recession, the more likely letter to describe this economic situation is “L” in which the decline, once it reaches bottom, does not bounce back to previous levels, but rather remains flat for quite an extended period.  Housing, financial reform, health care, global warming, wars and conflict, the growing divide between wealthy and poor, and the hostile polarized political climate—all experienced widely in the world—seem to support the “L” shape in economic patterning.

As a result of these major influences on society and the world it is highly unlikely, perhaps even not all that desirable, for the university to simply return to what has been so familiar since Kant set forth the principles on which the modern university took shape and has pretty much persisted without major change for over 200 years.   Virtually all futurists indicate the high likelihood of major structural changes in a system that is prohibitively costly to operate and that has become almost totally dependent on funds from state and federal governments, business and industry, and charitable donors.  It is increasingly clear that this system cannot continue long to persist without fundamental change.

I think that the recent decline of newspapers offers a parallel that might be applicable to the inevitable revolution (though few are ready yet to acknowledge this) of the presently structured campus-based university.  Consider a few possibilities.  Let’s say that university faculty begin to package their courses as on-line courses and they begin to shift their work from a single campus base of operation to a world-wide audience.  Of course, on-line courses are already quite common and have been for at least 15 years.  It is thus only an incremental step before on-line delivery becomes the principal method rather than a supplement to classroom delivery.  For-profit universities are developing on the basis of e-delivery of much of education  Let’s say that state legislatures continue to be financially stressed as they have been now for some years.  It doesn’t seem that the end of state government financial stress is yet in sight and the structural changes being presently made are changing most universities in fundamental ways (ways that may well be beneficial).  Let’s say that family income available for higher education continues to be in short supply so that an increasing percentage of families shop for lower priced, yet still high quality, education for their children.  There is currently an explosion in enrollment at community colleges, evidence that this trend is well under way.  Let’s say that studies begin to show that for most students for many courses they take, their goals of education can be effectively met by on-line courses.  If faculty are not limited to a single institution, the very finest faculty in the country and world in any subject could produce the bulk of the on-line courses.  Who wouldn’t prefer to learn from the finest in the world, even if via e-media?  There is further advantage in that such courses are available to learners inexpensively and accessible at any time from any location.  Perhaps these studies will show that students may benefit from one semester residence for every two years of traditional campus based learning (face to face learning will long be valued), with the rest being done effectively at home or while working or performing community service or even traveling.  Should students spend but 25% to 50% of their educational time on campus, the economies of operating physical university plants could be greatly reduced.  Campus colonies (as Thomas Frey has suggested) will develop to use some of this unused space enabling a learning while working community led by faculty and non-university professionals directed towards a work/learn environment that actually creates products, performs services, and so forth incorporating learning as an essential dimension.  The strong interdependence of the sciences and business and defense already demonstrate the success of this model.  In this context, small liberal arts colleges might persist in which the best of faculty and students can research, learn, engage totally independent of immediate needs, retaining some small pockets of the classical understandings of higher education that have already given way as universities have become producers of workers.

It seems clear that the tipping point conditions for fundamental change have already been met, yet the surprising conservatism of university educators will fend off the inevitable impacts as long as possible, perhaps to disastrous results.  The point really is not to despair and read the situation pessimistically, but rather to see that in any situation of change there is great opportunity.

As the Religious Studies faculty begin discussions about the development of new programs it would seem that these factors may be relevant.  It would seem foolhardy to initiate any new program at this time without some careful investigations and considerations.  Minimally these would be:

  • What is the likely future of higher education and the impact this changing context will have on considered programs?
  • What is the future of the study of religion particularly in the context of the likely changes in higher education?
  • What are the motivations, goals, desires, contributions held by CU religion faculty for any proposed programs?

I am unaware that the CU religion faculty has made any effort to look at the future of higher education and its potential impact on the study of religion.  This is why I provided the few sketchy paragraphs at the beginning.  With Jonathan Smith we initiated a discussion of the future of the study of religion over the next 40 years.  I understand that Greg was pursuing the publication of Smith’s lecture.  To my knowledge no one on the religion faculty has otherwise engaged any further consideration of what Smith presented?  I have reshaped the writing course to consider these issues and both of my spring course offerings are directly developed in response to Smith’s lecture.  Of course, while Smith may be in many ways the most important person to chart the future of the study of religion, his resistance to any technological innovations makes him perhaps the least insightful in these areas.

As for CU faculty motivations to develop new programs, the one I have heard most persistently is that “the dean told us so.”  I’m guessing then that self-preservation is among the most basic and fundamental motivations for program expansion.  As the only department in the college without a PhD we seem vulnerable to elimination and we know that we have recently been short-listed in the administration’s budget cutting considerations.  The question is, would we be in any safer position as the newest, smallest, least credentialed PhD program on campus than we currently are without a PhD?  If self-preservation is a major motivator, are there not a number of other strategies that might better secure our future?  I think, for example, of creating a number of courses that focus on considering the central and essential role of religion in the world today.  I recall that Walter Capps drew 1,000 students to his course on Vietnam at UCSB.   It is clear that religion plays a decisive and central role in almost every area of conflict and concern in the world today.  To create a series of courses taught to large numbers of students would, I would think, almost certainly assure our future.  E-media are inevitable innovations in the future university.  The humanities are the last to appreciate the potential values of these areas.  However, it is totally possible.  Our program in the mid-1990s called TheStrip was many years ahead of the times in e-media terms and yet has not been followed by anything else.  One thing is quite clear and that is that religion is a sensuous-rich aspect of life.  Until now this aspect of religion has been relegated to coffee table books and films.  It is clear, even if we acknowledge several of Smith’s predictions, that incorporating experience, the senses, etc will almost certainly be persistent areas of expansion in the study of religion over the next 40 years; these pair well with e-media and the e-delivery of courses.  Aggressive innovations in this area would, I think, also assure the department’s security in the university as well as offer engaging creative challenges for faculty and students.  These actions would not only more strongly assure our future, they would also contribute to the developing future of the study of religion and the university.  For my taste and interest, I’d be most interested in seriously engaging in futurist studies of the university and the study of religion and taking bold actions as leaders and innovators in that future.

It is perhaps worth a moment to indicate some reservations I have about creating a more or less standard PhD program in religion at CU.  Foremost, I strongly believe that the era of faculty simply cloning themselves in the next generation is simply over.  Next, I’m concerned about the faculty credentials for the program and the impact of this situation on the program.  Should we not count (and last spring I was painfully made aware that at the moment we are largely bean counters where research is concerned) the book publications of Rodney, Ira, and me (which total somewhere in the area of 25 to 30 books), the number of books published by the balance of the faculty to my knowledge is rather small (I know of 2, but there may be more).  Can an active PhD faculty even begin to argue for high research stature and credibility when the book publication count is so low?  Would any of our current faculty choose to attend a program whose faculty had so few publications?  Next concern, students.  My sense is that a CU PhD program would draw large numbers of students.  Basically many of our current MA students that don’t get accepted to other PhD programs will want to continue at CU for a PhD.  Frankly it is easier to live on student loans than on unemployment especially when you haven’t been employed.  On the other hand, I think it would be rare indeed to attract to CU a top-notch student in any field.  How could CU religion PhD program possibly compete with long-established programs with highly accomplished faculty.  Thus, our faculty will be working with potentially quite a number of students, but, my question is, are these the students you want to be working with at this level?  Is this the best most creative use of your time and energies?  Finally, I have very serious ethical issues about producing PhDs from a fledgling program in an already over-crowded academic field knowing that their chances are small to none of getting an academic job of any kind.  Placement records are important and public.

In my view, it is not appealing to be identified with and to experience the struggles of perhaps the weakest PhD program in the college and perhaps the weakest PhD program in the international arena of the study of religion.  I should think there are far more interesting, creative, innovative, engaging, fun (and even secure) ways of doing our jobs.

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